Bang, bang, you're Dad

<strong>Granta 104</strong>

<em>Edited by Alex Clark</em>

Granta, 256pp, £10.99

Granta 104 is the first issue of the literary quarterly to be edited by a woman in its 30-year history, so Alex Clark's debut will likely come under close scrutiny, from fans and critics alike. Forget literary merit; how many women has she managed to sign up? I'll do the sums for you; it's a 15:8 split in favour of the boys.

Maybe that's something to do with its theme. "Fathers: the Men Who Made Us" is ambitious in scope, while also inviting domestic subject matter; but browsing this collection of memoirs and fiction, one gets the impression that, for female writers, there is often something frustratingly impenetrable or slippery about paternity.

One of the most interesting contributions to this issue comes from the novelist Siri Hustvedt, who combines memories of her own father with a meditation on the Freudian fathers of classical psychoanalysis, the literary fathers of Harold Bloom's Anxiety of Influence, the sadistic fictional fathers of Henry James and others, and the distant paterfamilias described by Montaigne. If the Oedipal conflict allows boys to separate from their mothers and eventually internalise the power and authority vested in their fathers, where does that leave little girls, who require the same separation but are denied a similar identification? And if the literary canon is composed of great, white, dead males, must female writers chart "a crooked line outside the patrimony"? Montaigne's model of necessary inequity between fathers and children, forbidding "an unbecoming intimacy", also constrains communication. While sons in some senses become their fathers, for daughters that automatic generational continuum must be replaced by a different and not always straightforward connection.

Many of Hustvedt's concerns are picked up in the issue's fictional pieces and more exclusively personal memoirs, by both men and women. To my mind the best piece of writing here is by Daniyal Mueenuddin, an American originally from Pakistan who now lives and works there. In "Provide, Provide", he tells the story of Jaglani, a rich man's estate administrator who gradually accrues power, influence and money of his own, becoming a father not just to his own sons, but to the wider, impoverished and dep­endent community. "Provide, Provide" some of the same subcontinental territory as Aravind Adiga's The White Tiger, but it achieves a darker, deeper, almost Chekhovian perspective on human frailty. Justin Torres's short story "Lessons" is also exceptional; a brief, brilliant portrait of a sexy, scary, cruel and utterly charismatic nightmare of a father. Michael Bywater's memoir "Comrades", a wry, touching and perceptive account of la différence, as played out in Nottingham circa 1965, is another pleasure.

Perhaps it is the job of writers to complicate and disrupt the childish urge to make Dad either the hero or the villain of our own personal narrative, but even they don't find it easy. The cartoonist David Heatley is the only contributor able to take a humorously contemptuous approach to his own father, "a sad, broken little man" who, rather poignantly, loves his son's unflattering cartoon portrait. Adam Mars-Jones, too, presents a sly account of his father, William, a comically self-absorbed high court judge.

Elsewhere, however - for Ruchir Joshi and Francesca Segal, for example - fathers are great men whose greatness must somehow be located and owned, prompting occasionally tedious screeds of soul-searching and remembrance which, in the end, fail to deliver the pot of paternal gold. Yet, as Hustvedt points out, we never stop wanting it. "He knew," she writes, "how much I wanted his sanction, his approval, his admiration, and his knowing what I had always mistakenly assumed he had taken for granted became the road to each other." The best we can hope for, in other words, is that the old buggers finally offer it up of their own volition.

This article first appeared in the 26 January 2009 issue of the New Statesman, Nixon went to China... Will Obama go to Iran?