In the most recent volume of the New England Review, I was stopped in my tracks by a novella by Lori Ostlund called "Just Another Family," which starts out with a great deal of humor and arrives at a deadly serious, gut clenching stand-off that leads to a wholly unanticipated ending. It's such an astonishing and outstanding story I want to examine what makes it successful.
Sybil has been estranged from her birth family for many years and when she returns to her childhood home in rural Minnesota after the death of her father, she is faced with the reality that her mother can't accept her daughter's coming out as a lesbian. She shows her inability to accept it by vetoing language. She can't say the word or accept even the more minor linguistic changes that her daughter exhibits. "She was sure that I was saying soda to bother her because she said there was no way a person could grow up saying pop and then find herself one day just thinking soda" (48).
But pop is the least of it. The Bibles and firearms that populate her parents' house become the symbols of the chasm between them. Yet "Just Another Family" is not a story about confronting differences; instead, it becomes the much more interesting story about a woman confronting her own self-loathing so that she can, at last, accept how her upbringing has shaped her. This is the story's overall intention, yet on the ground, sentence by sentence, paragraph by paragraph, it spins a deliciously dark humor that draws a reader in and then keeps her there in a state of laughter and curiosity.
The fun begins with the opening line, spoken by Sybil, our first-person narrator: "My father spent the last years of his life discontinent" (48). It's a sentence that looks and sounds like it means something but only confounds until we reach the next line: "He'd always had trouble with prefixes."
The same pattern, bewilderment to understanding, happens in the final two lines of the first paragraph: "The day after he died, I entered my parents' house—the house I grew up in—to the smell of piss, the humid night air thick with it. 'It's the mattress,' my mother explained, and I said, well, then the mattress has to go" (48).
The dual nature of reality, that we can move quickly from bewilderment to understanding, is explored here, mostly through the eyes of Rachel, Sybil's partner, who is the next to arrive at the house in Minnesota. Rachel comes from a liberal-leaning east coast family and is incredulous when confronted with the various techniques the people in Sybil's family have adopted for avoiding not only confrontation but simple conversation. These include prayer, guns, stashing crying babies in ovens, attempting fratricide in various ways, and hiding under beds. These avoidance habits are the techniques Sybil herself has learned; they form the stories she has grown up with. But Rachel doesn't find any of this easy to accept or understand. "How is it possible for a family to have two stories about eating glass" (59)? The idea that they think guns will keep them safe leaves her incredulous. Rachel tells their friends back east, "It's the most foreign place I've ever been that does not require a passport" (61). And even though anger avoidance is what has formed Sybil, she has moved away from it in her life with Rachel, so when she returns, she is newly shocked all over again. Yet, when she takes the piss-soaked mattress to the dump, which is also the place her father took her for target practice, she retrieves her father's rifle and bullets from the pickup and fires at the mound of unwanted things. "That is the person I am here. When I'm not here, I tell myself that the person I am here is not who I really am. Rachel is the only person who knows both, and that is no small thing" (55).
Each family member's method of avoidance is so distinct and memorable that, in the reader's mind, each character is associated with the thing they wield in place of talk. Sybil's mother uses the Bible; for her, its mere physical presence says it all. We associate Sybil's sister with a pillow she once used to try to smother the infant sister she was jealous of, and Sybil herself with the gun she once pointed at her sister and then later fires at the dump. We associate their father with piss, not only in the mattress, but in the soda bottles arranged underneath it. In a family that doesn't speak, things become powerful and the author uses them to great advantage. In the same way other writers deploy gesture and dialogue, Ostlund deploys objects to define and distinguish her many characters.
At the end, when everything slips suddenly from casual black humor to a true threat, our narrator finds the release she has been looking for.
"This is what it means to have a vertical history: your family arrives in a place and stays, and everything gets built on top of itself so that the dump where you take the mattress might also be the dump where your father took the crockpot all those years earlier, which might also be the dump where your partner, watching you with a rifle pressed to your shoulder, thinks that she has had enough.
She did not actually say that she had had enough. What she said was 'I don't understand you people.' What she meant was that I was one of them" (63).
But by the last page, after her scare, Sybil finds the ability to move from self-loathing to self-acceptance in a manner that is wholly unexpected and deeply satisfying for the reader.
For people who don't have words, objects are given power. "Just Another Family" shows us the way they become formidable.
Ostlund, Lori. "Just Another Family" New England Review 44.3 (2023): 48-77.