Apparently, Colm Toibin's book New Ways to Kill Your Mother, published by Scribner this month, doesn’t provide any instruction on how to actually kill your mother. While this might be a grave disappointment to some, I’m inclined to smirk (with both glee and a bit of friendly mockery) at Toibin’s recommendation to put mom on ice—at least in fiction. Dwight Garner, reviewing the book for the NYTimes, explains: “His essential point, driven home in an essay about all the motherless heroes and heroines in the novels of Henry James and Jane Austen, is that ‘mothers get in the way of fiction; they take up the space that is better filled by indecision, by hope, by the slow growth of a personality.’”
Really, aren’t fiction mothers just a pain in the ass? If a novel has a mother in it, she’s usually too complicated and infuriating to develop in a half-assed way, and so the whole book ends up being about her. She’d just love that, wouldn’t she?
If you're a writer, you’re stuck having to acrobat around a reader’s wondering, “Where is the character’s mother? Does she know what her son’s doing?” every time you want a character to do something bad. Raskolnikov was gonna kill that landlady but then his mom came home. Groan. Guess he’ll never be friends with that prostitute.
Toibin points out that orphans are great characters in fiction, and really, how could they not be? Without all of that guidance, nourishment and guilt-mongering, orphans are free to find their own way in a world devoid of preconceived notions. Plus, devastation and an incurable longing are great ways to secure a far-reaching and easy sympathy from readers. Oh, the poor dear, that’s why this character’s acting up.
Still, I find this proposition of parentless fiction a little weird. Possibly indicative of a handful of bizarre psychological ramifications. Do we have a hard time imagining mothers without pillows clutched in their fists, coming to snuff us out? Do we really think that kids raised in two-parent households are so adjusted as to be boring? Are your parents making it hard for you to develop a personality or experience indecision and hope?
I love a little mom in my fiction. I say the more mothers, the better.