Some fictional worlds have a high threshold for entry, but once entered are sharply and mysteriously illuminating. That’s the truth about CJ Hauser’s second novel, Family of Origin.
In this novel, two estranged half siblings, children of a brilliant but erratic scientist named Ian Grey, meet at a privately owned Gulf Coast island—a former 1960s commune named Leap’s Island. They are there to retrieve Ian’s personal belongings and his secretive scientific research after he drowned swimming in the Gulf. Elsa, a mid-30s grade-school teacher who lives with her mother in Minnesota, and Nolan, her younger half sibling who works in online PR for the San Francisco Giants, enter a disorienting world where Baby Boomer-era scientists and a cultish science-fiction writer have come to investigate “Reversalism,” a theory about the undowny bufflehead, a duck that seems to be devolving, surrendering its evolutionary advantage. They hope to prove that evolution has started running backward.
Elsa and Nolan have a difficult, charged—even sexually charged—relationship that resolves into clearer focus as the narrative moves alternatively from the present into memories of the past and back again to the present. Her father divorced her mother when Elsa was 8, and she has always felt abandoned and resentful of her younger sibling because of how she was displaced. In a scene from their early history, she crawls behind 4-year-old Nolan into a brushy wilderness and then abandons him in a dry, shallow well he is too small to climb out of. As an unhappy adult, she plans to escape the misery of her current confusion and join a program to colonize Mars. Nolan, whose history we learn less about, arrives on the island with a kind of rational passivity, feeling dismissed and dominated by his older sister. Both feel alienated from each other and the adult world, less capable than their parents and trapped by their histories. In the week they spend on the island, they do come to at least a partial resolution—maybe even a sense of being freed from the past.
At times the storyline of Family of Origin creaks and groans and seems overly intricate. But sentence by sentence, Hauser is a sharp and often witty observer of human behavior. She brilliantly portrays some of the central issues of contemporary life, particularly issues for the lives of millennials. And she raises provocative questions about how contemporary human beings will survive and make full lives for themselves in the future.
In the end, Family of Origin is worth a serious read and some serious thought.