|A Review By Rebecca James|
|The Condition Jennifer Haigh (2008)
I woke up this mornin' with the sundown shinin' in I found my mind in a brown paper bag within I tripped on a cloud and fell-a eight miles high I tore my mind on a jagged sky I just dropped in to see what condition my condition was in(Yeah, yeah, oh-yeah, what condition my condition was in)
It was decades ago that Kenny Rogers first recorded this song. Although the song's author (not Rogers) was most likely discussing a bad LSD experience, the song obviously resonated with fans for a number of reasons. The distance allowed by a drug-induced haze implies the ability to check in on life without being totally involved. The word "condition" itself has different forms and definitions, two of which the song's lyrics could play on above; the singer is asking what state of being his present situation is inwhat "shape" his existence is in. But the word has other uses too, most of which Jennifer Haigh cleverly plays on in her latest novel of the same name, The Condition.
The Medical Condition
Ostensibly, this is the definition that guides the novel and the reason for its title. Paulette and Frank are, at the beginning of the novel, thirty-something parents of three adolescents in the 1970s. The health of their marriage is an untreatable medical condition in itself, but it is the diagnosis of their youngest child, Gwen, with Turner's Syndrome, that ends the marriage. Haigh allows the weaknesses of each character, already defined in their interactions that first week of summer in Cape Cod, to manifest themselves in the genetic anomaly that will plague their diminutive daughter for life. Like the song, the syndrome gives both parents the ability to check in on their daughter without being totally involved.
Frank is the objective scientist; after all, scientific research is his life's work. He has the ability to break down Gwen's condition logically, without emotion. His matter-of-fact appreciation of the female body in general (a sticking point in his marriage already) does not translate into much of an understanding for what his four-foot-ten, forever child-like daughter endures as she ages throughout the novel. Paulette, on the other hand, has always been about appearances"contrived merriment." Every holiday, every summer's opening of the family beach house, every interaction is carefully scripted. "It was this sameness that Paulette treasured, the summer ritual unchanging, the illusion of permanence." She doesn't want to know about a condition; she wants to pretend that it, like the cracks in the ancestral home's foundation, does not exist. To that end, she pushes purses and other lady-like outfits on the socially-withdrawn and tomboyish Gwen in an attempt to normalize her. Twenty years later, Gwen is still left hanging in the balance.
There is another character, however, who considers himself to have a medical condition. Billy, Frank and Paulette's oldest son, predictably becomes aware of his secret condition in the Cape Cod bathhouse the summer the book opens. Years later, his familial detachment, move to New York, and work as a cardiologist allow him to keep his own condition hidden from his family in a way that his sister cannot. His desire for seclusion dictates his own interactions: "He couldn't, for a long time, think of himself as gay, a term he associated with the Provincetown queens who paraded down Commercial Street every Fourth of July, that titillating and frightening and haunting spectacle of his youth. He had been a sober, sensitive boy, and this remained his basic nature. Yet his condition was associated with costumes and dancing, Mardi Gras and drag shows, the kind of contrived merriment that had always grated on him. It was a troubling discovery." It was a discovery that would remain hidden for a long time.
The word condition also relates to "conditional" as in the provisional nature of something. Certainly, Frank and Paulette's marriage is conditional upon the balancing act they had carefully constructed at the novel's onset, a balanced destroyed by Gwen's diagnosis. Other provisions permeate the novel as well. Frank's success at MIT is conditional upon his research, particularly that which he guides his postdoc assistants through. "When the applications rolled in, Frank had been surprised by how many30 percent, it turned outcame from women. This was his first and last thought on the matter. Without Betsy's prodding, it would have never dawned on him that all six of his choices were male. That he hadn't interviewed a single woman. 'Oh shit,' he said." Unfortunately, Frank allows his long-time "appreciation" of the female form to get in the way of his work; perhaps not having breasts is a condition of his help.
The family's youngest and wildest son, Scotty, also faces his own conditions. A drug test is a provision of his eligibility for employment, his choice in a wife a provision of his mother's approval and love for his children. "Scott had been arrested and insulted, suspended and fired and put on probation, cold-cocked and sucker-punched and kicked in the groin. His sanguine nature had been beaten out of him; from Concord to Pearse to Stirling to California, he'd left a sticky trail. He'd believed himself inoculated against disappointment, readier than most to meet the maimed gaze of ruin. He believed this right up until the moment when Penny [his wife] told him she was in love with her brother." Obviously, Billy is not the only member of the family who finds his family's love conditional as well.
To AdaptHowever, Haigh wouldn't have much of a story if her characters didn't "condition" themselves to handle the family's shortcomings. Paulette finds a way to fix the cracks in her house, Frank may just realize the danger of his provisional guidance in time, and the kids begin to sort out their conditions with various, although sometimes disastrous, results too. "Life prepares you for certain calamities. With practice, it was possible to condition oneself for loss, abandonment, failures of every stripe." The story is crafted around how all of these elements, these conditions, come together in a surprising conclusion.
Rebecca James divides her time between studying for grad classes and teaching in Pennsylvania and reading and relaxing in Rehoboth Beach, Delaware. Email comments or suggestions to: firstname.lastname@example.org.
LETTERS From CAMP Rehoboth, Vol. 18, No. 11 August 08, 2008