Madness in the Family

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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 376

Plays such as the Pulitzer prize-winning THE TIME OF YOUR LIFE introduced William Saroyan to a wide American audience, but he is best remembered now as the author of very personal, unusual short stories. Early in his career, Saroyan vowed to forget everyone who had written before him. At the age of eleven he wrote: “Do not pay any attention to the rules other people make.” Like most such edicts, this one could not be followed to the letter, but Saroyan’s prose can certainly be described as innovative.

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Born in Fresno, California, Saroyan often returned in his writing to the agricultural milieu of California’s Central Valley and to the ethnicity of the first-generation American-Armenians with whom he grew up. Several stories in the present collection evoke this ambience, although now the setting extends well beyond the author’s childhood. Aram, for example, whom readers will remember from MY NAME IS ARAM, has become a young lawyer.

Other recurring subjects include the vagaries of married life and love, and a father’s relationships with his children. Saroyan’s exposition varies from what strikes the reader as rather orthodox fiction to story fragments and even to thinly disguised exhortations.

Saroyan’s familiar tone is pervasive, but age now sometimes mutes the intoxication with life that appeared in Saroyan’s first collection, THE DARING YOUNG MAN ON THE FLYING TRAPEZE. In one story of MADNESS IN THE FAMILY, a divorced father feels wrenching estrangement when his young daughter returns to her mother after what seems almost a momentary visit. Elsewhere, a writer tries, he knows unsuccessfully, to move his twenty-year-old son toward committing himself to anything at all.

The Armenian stories set in Fresno most fully sustain Saroyan’s quixotic exuberance, lightly tinged with irony. When the author’s world becomes Paris or a picnic on the Pacific beach, a heavy, adult sentimentality may introduce altogether different moods. On such occasions, Saroyan sometimes speaks about things not customarily discussed, but so simply that his rendition becomes both highly personal and intermittently inaccessible.

Most of the book’s material dates from the 1960’s, first appearing in HARPER’S, THE ATLANTIC, and THE NEW YORKER. A 1938 letter from Saroyan to James Laughlin, editor of New Directions, concludes the collection.

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