The Family Markowitz: Periodizing the 1990s

One of the surprisingly good works of fiction I read lately is Allegra Goodman’s The Family Markowitz. I only bought the book because it was sold at P5 in a used books shop at a time when I did not have anything to read at hand while waiting for a long day to end. But reading this collection of interconnected short stories each centered on an individual Markowitz family member paid off. The book is not only the typical family saga it is also a witty satire on the boom era of the 1990s when American imperialism reigned supreme.

the-family-markowitzIn the first story we are introduced to the aging family matriarch, Rose Markowitz, who invests her savings in Fannie Mae, to the frustration of her two sons: “‘With bonds you get your interest and then when the bond comes due you get your interest and then when the bond comes due you get your original investment back. You put your money into the fund that buys mortgages, you understand?’” Fannie Mae, which is also the story’s title, will be notorious as one of the corporations bailed out by the US government during the 2008 Wall Street Crash.

Of course, part of their exasperation is the fact that their inheritance will all go to a lending corporation. Rose is a constant source of tension in the stories with her worries of abandonment and the lack of care by society for the elderly especially with the death of her second husband. Reflecting on her elderly neighbor’s death, she said: “They came in and they liquidated her apartment. I watched them. In and out, in and out they carried her things. Her most precious possessions. For years she dusted. In the end, what was the difference?”

Frustration by a younger generation with their elders is another constant theme in this collection. Alma, a graduate student interviewing Rose Markowitz for a research project, is frustrated by the latter’s endless digressions in “Oral History.” In this story we hear the common notion that contemporary capitalist society has become incredulous to grand narratives in the voice of Alma’s boyfriend: “Look at these transcripts. Every other question is about class struggle… First of all, stop trying to indoctrinate them. What does Eileen Meeker know about patriarchal power structures?”

Ed Markowitz, Rose’s second son who is as an ill-tempered academic expert on terrorism is criticized by his own children during the Passover for his own “multiculturalist” rendition of this ritual: “‘You always skip the most important parts…’ ‘Why do we have to spend the whole time talking about minorities,’ she asks. ‘Why are you always talking about civil rights?’ ‘Because that’s what Passover is about…’ ‘I’m reading all the stuff Daddy skipped.’”

The idea of the 1990s as some sort of a capitalist democratic utopia (of course, continuously disproven by the events in the story) is voiced again by Ed when Rose is taken to the hospital because of an overdose on her medication: “I thought this was the age of multiculturalism, mutual respect, universal access, emancipation of the elderly.”

Yet in another story, “Mosquitoes,” Ed himself is annoyed by the false egalitarian ethos fashionable during this time after he finds himself in an unorthodox academic conference in Israel which purportedly seeks to bridge the gaps between Jews and Christians. This conference satirically pushes the supposedly progressive “bottoms-up approach” and “giving a voice to the other” by doing away with formal presentations with its decorum in favor of informal talks where the fellows pour their hearts out.

Henry Markowitz, Rose’s eldest, also have episodes of his own as an obsessive-compulsive art aficionado. In “The Art Biz,” Henry is unsettled when he discovers that his boss in a beach-side art gallery is sleeping with a teenage Indian boy alleged by his frantic mother to have been kidnapped. Beneath the surface of wealth and glamour, Henry concluded that “this place, Venice, with its art and beach, and all its local color, is really Sodom. It is really Sodom and Gomorrah put together. Nothing but thievery and uncovered flesh.”

Ed’s wife Sarah, and I believe Allegra Goodman’s own alter-ego in the world of The Family Markowitz, have one story just for her own self. At the conclusion of Sarah’s story, she talks with her mother-in-law Rose, who is looking for a novel to read. Sarah, a writer and a university professor, presents Rose her own novel. The old woman said that she read it already and instead asks Sarah for a sequel: “‘You must write a sequel.’ ‘Well, I have to come up with an idea.’ ‘The next generation,’ Rose says immediately.”

For sure, the characters of this sequel would live lives that go beyond the same themes of middle class anxieties and self-loathing that characterize The Family Markowitz and its kind. This next generation would be more discontented and less self-satisfied with their professional careers and forced by circumstances to look beyond their lofty apartment buildings and cloistered university grounds.

In the end, the entertaining narratives about a family of intellectuals in America satirize academic petty bourgeois life in this brief period when global capitalism seemed victorious.

The Family Markowitz seems to me like a representative work that captures the dominant intellectual atmosphere of the 1990s when the collapse of the former Soviet Union and full restoration of capitalism in communist China still fresh and the 9/11 terror attacks and Wall Street crash still years away. As a period piece, The Family Markowitz perfectly belongs to the 1990s when a Francis Fukuyama can still confidently declare the end of history.

Yet far from simply passively reflecting the realities of life of a middle class American family, The Family Markowitz also playfully questions many of the assumptions of this short-lived era. The book is not simply a depiction of an era but also a problematization of received notions about the globalized capitalist utopia, multiculturalism, and liberal democracy.

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