NPR Review: 'Family Of Origin,' By CJ HauserCJ Hauser's new novel centers on two estranged siblings trying to unravel their late father's work with a group of fringe biologists who believe evolution is running backward, away from millenials.
Early in Family of Origin, CJ Hauser's oddball-brilliant second novel, an aging scientist tells the two protagonists, a pair of estranged sort-of-half-siblings named Nolan and Elsa Grey, that their generation is ruining the human species. The scientist, Esther, belongs to a fringe group of biologists called the Reversalists, who believe evolution has started running backwards — running away from millennials, according to Esther. Family of Origin is a spirited defense of the maligned millennial generation. It's also an innovative work of climate fiction, a nuanced and empathic family story, and, for my money, the summer's best novel thus far.
Hauser is a beautiful, no-nonsense writer, with a particular gift for atmosphere. A graduate of Florida State's PhD program in creative writing, she joins Floridian writers Karen Russell, Kristen Arnett, and Sarah Gerard in turning the state into a character. When Hauser describes Florida — its "Gulf Coast fug, its boardwalk amble, its funnel-cake smell, its open-carry vodka, its fireworks every night" — her lines practically drip sweat. When Elsa and Nolan arrive on the Reversalists' island, Hauser takes the reader on a gorgeous tour of its shacks and inlets, its half-baked research stations, and its decrepit hotel, complete with a murky swimming pool featuring "dozens of slow, gray-eyed fish. And drifting in the pool was a family of ducks, chortling to each other as they swam in endless loops."
Those ducks are called undowny buffleheads, and their un-downiness is the linchpin of the Reversalists' theory. Both Nolan and Elsa find that theory absurd, but their father, a formerly respected biologist, spent the last two years of his life on the island, trying to prove it. Now he's dead, and his children want to know what drew him to this island of crackpots who think "we've lost our biological imperative to adapt to environments ... We're no longer good at adapting to things in the natural world because it's too hard to tell which parts are real any more."
As science, this is pretty wobbly. As emotion, it works. Hauser is concerned with reality, particularly as it concerns the Greys' blended, tenuous, secret-filled family. Elsa and Nolan did not grow up together, and are bound primarily by the mental habits they inherited from their father. The Greys are "fondlers of old grudges and conjurers of childhood Band-Aid smells. They were rescripters of ancient fights and relitigators of the past." In fact, relitigating the past is exactly what they have come to Florida to do. Both siblings claim to be looking for an explanation for their father's weird final years; in fact, they are looking for each other.
Elsa and Nolan are flawed, lovely characters. Nolan is enduringly sweet, if feckless and politically apathetic. "Of course Nolan wanted police reform," Hauser writes. "Nolan wanted to save the damn whales, didn't he? But he thought there was something naïve and futile about trying to do anything about it." Elsa, who is slightly more complicated, is "very smart — not brilliant like her father, but smarter than it was good for a person to be. The kind of smart that ran interference on happiness," Hauser writes, and then adds, "But maybe Elsa was not as smart as she thought she was." That tension animates much of Family of Origin. Elsa is wedded to the idea of her own intelligence, her own understanding, her own limited ability to control the world around her. So wedded, in fact, that she's determined to join a mission to colonize Mars.
On the Reversalists' island, though, Elsa brings her focus back to Earth. Nolan helps her, and, crucially, so do the two millennial Reversalists, a pair of farming brothers named Mick and Jim Riordan. The Riordans know perfectly well that their colleagues consider millennials either "stupid, lazy, entitled narcissists who could not be trusted...[or] an evolutionary step backward for humanity. An insurrection of idiots who would trample everything the Greatest Generation and the Boomers had achieved." But the Riordans see things differently. They believe in farming, and seed-hybridizing, and compost. They have no interest in the Boomer desire — which Elsa shares — to "fix problems in ways that felt exciting." Their answer to environmental and personal crisis is slow, small, dirty-fingernailed work.
In Family of Origin, family relationships are as small and arduous as a farmer's tasks can be. They take discomfort and unglamorous work. Elsa and Nolan, children of a too-brilliant father, don't know this at the novel's start. But by its end, they start catching on. Elsa stops chasing "the illusion of her childhood, that era of certainty," and tests out the idea that she might not be so smart after all. Nolan admits he might need to grow up and engage with society. Both siblings, for the first time, grow willing to work at their problems, both political and personal. No more apathy; no more Mars. Instead, they are rooted on Earth and, like the Riordans' garden, ready to grow.
Lily Meyer is a writer and translator living in Washington, D.C.