Krippendorf’s Tribe, Frank Parkin’s first venture into fiction, is an irreverent black comedy about the decay of family life in a British society ravaged by riots, strikes, bomb scares, racism, unemployment, and vandalism, to list but a few of the evidences of decline and unrest that Parkin cites in the course of his novel. Although Parkin’s previous works—Middle Class Realism (1968), Class Inequality and Political Order (1971), Marxism and Class Theory: A Bourgeois Critique (1979), and Max Weber (1982)—are academic treatises in the field of political science, he betrays none of the tentativeness and unevenness of performance that often characterize inexperienced novelists. On the contrary, Krippendorf’s Tribe—a sustained assault on propriety buttressed by brilliant intellectual wit and mordant social commentary—places him in the company of such fine contemporary British satirists as Kingsley Amis, Tom Sharpe, David Lodge, and Malcolm Bradbury.
James Krippendorf, who is an unemployed anthropologist, finds himself in charge of a chaotic and unruly family. His wife, Veronica Yardley, is perpetually out of town, her career in television journalism involving her with lepers in Calcutta, the misappropriation of earthquake funds, political riots, guerrilla warfare, and so forth. As the sole force against domestic entropy, Krippendorf inherits an unenviable situation. His twelve-year-old son, Mickey, is passing through an incendiary and sadistic phase, napalming the neighbor’s cat and trying to flush his brother down the toilet in order to extort a confession from his “political prisoner.” His seven-year-old son, Edmund, is seemingly incapable of mastering the rudiments of alimentary ingestion. As Krippendorf conjectures, “One reason why Edmund was so thin. . . was that although a great quantity of food got as far as his mouth it proved merely to be in transit to various other external destinations.” His thirteen-year-old daughter, Shelley, who resents Mickey’s stealing the batteries from her vibrator, sports green and magenta hair, wears dresses fashioned out of aluminum foil, and passes through various ideological phases, ranging from Hare Krishna to the Young Conservatives. Resigned to endless defeats for the cause of rationality, Krippendorf regards his own children with scientific detachment and scholarly reserve. The ironic disparity between his professorial attitude and the bizarre, if not brutal, behavior of his children, not to mention his fellow citizens, is the source of much of the novel’s outrageous humor.
The plot revolves around Krippendorf’s accepting a lucrative research grant to do anthropological fieldwork in the Amazon Basin. Unfortunately, he has already spent the £14,800 bestowed upon him by the Malinowski Research Institute; the allure of a new Volvo, a three-month vacation, and other amenities of civilized life proves stronger than the desire to study primitive savages in South America. As a result, he is compelled to adopt an inventive strategy: that of concocting an imaginary tribe—the Shelmikedmu—whose culture and customs are based upon the systematic observation of his children’s behavior and the role reversal implicit in his own domestic situation. Krippendorf reflects that although his children’s behaviordid not appear to conform to any recognizable norms of social behaviour. . . they were too consistent and predictable to be classified as random. There must be some hidden pattern underlying the apparent chaos, some implicit logic which could render their behaviour perfectly intelligible. He took a pencil and notebook from his pocket and recorded the order and frequency with which they punched, bit and gouged one another, and the approximate ratio of physical to verbal assaults.
The particular observations recorded in this notebook are eventually transformed into “Savagery and Socialization in Amazonia,” the fourth chapter of his manuscript.
The role reversal in Shelmikedmu...
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