Pop quiz: you are writing an insightful, strange, funny and dark investigation into a family of four coming together for the younger daughter’s high school graduation. Who will be your point-of-view character? Is it (a) the vapid, sensual, self-centered mother, who arrives on the doorstep after an absence of three years, during which she didn’t so much as call; (b) Hofmeester, the pathologically striving, conventional father, who considers emotions a disease; (c) Tirza, the younger daughter, pampered, beloved and in her first bloom, heading off to Africa with her Moroccan boyfriend to get a taste of the real world; or (d) Ibi, the estranged, brooding older daughter — a hotelier in France, and thus a failure in her father’s eyes — whose deep-seated distrust brings her unusual clarity?
Arnon Grunberg’s answer in “Tirza,” surprisingly, is (b), the father. In the beginning, the reader may doubt the wisdom of following the book’s most obtuse character. As the events of this stark yet sprawling novel unfold, however, Grunberg reveals his excellent reasons.
Grunberg, now in his early 40s, is often cited as one of the greatest living Dutch writers. A literary wunderkind, he founded a publishing imprint when he was 19, wrote a European best seller when he was 23 and has now published at least a dozen novels, two of which won the Dutch equivalent of the Booker Prize. In his downtime, he writes stories, plays, poetry, columns and journalism, including a series of dispatches from Afghanistan, where he reported on Dutch and American troops. He lives in old New York (once New Amsterdam).
“Tirza,” the sixth of Grunberg’s novels translated into English, is grimly comic and unflinching. While not always enjoyable, it is never less than enthralling.
The narrative follows Hofmeester, the nuclear family’s patriarch, as he slowly dissolves in an ocean of late-middle-age humiliation and Italian Gewürztraminer. He is not a softy — “Disgust was the zenith of intimacy” — but he has devoted his life, in particular the three years since his wife disappeared, to being the perfect father. He defines fatherhood in terms of duty, its successes measurable in PTA meetings and instances of his unimpeachably liberal attitude toward Tirza’s social and sexual life. (This, we learn, is in direct opposition to how he himself was raised, and how he raised Ibi.) Fatherhood is in fact the last part of Hofmeester’s life with any sense of purpose. He has foundered in his job as an editor of literature in translation (writers will pity the poor manuscript he aimlessly carries in his briefcase), has given up as a husband and has written off Ibi as too bullheaded. He has been in love with Tirza since birth (the exact nature of this love is one of the novel’s central questions), and now he wants to throw her the best graduation party ever. In his definition, this is a party where the homemade sushi is perfect, the alcohol flows and the father is as invisible as a good waiter. “No one will be left unsatisfied this evening,” Hofmeester avers. Boy, is he wrong.
Grunberg takes his time. The lead-up to the party, and the party itself, stretches nearly 300 epic pages. Hofmeester’s background is sketched in — his marriage, his painstakingly accumulated savings, his secret troubles at work — but these sections aren’t Proustian trapdoors to the past. We mostly stay in the humorously narrow confines of Hofmeester’s immediate perceptions (and misperceptions), as he fries sardines, gets caught up with a guest in his tool shed and — memorably — returns to the party to find his wife entertaining Tirza’s friends and teachers with a striptease to Dolly Parton’s “Jolene.”
Much fun is had with this rigid adherence to sexual permissiveness, but the satire is not antic. Hofmeester is a subdued guide, ratcheted to his breaking point. After a discussion with an economics teacher about hedge funds, Hofmeester “vehemently” shakes a cocktail for no one. “Tirza’s friends should really try a few more of his mixes,” he thinks. The line seethes.
This party will officially separate Hofmeester from his beloved Tirza, and watching him stumble toward that moment is an odd pleasure, like witnessing a stranger’s nightmare. But the novel is ultimately animated by a tantalizing question: Is Hofmeester an Everyman or a singular case? In other words, should we see ourselves reflected in Hofmeester’s bumbling failure, or should we keep a close eye on this shady character? The novel consistently offers both interpretations. The slightly incestuous undertones of some scenes might reflect uncomfortable realities of being a parent — or might be a pathology. Hofmeester shows enormous forbearance: when the wife shows up unannounced, he simply invites her in. When Tirza — in one of the most unsettling but touching moments — asks him how to lose her virginity, he swallows his unease and gives her his best advice about boys. Yet he also courses with violence: as a landlord he’s a scoundrel, and when he catches Ibi in flagrante with a renter he cudgels the man with a floor lamp. The narrative is even coy on the sources of this violence: the rare mentions of Hofmeester’s upbringing may indicate irrelevance or intense explicative power.
The final section in Namibia resolves these uncertainties too heavily for my tastes. Still, these scenes are where the novel takes flight. A meet-cute worthy of J. M. Coetzee’s “Waiting for the Barbarians” (“Do you want company, sir?”) allows Hofmeester to face the man he is and — more to the point — the man he isn’t. His reflections finally reveal the dark touch of classical tragedy, which is where this remarkable comedy of manners leads — or, perhaps, what it’s secretly been all along.