THE FAMILY in David Plante's sixth novel is not a group of Mafiosi, as those familiar with Don Corleone's clan might think, but a French-Canadian family living in Providence R.I. in the 1950s. Nevertheless, this tale. of the Francoeurs -- Jim, Reena, and their seven sons -- is as frightening a saga of tyranny as any created by Mario Puzo.
The tyranny in this case results from the narrow world in which the Francoeurs live, the world of a French-speaking parish on the wrong side of the tracks in an English-speaking city. It is a world dominated by the Catholic Church in its most oppressive, superstitious and guilt-ridden incarnation. This patriarchal society dictates' that the word of the husband or father is law and that a woman's only options are to become either a nun or a mother, a situation which subtly oppresses both sexes. And finally there is the tyranny of the labor unions, which destroy Jim Francoeur when he opposes them.
The novel covers a period of several years, much of it seen through the eyes of the adolescent Daniel, the next-to-youngest son, during which the Francoeur family seems slowly to disintegrate. The process begins with Jim's opposition to the union and his promotion from tool cutter to foreman, a promotion, it turns out, orchestrated by the union itself so that he will no longer be under their protection and can thus be fired.
"Above consolation," as one of his sons describes him, and yet somehow broken by the failure of his belief that he could stand up to the union and win, could be respected for his courage, Jim only pretends to look for another job. In the meantime, however, he is entertaining political hopes, hopes which, for a French-Canadian Republican and opponent of the unions, are also doomed to failure. He is finally devastated by the death of his mother, the French and American-Indian matriarch who had somehow seemed to hold the family together.
Gradually, the balance of power changes in the Francoeur family, as the sons come to take responsibility for the parents. Albert, the second son, assumes a role of leadership; a bachelor and a Marine officer, it is Albert who has helped his younger brothers go to college and Albert who helps to buy the family a country house, enlisting promises from his brothers that they will also send their parents monthly checks. Over the years, the brothers leave home and change, returning for periodic visits, until Philip brings on a crisis by announcing that he is getting married and will no longer be able to send his parents money and that his fiancee is a non-Catholic to boot. His father's anger and refusal to ever have anything else to do with his son trigger the overt manifestations of what has been happening all along -- Reena's mental collapse.
Plante is very good at creating this world, the weight of its oppression, as he describes the ugliness of the factories, the churches, the schools, the houses. One flinches at the conversations of Matante Oenone, Jim's sister, which tend toward lurid descriptions of poverty and death, or at the nuns' equally lurid descriptions of the sufferings of the saints and martyrs, and the passion of Christ. Also depressing are the long and detailed conversations within the family, those double binds in which conflicting messages of love and hate are so often sent.
Yet I found the book very difficult to finish. In order to evoke this world, Plante has used a very dense, detailed prose style, the linquistic equivalent of the world he wants to represent. Consider this passage, for example: "They walked slowly up the continuing road that curved round the edge of the hill into which the house was built, to another side of the house, a long low side, half brown-stained timber, half stone, with large many-paned windows and an entrance under its own small pointed portico, and a wide, over-grown lawn, birch trees bending over it, sloping away from the house to a stone wall which followed the curve of the drive, and beyond the drive a steep drop to another, vaster part of the lake, an expanse of water below them that stretched so far across, the other shore was lost in cloud; dark clouds rolled just above the surface of the water and down the lake."
Ultimately, I think, this sort of prose bludgeons the reader's interest out of existence, although one can admire the attempt at something original. The other problem with THE FAMILY is that all the Francoeurs -- even Daniel, who has moments of insight -- remain largely cardboard figures, unintelligent and inadequately motivated. One can feel pity, especially for Reena, a woman who has never exercised her own will, whose spirit has been completely broken by a life spent as a virtual slave, but very little empathy.
In the end, THE FAMILY makes me think of what someone once said about soap operas -- that they are as tedious as real life.