The William Trevor Reader: “A Happy Family”

February 15, 2022 | 3 min read

Well, you know from this title, going in, that the family in question is going to be unhappy. The question is what form the unhappiness will take. It turns out that it takes the form of the narrator’s wife’s burgeoning mental illness—she begins getting calls from a “Mr. Higgs,” who knows intimate details of her life and calls into question her present happiness. As the story progresses, the narrator first suspects his wife’s peripatetic con-man brother of placing the calls, then learns from her senile mother that Mr. Higgs was her daughter’s imaginary friend. She is sent to a mental institution and we leave the narrator having a silent tea with his children.

Continuing to beat a dead horse here, I tend to feel that first person is not Trevor’s forte. He has no feel for voice, nor is he interested in the psychology of the narrator. It is axiomatic that all first-person narrators are unreliable—even if they are trying to be completely forthright, there’s something they’re missing, blind spots. It’s also axiomatic that all first-person is really about the narrator—no matter how focused the narration is on someone else’s story, first-person still implicates the narrator in the telling. But when I say “first-person” here, what I mean is “literary first-person.” The first-person stories in this collection feel—as I may have mentioned—curiously Roald Dahl-ish, even a little YA. This feeling, I think, arises from Trevor’s use of narrator purely as camera; even when he’s writing first person, he’s really writing third.

The story begins, promisingly, with the narrator taking stock of his memories of happy marriage and fatherhood, scenes that his memory has reconstructed piecemeal, a complacent pleasure in the unremarkable days, and the paradoxical description of his most vivid memories being neither happy nor unhappy. This feels like something that will—should—be circled back to. Instead, we get the wife’s story and the narrator’s detective work regarding it. Surprisingly, we get an answer to who Mr. Higgs is—this might just be a sign of spending too much time with tasteful litfic, but I wasn’t expecting to find out who Mr. Higgs is, and reflexively thought of him as symbolic, which he sort of is, anyway. The reveal that he was her imaginary friend is mirrored and foreshadowed by the daughter’s imaginary friend, and the whole thing feels a little too neat and wrapped up.

And beside the point. Because if the story is going to be told in first, I want it to tell me something about the narrator. I want to know what this means to him, what he makes of it, if he thinks their marriage is a lie, etc.—I want him in some way compromised by the story, or shown to somehow be culpable, if only emotionally or in a narrative sense. The start of the story plays with this, with his dull assumptions of stability. I want to know how this revelation of his wife’s instability—a perhaps long-standing mental fissure that cracks over the course of the story—rewrites or unwrites or overwrites his sense of their marriage and family. The wife’s vision of the son’s and daughter’s future as enemies—he, a wretched, miserable jerk; she, a red-dressed slattern—are frightful and compelling, but we have no sense of how this might affect the narrator’s view of his children.

Again, Trevor’s writerly impulse is toward third person, and his camera is too steady, too calm and certain of its own essential honesty to think about indicting its cinematographer. The placid, merciless truthfulness I discussed in last week’s installment, the brutal honesty that makes Trevor’s third so masterful, seems to be an impediment in a form that wants, needs instability and self-doubt to make it work.

Next time around: “The Grass Widows.”

is a staff writer for The Millions and the author of two novels: The Grand Tour (Doubleday 2016) and The Hotel Neversink (2019 Tin House Books). His short fiction has appeared in The Paris Review, VICE, The Iowa Review, and many other places. His podcast, Fan’s Notes, is an ongoing discussion about books and basketball. Find him online at adamofallonprice.com and on Twitter at @AdamOPrice.

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