One could argue that Families are Formed through Copulation is a very funny book. As evidenced by the 2008 Scream Mainstage where Wren read “People, Stop Having Children,” the book is a stand-up routine filled with wry wit and perfectly crafted jokes, all relying on the world’s constant cynicism and irony-steeped consciousness. Yes, this is an extremely engaging book and in its individual parts, a reader can trick his or herself into thinking Families is an extended joke, a satire in the finest Swiftian tradition.
But what makes Families an astounding book is that the narrator is very serious. He believes that having children is perpetuating evil. That the world is too screwed to, in good conscious, bring a child into it. That bearing children is unthinkingly selfish. That having a family is a greedy and automatic sin.
The majority of the book explores the notions of the modern family unit in an off-kilter depth, ping-ponging between therapy session transcripts and dinner table conversations. From these dialogues Families argues that the stability of personal relationships, whether they be familial, friend or lover, is always being undermined by a sense of power relations, skepticism and paranoia. The therapy sessions, where the parent and daughter switch roles, are especially telling as the long dialogue skips between the Cold War, suicide and murder; likewise, large parts of Section Two are paranoid ramblings mixed with first-person self loathing, all centered around the failing of relationships.
All of this is born from the notions of terrorism and the after-events of 9-11. The unsettled feeling of the narrator and the family involved in the story revolve around fear: people are not afraid of being attacked by terrorists but more what their own familiar government and close relations will do. The narrator expands in his section about the Oklahoma City bombing:
“Nonetheless the Oklahoma City bombing was masterminded either by the the CIA or the FBI in order to pressure then President Bill Clinton into signing the anti-terrorism act of 1996…an arm of the governmental security apparatus infiltrates a marginalized organization…and encourages them to commit greater and greater acts of violence. It then uses these acts of violence as a pretext for greater social control and police oppression…This is the history of modern terrorism.”
More than anything, it is the thing you put the most trust and power in, in this case the government (but could just as easily be the family), that is the most frightening.
To combat this, Families then creates a very strict, honest and convincing moral system within itself, where the world is already an irredeemable, flawed place and the best people can do is “not be born”. Original sin.
To this point, this is not a funny book but it is an ethical one. However, there is none of the typical, clinical nods towards rational wisdom; instead this book is infected with fervor, passion and religious rhetoric. The book is filled with parables like “The White Van of Unrequited Love”, with pulpit-pounding screeds like “Part Four: Reconciliation”, with existential exchanges such as “A Telephone Conversation with Someone Who No Longer Exists”. What is especially effectively convincing is the use of religious rhetoric within those sections which illustrate the ability to adapt and utilize the various methods of religious presentation and zealotry and present the message with such feverous impact that it’s impossible to immediately turn down. This work does not deal in Plato’s version of ethics but Billy Graham’s.
The engaging pull of this book is that the reader looks at the end results the narrator describes (the stripping of human freedoms after 9-11, the destruction of the world, the murders, the cruelty) and sees that what the narrator describes is, in fact, a reality: The U.S. government set many laws in place to take away individual freedoms after 9-11; the world is crumpling under global warming and over-population; there is constant violence and war, both locally and globally. It seems only natural then to give into the pulpit narrator of Families, to say that everyone from birth has had the mark of Cain put upon them, and then wallow in the cynicism and paranoia that courses throughout the work
But this is neither a negative nor a hopeless book. There is optimism, but only within the reader’s reaction. The temptation is for a reader to give a knee-jerk yelp or dismiss the book with laughter. But, like “A Modest Proposal,” Families is intended to act as a catalyst for thought and consideration. Yet, by giving us immediately counter-intuitive answers to these issues, Wren sets the book up to ask the reader tough questions: How do we deal with this screwed up world? Why should we bring children into it? How are we going to fix this?
Families posits a positive answer to all these questions, if only by asking the reader to consider them. Obviously people aren’t going to stop having children, but perhaps they’ll work harder to make the world better for this children to live in, voice their concerns, see through the injustices and falsities of their own world and take action. More than anything, this is a book against apathy. It is begging someone, everyone, to care, even if it has to shock or giggle each reader into it.