After a summer of reading fiction in translation, I decided that autumn would begin with a shift in focus to American literature. Philipp Meyer’s The Son, published last year, seems an excellent place to start, if only because it seems unlikely I will read a novel more steeped in American myth and history this year. In an interview in The Guardian, Meyer described his intention:
“I was trying to get at what America was really about – the country’s wealth, its foreign policy, the way we control things – and somehow I knew this was connected to frontier mythology and how comfortable we are with violence.”
To accomplish this he has carved a novel out of one hundred and fifty years of Texan history and three generations of the one family, the McCulloughs. Three voices dominate: Eli, captured and adopted by Comanche, whose story begins in the middle of the nineteenth century; Peter, his son, whose diary focuses on a two year period (1915-17) when thousands of Mexicans were murdered in Texas; and his great-granddaughter, Jeanne Anne, looking back on her life from the perspective of the present.
Meyer arranges these narratives in alternating chapters rather than chronologically, always a dangerous choice for a writer as establishing three equally compelling characters is no easy task. Despite the particularly gripping nature of Eli’s story, Meyer succeeds in ensuring the reader has no regrets in moving frequently between time periods and viewpoints, often by the sheer force of his writing. The immediately established intention to cover such a long time period contributes to the novel’s epic feel, while at the same time conveying one of Meyer’s central themes, that of transience, an idea at odds with the historical epic that Meyer is imitating at the same time as he undermines it.
Meyer’s view of history might be distilled as follows:
“On the ranch they had found points from both the Clovis and the Folsom, and while Jesus was walking to Calvary the Mogollon people were bashing each other with stone axes. When the Spanish came there were the Suma, Jumano, Manso, La Junta, Concho and Chisos and Toboso, Cocana and Cocaxtle, the Coahuiltecans, Comecrudos…but whether they had wiped out the Mogollans or were descended from them, no-one knew. They were all wiped out by the Apaches. Who were in turn wiped out…by the Comanches. Who were finally wiped out by the Americans.”
This historical violence is echoed in the violence that permeates the novel, beginning with Eli’s capture by a Comanche raiding party. His mother and sister are raped and then killed; his brother (taken like him) is killed for not being strong enough. (This idea also permeates throughout the novel as the McCullough children of each generation are judged according to whether they have that strength). Eli’s own violent path takes him from the Comanche to the Texas Rangers and culminates in the slaughter of fellow ranchers the Garcias in 1915, women and children included, for supposedly stealing his cattle( but in fact for being Mexican). Eli goes on to acquire their land, their ruined house fuelling Peter’s guilt.
Violence is not only committed on other human beings but on the land itself. By the end of the 19th century cattle and poorly thought out irrigation have damaged the land (“The country was ruined – as a woman would have been after riding in the cat wagon”) – the pasture is disappearing and the search is on for the oil that will sustain and increase the McCullough’s fortunes. The American dream of pursuing wealth is not only seen as destructive to the land and to others, however, but as contradictory to the American dream of freedom. In the novel happiness is associated with freedom, but land, wealth and family reputation all hamper rather than enhance this freedom. Eli’s admiration for the Comanche is based on their refusal to give up freedom for more food or better shelter. Both Peter and Jeanne Anne find themselves isolated by their family and position.
The Son is a dark, evocative novel of a lost America which, as its inheritance obsessed title suggests, provides a rather terrifying insight into the America of today.