Guns at the Staff Meeting
Set in 2002, James Warner’s debut novel All Her Father’s Guns is foremost a satire of today’s post-capitalist society, particularly two of its central (seemingly discreet) institutions: academia and corporations. Warner interweaves two narratives — one from the perspective of Cal Lyte, a gun-loving venture capitalist, and the other belonging to Reid Seyton, an untenured British academic in the Department of Theory, a fictional department of UC Berkeley. Reid is the boyfriend of Cal’s daughter Lyllyan. The novel is written in a darkly humorous style reminiscent of Sam Lipsyte.
Though the figures of a gun-waving American and a jaded British intellectual may seem like stereotypes at first, we discover that they are far more complex. Warner does a magnificent job of opening with stereotypes and deepening them. Cal is not, as might be typical, a Republican. In fact, he is running for Congress as a Libertarian candidate against his Republican ex-wife Tabytha. Reid, although he first appears as a jaded scholar suffering from the typical pressures of tenure and the fall of the Humanities (as Cal tells Reid in the beginning, “A humanities Ph.D. nowadays just proves you’re scared of the real world.”), transforms into something like a P.I., joining Cal’s crusade to uncover Tabytha’s secrets so that Cal no longer needs to pay alimony. Warner’s satirical humor infuses every sentence, full of insightful wit and inside jokes, such as:
We spent the meeting fighting over the administrative details of the coming convention. Cindy argued that the timetable was pervaded by structural sexism — meaning that there were more male than female speakers. Gwen wanted us to challenge the hierarchy of the standard conference presentation, by replacing all lectures with participatory interactive workshops, multicultural street theater performances or, even better, spontaneous outbreaks of civil disobedience.
As well as:
Our faculty had been selected for our “diversity of cognitive styles,” a nice way of saying we were incapable of agreeing about anything. Our very name was contentious. Gwen was particularly concerned about the “he” embedded in “Theory,” and Viorela thought we should just call ourselves
Warner has mastered the different types of languages enounced by academics, venture capitalists, and politicians, and his fluency in Academese was astounding. Academics, especially, will enjoy the character Viorela, the Lacanian psychoanalyst who becomes Cal’s love interest. Here is her typical lecture: “Lacan says that, while the Master is an impostor, the place occupied by the Master cannot be abolished. The analyst occupies this place. She situates herself as the semblance of the objet petit a, the cause of the analysand’s desire, at the center of the Borromean knot where the real, symbolic, and imaginary orders intersect . . . Any questions?” Interspersed through the book are “inside jokes” of academic names and terminologies that every graduate student in the Humanities would get: a character who has been “blocked ever since Michel [Foucault] died,” another with a published book on Althusser entitled “Meaning: the Etymology of Absence and Desire: the Egyptology of Egyptology, and a reference to “a Finnish narratologist…a linguist who believed that the structures of all known plots, the encodings of all the self’s possible journeys, were stored in our neurochemistry.” Warner writes as if he has lived as a “slackademic” himself.
The book, however, is more than just a comedy. Pushing the narrative forward is the gradual unraveling of the two male protagonists’ family lives, which become intertwined in the end with Reid and Lyllyan’s marriage. Although the reader is first made to believe that the goal is to learn Tabytha’s dirty secrets (and indeed she is full of them), this becomes increasingly secondary as her facts are inevitably linked to Cal’s, and to the major tragedy that shaped his personality. As the second half progresses, Cal’s human side becomes emphasized as tragedies continue to strike (being fired, being in a coma, getting tasered, getting abducted) and the one strength he finds in himself is his love for his daughter Lyllyan. Cal goes through a fundamental transformation — what begins as a caricature of the wealthy, loud-mouthed, nutty “American” becomes, as the title of the book suggests, a “Father.” Cal, by the end, becomes the most sympathetic character in the book. For out of all of his roles — political candidate, venture capitalist, an ex-husband, to name a few — the one he identifies with most is that of father, and his depth of character and moralistic side become revealed precisely through this identification.
Reid goes through a similar personal transformation, though his character arc is less defined than Cal’s. His relationship with Lyllyan changes dramatically, as he, too, becomes a father. By the end, the two male characters, who first clashed with one another and appeared to be opposites, converge in this more fundamental identity. As much as this novel is a social satire, it can thus also be read as a kind of belated bildungsroman of two self-doubting male subjects who finally establish a sense of stability and security when they become fathers — not in a Lacanian sense but literally.
Of course, Lacan’s symbolic Father lurks in the background as well. Warner cleverly situates these personal stories against the background of contemporary America. In particular, he stages them against the decline of its economic power, the fall of the Father, epitomized in the novel by the bursting of the dot com bubble. The two protagonists’ lives are inseparable from all the social forces that surround them: abortion, gun laws, arms trade, economic downfall, corporate corruption, and the buildup to the Iraq War. They are constantly pushed around by powerful social institutions that de-masculinize them and deprive them of their agencies. This book could be read as a story about two men who reveal and resist the workings of the Symbolic Father, the social ideologies that construct one’s subjectivity and designate one’s role in society, but in the end, the two men find a kind of solution and solace in their identities as biological fathers.
Although the male characters in this novel are thus well-portrayed, their female counterparts are not nearly as developed. Tabytha and Viorela, Cal’s two romantic entanglements, are reminiscent of Haruki Murakami’s female characters, in that they are both quirky and highly intriguing in their own, but they never change (Tabytha remains a power-driven politician and Cal’s rival throughout, and Viorela remains an issue-ridden psychotherapist). These two characters thus become devices that interfere with Cal’s adventures in comical ways, but, ultimately, take on a fetishized function as told from Cal’s point of view. Tabytha the ex-wife becomes defined entirely by her ruthlessness towards Cal, and Viorela is a mysterious entity that intrigues Cal but ultimately pains him in a quasi-masochistic manner. Lyllyan’s character, too, is also fairly fixed. Although she becomes the central female figure by the end, her back story is told through Cal’s revelations, and she herself does not have much voice or agency in the novel.
This book, in essence, is about the beauty of failure in life. One man loses everything he had, including power, marriage, and money, but through it, he comes to appreciate the present moment and the things he does have. The other fails to attain his lifelong dream of becoming a tenured academic, but because of this loss, he (literally) gains a new life. It is a story of two men who lose everything only to discover that the unexpected punches of life can sometimes bring about exactly what they needed. Anyone who has been caught in the crash of the bubble, who has ever been forced to read Lacan, or who can simply laugh at one's own failings, will be cheering Cal on through his gun-waving adventure.