In writing about Taylor Larsen’s novel, Stranger, Father, Beloved, I want to begin with the end. So, without giving anything away, here is the last line: “This would be a good place to settle.” Of course this line marks a significant plot point for the novel’s protagonist, Michael, i.e. THE END, but the line also demonstrates the quality I admire most about Larsen’s book, what I’m calling the unsettled narrative.
To define what I mean by “unsettled narrative,” I will turn to the opening line: “With the tops of the trees around the house lost in fog, Michael and Nancy James prepared for the last party they would ever have, though they didn’t know it at the time.”
It’s that last part of the sentence—they didn’t know it at the time—that interests me most. What the characters know and when they know it is the most important organizing principle for Larsen’s narrative. The narrative moves forward, in a way, but it also moves outward and back.
The story follows Michael, a frustrated husband and father, who lives everywhere but the present. He’s obsessed with his past—what got him here—and his future—he attempts to bring another man, John, into his family to take his place. The other main character, Michael’s daughter, Ryan, spends the novel any place but home: with her friend’s mother, Jill, or with Dari, the young woman she falls in love with.
Both Michael and Ryan are deeply unsatisfied with their present circumstances and will do anything not to be there. Michael’s wife, Nancy, notes this: “It’s obvious I have no control over anybody anymore, whether they come or go. You, Ryan. You could have called me. Nobody seems to respect me enough to place a simple phone call” (205).
Indeed, to read Stranger, Father, Beloved feels like stepping off an obstacle course ledge into a net and then climbing across a gap to another ledge. We do move from one point to another, as do the characters, but nowhere is our journey straightforward or easy. Each character action launches him or her into another time and space: “It gave Michael a secret thrill to sleep in the bedroom of his youth, disconnected as it was from his current life” (95).
Everything in Stranger, Father, Beloved is disconnected from its current state, and the rhetorical patterns reflect this. I found myself thinking several times while reading the novel that there is no way the author will get away with this. And yet she does. The novel has a spatial quality that reminds me of Carson McCullers’ The Heart is a Lonely Hunter. In that novel, as in Larsen’s, the narrative establishes itself outside of convention. In McCullers, the narrative patterns takes its cues from musical themes as we see in this passage from McCullers:
This was her, Mick Kelly, walking in the daytime and by herself at night. In the hot sun and in the dark with all the plans and feelings. This music was her—the real plain her…This music did not take a long time or a short time. It did not have anything to do with time going by at all. She sat with her arms around her legs, biting her salty knee very hard. The whole world was this symphony, and there was not enough of her to listen.
It should be no surprise that McCullers built The Heart is a Lonely Hunter as a three-part fugue. The whole world was this symphony, and there was not enough of her to listen. We can read McCullers’ novel and note the various ways music plays a role in its structure and characters, and the same is true of Larsen’s novel with a different principle: disconnected from the present, Stranger, Father, Beloved remains unsettled from the first sentence to the last.