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Reading Caponegro’s The Complexities of Intimacy: “The Son’s Burden”

This 113-page novella is the centerpiece of Caponegro’s book of stories. As in the first stories (articles here, here and here), it again presents a family, but a family fragmented by misconceptions and hatred. After a prelude, most of the work takes place on New Year’s Eve and gives off the air of Long Day’s Journey into Night.

The story is narrated by the son, Thomas Edward Smalldridge, a toiling inventor. His father is a bullying railroad worker who has long tormented his son and daughter (Eleanor) by making them learn and recite obscure facts about inventors, inventor’s birth dates, their patents and patent dates. At some point early on the father’s harpist wife went to live in the attic of the house, never coming down to the family except for New Year’s–the day when Thomas is to reveal his new invention. But Thomas’s inventions never satisfy his father because they aren’t practical enough and he, along with Eleanor, seemingly insult him every chance they get. Thomas, meanwhile, has an attachment to his mother–he grieves her and her harp, which she held against her womb and played when he was inside her, as well as when she breastfed him. On this night as well, Thomas has brought Cecilia, his finance, to meet the family and will ask his father to give him money to buy a wedding ring–a request denied. Thomas introduces the characters and story this way in the fourth paragraph:

Each of these good ladies (including the absent one, who presides upstairs) may console in her way, even while offering unwitting challenge to my equanimity, but I am grateful all the same for being buffered from my father. By what, or whom, I am buffered is of course another matter, and a story in itself: the story of my sister, which is more or less in equal parts, the story of my mother, and of my father–a story which in telling would likely garner incredulity if not distaste, and so in responsibility to my fiancée I must expose myself, I must show firsthand that to which no mere telling could do justice. (76-7)

In her Bookworm interview Caponegro talked about going to extremes in stories. With the exception of the fiancée, all of the characters are fixated on something–they are in their own universe (something we have seen in the first three stories). Everyone has their own agenda. They are isolated, though Eleanor and Thomas used to play together as children, that is but a distant memory. The son is so twisted in his loyalties to father and mother that he continues to invent things that will satisfy them both: a harp headboard, a page-turning fan, a harp crib and a combination tuning device and teething ring. Violence permeates the war between his parents, though this is not explicitly seen in their actions, but in Thomas’s perception of it. Strange images and bloody amalgamations of different eras of history seep through into his consciousness as he comes to terms with the coldness and blank of such loveless parents. In this excerpt he implores his finance for guidance and assistance:

Help me solve this mystery Cecilia, of how the harp in heaven finds itself one day the harp in hell! Help me, because my memory is littered irrevocably with harps that take the shape of bows, of crescents, of ladles, spoons; harps that are sculpture or picture or merely the art of themselves: their elaborate ornamented forepillar painted or blossoming into a sphinx or what Sister would consider a tumescence. Help me, because instead of golden crowns atop those glorious forepillars I sometimes see crowned heads decapitated, rolling over verdant fields stained ever after crimson. (99)

Notice the word “tumescence” and how it played such a part in the first and third stories, first as something the narrator fixated on in her ballerina and childhood days, possibly a pregnancy, then as that actually pregnancy in “A Father’s Blessing” and the outsized breasts that are suckled by mother and priest. Caponegro in these stories is very interested in the human body and the transformations it undergoes, specifically pregnancy, which is touched on in every story, if only obliquely in the first two, for in “The Son’s Burden” there are many memories of birthing that Thomas delves into: “Ever since I found egress from my mother’s womb” (77), he says at the beginning, making one think he preformed the action of leaving and that the mother would have happily let him stay.

The decapitated heads in the passage above play on Marie Antoinette and the whole of violent European history that seems to come from his mother’s taking him to the Louvre at an early age and developing an appreciation for art, as well as the famous French composers and their pieces for Harp that the mother delights in. There is also the stark lines of contrast between the more American father, bullying, self-righteous, who adores America and it’s inventors and the Frenchified wife who values more the mystical qualities of art and contemplation.

The novella is packed with these and more details, some of which might not hit until a second and third reading (it is not revealed until halfway into the story that it is taking place during the Great Depression). A load of research went into this work and Caponegro has said that it took three years from conception to completion. What I admire is the structure. The first third of it is more a narration of Thomas’s anxiety about his situation and whether his fiance will accept his bizarre family, as well as whether she will be accepted herself: “How can Cecilia forgive this crude package in which my life is wrapped?–as poignantly and distastefully caparisoned as a fetus bound to its mother’s stool.” (94) This is followed by the long dialogue scene with the mother making a brief appearance, though Thomas’s thoughts abound throughout.

I really don’t know what to make of the ending yet. To quiet the father’s disappointment at Thomas’s not unveiling an important invention, the sister reveals she has a five-inch tail growing out between her buttocks. John Madera pointed out to me that the sister speaks of anomalies of the physical body throughout the story such as seven-foot tall women and an instance of someone having a triple bladder, set up this revelation. The tail also has a ring at the base of it, but the ring was put there years ago–the tail has grown above it and would have to be cut to be removed. Here is a most awing “invention,” though it is real, kept hidden for thirty years. If Eleanor is an ally, then what is to become of the family? Will Thomas still marry? These questions don’t get directly answered and in the face of lament of the last paragraphs of Thomas, they don’t seem to matter, though Thomas does remark, as it is New Year’s Eve:

All through the country, at this moment, couples kiss, but I cannot solicit my beloved’s tender lips, which might, in time–if time were kind–yield her tongue: organ she would now be loathe to mingle with mine, loathe even to imagine. It is at this moment clearer to me than ever before that even the wisest and kindest among us cannot bear to taste the truth of the meat we are. (187) italics mine

It is a very sad thought. Secrets kill and this secret of the daughter’s, though revealed with good intentions, probably costs Thomas a wife. Do family dynamics destroy other families? Is this how the dominoes fall? How can this be prevented?


I urge everyone to read this interview with Caponegro. It has many insights into her process.

5 thoughts on “Reading Caponegro’s The Complexities of Intimacy: “The Son’s Burden”

  1. Greg, a good close look at the core of this collection. Caponegro’s great risk here, seems to me, is in her tone; many passages verge on an hysterical whine, on an overwhelming baroque, yet they carry us deeper into psychological insight, into the neediness of the unloved.

    As for the ending, I’d say it carries the tragedy into the next generation, bearing out Old-Testament truths. Sins of the fathers, I’d say.

    1. Thanks John. I hear you about the hysterical whine (and I hear the whine). It does seem risky, but that coupled with the ornate descriptions of the narrator displaces the story and makes it seem like it is taking place yesterday and not during the Depression. A part of me thinks it’s not taking place in any real time frame but the quasi-constructuralism of the author. Her time frame is all time, always.

  2. “A Son’s Burden” is basically an “ever-aspiring” inventor’s conversation between said inventor and his nutty family, and it displays, once again, Caponegro’s psychological acuity as well as her predilection for the bizarre.

    Yes, we’re prepared for Eleanor’s grotesque revelation from the story’s outset (she “enshrines” “anatomical curiosities” (75), after all); and the various intimations of her own “deformity” suffuse the story with one of its strange mysteries. Thomas, for instance, is troubled with wondering why his sister attempts to lift up her skirt throughout the story.

    One of the things I love about this story is how Caponegro interpolates “ring” as a thing and as an idea. After calling the phrase “Ring in the new” a “cursed universal slogan,” Thomas Smalldridge states:

    “Ring in the new,” we are annually instructed in the all too familiar collective exhortation, but something rings false in my ear when I, repeatedly, am recipient of the flaccid greeting, “Happy New Year!” Does this trite formula do justice to the mix of trepidation and relief that marks the close of one collection of regrets and the promiscuous proliferation of an entirely new set of vacuous promises? Round again we go, one might more accurately say: the ineluctable disguised as marvel, and yet our rituals, no matter they be made of air or straw, appear to comfort. Familiarity cushions the blow of transition; tradition ensconces novelty.

    There is, of course, the “Combination Teething Ring/Tuning Device” (121) that Thomas has invented, and there’s the ring from Eleanor’s “aborted engagement” (94), the conjecture of the whereabouts of which is another of the story’s primary tensions. Eleanor calls the giving of engagement rings “a convention,” and says “there is much to be said against one” (103), Thomas explaining: “She goes on to say that she would not call me guilty of inertia or irresponsibility or paucity or devotion for failing as yet to procure a ring but rather an inadvertent judiciousness” (103). And Eleanor offers another hint of the coming revelation: “Rings, casually displayed about the finger, possess many perils of which the average person is all too ignorant” (104). There is also the engagement ring Thomas wishes he had: “If I were fortunate enough to have a ring to present I would leave no opportunity for that ring to come full circle and like a boomerang, return to me” (94). And we shouldn’t forget the “circus” of a conversation the family is having, which “consists of many more than three rings, each one out of hand” (159). There’s the ring, or loop, of the yearly unveiling of inventions with its concomitant failure and shame: “Round again we go” (76), Thomas says with some fatigue about the family’s yearly meeting, the site of his inevitable humiliation. The repetitiveness of the ritual takes on Sisyphean proportions (Sisyphus is unsurprisingly name-checked in the story and the “games” the children are forced to play with their father sometimes result in their “roll[ing] that massive mythic boulder back to square one to start again…” (87)), which, when you think of it, is another kind of ring.

    I loved the isolated paragraphs about the various inventions, which seemingly disrupt the narrative, but instead serve to me as palate cleansers of a kind, as commentary on what has come before and what is yet to come. Read together, they turn out to be a kind of salesman’s pitch, albeit one with lyrical and wildly imaginative turns.

  3. Ole Maestro Madera! Yes, yes. Ring around the prosody you have done rung right. The signs are there.

    It’s a burly piece and rereading Gass’s In the Heart…, I see how both have constructed collections which sing together as one soul (there are five stories in each).

    Have you noted how many times Caponegro uses the word “propriety?” At least once in the middle three stories. It is a key word for the collection, speaking to the strain of family as means of suffocation that at times runs through the stories.

    I think upon second and third readings this story reveals much more, I haven’t done those readings yet, but I love the story-as-play I still feel about it, including the mother’s exit that is barely commented upon as the hawing of the father continues.

    I like the idea of the palate cleansers. Another consciousness seems to be creating those sections – maybe the “salesman” you refer to, though I can equally imagine them as Thomas’s grandiose flights.

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