THE INFINITE FAMILY - Tyler McCabe
At some point in growing up, I learned that the domestic unit I belonged to could be referred to as a “broken family.” My father could be considered demoted by the prefix “step” and my brother by the prefix “half,” and to the world outside our home these definitions conveyed a story, primarily, of damage.
That may be the most basic reason the work of Kevin Wilson appeals to me. The families he writes of in his short stories and novels are broken. Separated, reapportioned, cobbled together, magicked apart and back into wholeness—he writes families in situations you’ve never imagined. In his story collection Tunneling to the Center of the Earth, two brothers are orphaned when their parents spontaneously combust on the subway; a woman is hired to play the role of a young child’s grandmother after his real one passes away; and a young girl’s uncles are forced to fold one thousand paper cranes in order to determine who will inherit their mother’s house. In his first novel, The Family Fang, two siblings wrestle with their bizarre childhoods in which their parents, both acclaimed performance artists, repeatedly forced them into moral quandaries and put them on public display for the sake of “art.” These improbable scenarios reveal how family units locate human trust and betrayal, entitlement and sacrifice, hope and disappointment.
Wilson’s new novel, Perfect Little World, features his most ramshackle, perishable, and visionary family unit yet. The story centers on a scientific experiment called the Infinite Family Project, or IFP, which allows for ten newborn babies and their parents to live in a temporary ten-year commune in which every parent will equally share responsibilities for every child. The idea sounds simple and desirable enough to Izzy, our protagonist and the only single mom in the group: the children will sleep in one nursery, eat together, and eventually play and be schooled together, while all the parents take shifts to fulfill the needs of the group. No child will be favored over another. Every child will benefit from the love and care of nineteen parents, and every parent will be supported in their natural inadequacies. At the end of the project, the families will ideally continue on in some looser network of support and sharing.
In the world of the novel, the IFP is a utopian vision rooted in scientific optimism: with careful planning, everyone should be optimally happy and cared for, and the children should develop at faster rates than those outside the study. At the helm of this utopia is Dr. Preston Grind, a scientist who seems truly up to the task of designing a perfect little world. The problem is everyone else; their fears and desires and jealousies threaten to capsize the experiment, yet you can hardly blame them. What if you wanted to spend extra time with your biological child? What if you thought one of the other parents was a bad influence on the children—or another parent thought this of you? What if you were shocked to discover you loved someone else’s kid more than your own?
Ten years allow for tiny leaks to turn into floods. Izzy does everything she can to stave off the ghosts of her past, to pretend and go through the motions when she doesn’t believe in the project, to ensure that utopia can, after all, exist. Dr. Grind does everything he can to provide for the family, uphold the parameters of the project, and flex when the family threatens to break under its own rules. But as time wears on, the IFP takes on more and more of the characteristics of its subjects—fallibility, volatility, the capacity for sweetness and ugliness in equal measure. In other words, the IFP goes from experiment to fully realized family.
Perfect Little World tests the perfect family unit like a pane of glass against a boulder; static perfection will always break outside the lab. The real infinite family is perpetually evolving, perpetually becoming. Imperfect and alive. Befitting humanity.
From the vantage point of my own broken family, I know that the families we create contain our tenderest hopes. No matter if the family we design is by choice or circumstance, biology or agreement, we arrive at the doorstep vulnerable, asking to be held. The people we allow to hold us will most certainly fail us, and we will fail them in turn. But the infinite family weathers its own imperfects. The living, breathing family marches on, bending, breaking, mending again.
Tyler McCabe writes regularly for The Porch, a slow conversation about beautiful and difficult things.