Saturday, February 18, 2017

A Death in the Family

A Death in the Family
by James Agee
read: 2017
Time 100 NovelsPulitzer Prize

I have a beef with indie films: they never show anything. There is a tragedy, and the heroine gets a knock on the door, and she opens it, and the sheriff is standing there with his hat in hand and a grim look on his face, and then the camera cuts away. The audience has to imagine so much of the core emotional content. Movies are visual and auditory and we never really get inside the character's heads, so any reaction will probably feel forced and hollow, but I still feel cheated. A Death in the Family, by contrast, takes us into the heads of the people directly affected by Jay Follette's death, especially his wife Mary and small children Rufus and Catherine.

The role of religion looms large in the novel. Mary finds solace in her Christian belief, while her father and brother do not. At times, Agee shows religion as a negative force. Mary's retreat to her religious beliefs distances her from her children at a time when they need her support, and Father Jackson is perhaps the closest thing the story has to a villain. On the other hand, we see almost a dogmatic atheism from Andrew, who sees things he can't explain but won't accept them as being supernatural or spiritual.

A Death in the Family was published posthumously, and therefore there is some mystery about Agee's intentions around the order of some of the sections.