The American author Willa Cather once claimed, “There are only two or three human stories, and they go on repeating themselves as fiercely as if they had never happened before.” If writers are required to draw from some predetermined well of archetypal stories, then one of these stories is most certainly about a father and his son. Marilynne Robinson’s Gilead, Jonathan Safran Foer’s Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close, Hamlet, Turgenev—countless examples illuminate some aspect of the complicated bond between generations of men in a family. Adam Ehrlich Sachs’ debut novel, Inherited Disorders, explores the father/son relationship in a unique form: 117 stories that range in length from a single paragraph to several pages.
Readers expecting warm, fuzzy tales of paternal and filial bliss should look elsewhere. These tales are parabolic, often absurdist, each seeming to shine light on yet another way misunderstanding can flourish in a family. And they are cleverly funny, full of ironies about legacy and its pressures, about expectations misunderstood and over-emphasized. Take, for instance, the story “Diving Record,” quoted here in its entirety:
A Florida man died Monday while trying to surpass his father’s record for deep diving without the aid of oxygen or fins. Thirty years ago, in the Gulf of Mexico, the father famously dove 225 feet without using oxygen or fins. On Monday the son made three dives in the same location, all without using oxygen or fins. His first dive was 167 feet. His second dive was 191 feet. On his third attempt the son managed to dive down 216 feet without oxygen or fins, but his lungs burst on the way up and he died aboard his diving vessel. At the funeral, his father tearfully admitted that in his record-setting dive he had actually used both oxygen and fins.
The wry humor of the ironic ending, the distanced, reportorial style of the prose, the inherent pressure felt by the son of the high-achieving father—these facets recur throughout Sachs’ stories. In “Legacy,” the son of an atonal composer suffers a lifetime being referred to as “the son of the famous atonal composer” until he exposes himself on an airplane in part, we imagine, to change this primary association. The son of a winemaker in “The Family Shiraz” tries to improve on his father’s winemaking process; meanwhile, the son of an influential wine critic takes over his father’s job, changing the rating system so drastically that the winemakers can never know which wine is superior. “Concerto for a Corpse” tells the story of the Czech pianist who loses, in questionable accidents, first one finger, then another, then an arm, then another, while his father, the composer, continues to compose concertos for him, even after his death.
The characters in Sachs’ stories are scholars and artists, scientists and craftsmen, and the tales are set in locations all over the world; this inclusiveness of range parallels the universality of the theme. Sachs attended Harvard, where he studied atmospheric science and wrote for the Harvard Lampoon. These two biographical notes fit perfectly with the flavor of Inherited Disorders, as does the fact that Sachs’ own father was once voted one of Time Magazine’s 100 Most Influential People in the World. Sachs’ dedication reads simply “for my father.”
The stories that deal with a character failing to reach another are perhaps the most melancholy. In “The Fourth Sonata,” a composer struggles to reach his father through his art.
A German composer whose earliest songs and sonatas had been dismissed as trifling and derivative, and whose father had begun to suggest, in his exceedingly gentle way, that he look into business or the law, went in 1924 to live in a timber hut beside a lake in the north of Finland, where over the course of several years, in perfect solitude, he pioneered an ingenious method of composition, very, very different from Schoenberg’s chromaticism, if superficially of course somewhat similar to it.
When the composer returns in triumph to play the piece for his father, he finds that in his absence, his father has gone completely deaf. The son spends the rest of his life trying to create a form for his sonata that his father can access, only to be thwarted by his father’s subsequent loss of sight, taste and speech; his goal is unattainable.
In “Utterly Inscrutable,” the son of a serial killer is unable to recognize his father’s crimes, despite tangible evidence. When interviewed, he gives vague, noncommittal answers.
‘I think,’ he replied, ‘the people closest to us are sometimes the most opaque to us. Perhaps the closer we are, the more ignorant we are.’
Early in the trial it emerged that the son had once discovered four human femurs in his father’s sock drawer. He granted another interview. ‘Even the people we love are, in the end, utterly inscrutable to us,’ he said.
Sachs sites Kafka, Thomas Bernhard, Borges, Beckett, and Lydia Davis as influences, and says he came to the form for Inherited Disorders through trial and error. In a recent New Yorker interview, he claims that form followed theme, which was there from the start. “First I tried to write a more conventional novel about fathers and sons. I would start with a father and a son arranged in some extremely ironic configuration, as in these stories, but then I would make the son sort of amble over to the father, in a realist mode, and say something, and the novel would fall apart.” So he went back to his original impulse, the ironic stories, and let them stand alone.
The danger of exploring a theme over and over—say, 117 times—is that a sense of inevitability or even boredom might surface during the reading experience. This is not the case with Inherited Disorders, which is endlessly sharp and engaging from start to finish. There is something almost rhythmically musical or mathematical about the form, like Monet’s water lilies.
Artists often fixate on certain themes. All of Willa Cather’s best known short stories are about home and the process of leaving it; she explored the immigrant experience and being an outsider throughout her entire writing career. Sachs’ debut is a welcome addition to our collection of writing about the father/son relationship, and it tackles this multi-faceted, universal theme in a unique, compulsively readable, and entirely modern form.