September 2011

Elizabeth Collins

features

Ulysses as the Stay at Home Dad: A Conversation with Greg Olear

With his daring second novel, Fathermucker, author Greg Olear stays -- surprisingly -- close to home, documenting the chaotic life of a stay-at-home dad (SAHD), while also raising questions that link literature with popular culture. Among them: if he were still alive, would Irish novelist James Joyce subscribe to US Weekly in order to keep up with the Kardashians?

Olear says he is positive that Joyce (one of his writer-idols) would. Why? Because popular culture provides much food for thought and inspiration for a writer. (Olear himself subscribes to US Weekly and often alludes to its celebrity "news" in his humorous, SAT-vocabulary-peppered essays for the acclaimed website, The Nervous Breakdown, at which he's a senior editor.)

One astute cover-blurbing writer thrilled Olear -- as his publisher launched the pre-publication "push" -- by characterizing Fathermucker as "Ulysses on a play date!" and, Olear says, "I loved that, but it's not on the book's cover because I didn't think that the comparison would really help my sales."

Still, Olear is happy to channel Joyce in any way. Because Fathermucker takes place in one day in one specific place (New Paltz, NY), and the driving force of the narrative concerns a wife's alleged infidelity, Ulysses popped into his mind he wrote. Olear felt compelled to reread Joyce's masterwork and take some cues from it. Ultimately, the screenplay excerpts in Fathermucker are a nod to Joyce and the sections of Ulysses that were written in dialogue form.

Olear wasn't, however, attempting to recreate Ulyssses in contemporary, upstate New York, and the lighthearted, humorous Fathermucker is in no way comparable as either an ultra-long or difficult read. "I don't like the parts of Ulysses that are unreadable," Olear explains.

Rather, Olear got inspiration from the writerly risks that Joyce took -- risks that paid off and his cemented his reputation as an artist. Olear's novel gets risky because it incorporates a quirky, custom blend of symbols gleaned from pop culture (the aforementioned US Weekly; musophobia in the modern age; and the troubling, inexplicable increase in Asperger's and other autism spectrum disorders in children). This symbolism, plus some creative layering of language all work to communicate Olear's essential story in a frenetic, semi-stream-of-consciousness, lovingly-crafted story that is told in a thoroughly modern way.

Symbols, as all students of literature know, were used often by formal novelists of centuries and decades past. And symbolism, although we sometimes do not recognize it as such, still remains. "Older novelists -- Joyce, Melville, Steinbeck -- didn't enjoy the vast trove of pop culture that we get to use," Olear, who also teaches creative writing at Manhattanville College, says. "Symbols, whether they are natural, like a river, or material constructions, are an integral part of storytelling."

Olear says he uses contemporary symbols because that's what he sees in his own life. He deftly weaves these motifs with the realistic conflict of a unemployed father busy at home raising two young children, one a preschool-aged son with Asperger's.

This hits home for Olear, who decided to write what he lived upon the urging of his wife, chanteuse and songwriter Stephanie St. John. Olear's first novel Totally Killer had a fantastic, action-driven plot (simply put, the novel is about the contracted assassination of Baby Boomers, due to early 1990s economic and political necessity), which Olear crafted because he was, at the time, insecure about his writing voice.

"Voice is at the fore," he says, "and this is risky, because people will either like your voice, or they won't. If they don't, there's nothing else to fall back on."

As far his idol Joyce, "No one, but no one, has ever had a voice as strong as his," Olear says. He knows there can never be any true comparison -- who seriously compares to Joyce? seriously -- and yet, he seized the opportunity in Fathermucker to "try out [his] fastball."

While writing about a very real, oftentimes frustrating domestic tableau, Olear incorporated pop song lyrics, Facebook status updates, children's book rhymes, direct mail catalog copy, and bits of his central character's scratch-work screenplays. Olear's tapestry of domestic existence is thus an experiment -- his best attempt at trying to write the way our brains are wired now: multitasking mania.

As humans, we are always thinking of ten things at once. Frantic, stay-at-home parents can be even more mentally torn. Imagine the converging stressors: lusting after other parents in the play group get-togethers (or simply noting who's hot and who's not); catering to two demanding pre-school-aged children, one of whom has a Lighting Unlimited and home decor fetish, both of whom like -- as all kids do -- junk food; worrying about a wife who has been gone too long on a business trip; drinking endless cups of coffee with the other kids' moms and listening to inane, but intriguing, gossip; chauffeuring the kids everywhere and trying to assuage them with a comforting routine... all while processing the alarming news that the absent wife may be having an affair.

Olear is clearly tuned into the zeitgeist -- at least the current economic and social climate, one now rife with SAHDs, whether by choice or economic necessity, and men are finally realizing how mentally draining, even crazy-making, it is to be home with the kids all day.

"Fatherhood is fear." This is how Fathermucker begins. For Olear, fatherhood is largely about not messing up his kids with his own silly phobias, namely, his abject fear of mice. It's also about coming to terms with a reality -- and a child -- that shatters one's preconceived notions of child rearing and helps to define a new "normal."

Olear and St. John have a son with Asperger's, so with Fathermucker, Olear truly takes inspiration from his own life. When asked to speculate why there has been such a dramatic, recent increase in the number of children diagnosed with autism-spectrum disorders, as is endlessly documented in the news, Olear does not cite vaccines or increased testing. He says instead, "Perhaps this is just evolution. It's not heightened awareness; that much I know. There are more [people] now than ever before; we necessarily need to be more specialized. We need people who are as excited by, say, computer programming as the rest of us are by reality TV."

Despite the focus on Asperger's in Fathermucker, Olear is a very reluctant spokesperson for it. "Part of it is me wanting to protect my son's privacy," he says -- and Fathermucker is fiction, after all -- "but this novel is as much about marriage as it is about parenting. I wanted to write about being a parent. I wanted to riff, make jokes, and offer insights into my world."

Over time, though, the novel is also about more. Olear admits that Fathermucker focuses heavily on his generation, Gen X, which was raised by Baby Boomers. "My parents were and continue to be wonderful, but the Baby Boomers, collectively, were not known to be the most selfless bunch of parents. Gen X has reacted to the Boomers' aloofness and self-absorbtion by adopting the opposite position: we're as hands-on as possible," he says.

As any parent knows, there are hard ways and easy ways to get through the day with kids, and choosing the hard (if more noble, eco-conscious, and organic ways, such as not using diapers, but rather potty training through Elimination Communication... yuck!) can quickly suck a parent dry. But we do it because we are worried about raising our kids well, and sometimes we do it because we are worried about what other people will say about our parenting.

In the meantime, while we grapple with the issues of doing too much or too little for our kids, Olear is sticking to realism and to documenting, in a literary way, the issues of our time, whether major (as in contemporary marriage and child rearing and dealing with autism) or minor (pop culture topics). 

"There's been a sea change in gender dynamics," Olear states. "We'll be talking about SAHDs and SAHMs and co-parenting for the next fifty years, easy."

Don't necessarily expect Olear to revisit these topics, however. He's on to his next project -- one that has the common thread of handling the economic downturn with aplomb, and deals with life as we know it, right now.

In the meantime, Fathermucker may well strike an important chord. It has a catchy title, and a realistic resonance. "I made up the title," Olear says, "although afterward I did check and see that it has some arcane religious connotation." No matter there; Olear hopes it catches on because, "We certainly need a new term for 'Mr. Mom.'"

How does this author feel about transposing syllables and suggesting a curse word, arguably the most heavy-duty one there is, for a novel largely about fatherhood? "Ha," says Olear, "I never thought about it that way before, but I think the title is perfect because it is a euphemism. As a parent, you have to edit what you say, but not what you think."

And that, after all -- the thinking, the way our brains flit from one topic to another, making bizarre connections, living simultaneously in fantasy and in fact -- is one of the major themes of his impressive new book.