Finding Both Comedy and Nightmare in The Man Who Loved Children
K. Austin Collins and John Lingan Guest on the Lit Century Podcast
Welcome to Lit Century: 100 Years, 100 Books. Combining literary analysis with an in-depth look at historical context, hosts Sandra Newman and Catherine Nichols choose one book for each year of the 20th century, and—along with special guests—will take a deep dive into a hundred years of literature.
In this episode, film critic K. Austin Collins and author John Lingan join host Catherine Nichols to talk about Christina Stead’s 1940 novel The Man Who Loved Children. They discuss the book’s place in American and Australian literature and its political analysis of the traditional family, as well as its unique use of language to show the characters’ psychological warfare on one another.
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From the episode:
K. Austin Collins: The title of the book indicts him. You realize that as it goes on especially—like, oh, he’s the man who loves children, what good is that? But even in those other essays, like Franzen’s or Joy Williams’, it does tend to be described as a book about a nightmarishly dysfunctional family rather than a book about a tyrannical, despotic man.
This might be cheap to say—I kind of feel like that’s an amazing part of the book. With all of these incredible emotions and images just piled up on top of one another, there’s still ways for people to read this and come away, like, “Well, I think there’s some wiggle room or we can discuss what parts are funny versus what parts are actually a nightmare.” Because I’m sure there are things in our all of our minds that are like, “This crossed the line. This is when it became totally awful.”
Picking up this book today to refresh my mind a little bit, I could feel my fist clenching again just stepping back into that world. But again, I’m laughing about it. It’s that balance that makes it just amazing. And I do think that it depends on where you find those breaking-point moments that’s going to change your interpretation of who’s the monster, who’s being indicted, whether or not this is a feminist book.
K Austin Collins is a film critic for Rolling Stone and a programmer for the New York Film Festival. He was formerly film critic for The Ringer, and has also written for the Los Angeles Review of Books, Reverse Shot, and the Brooklyn Rail. He writes crosswords for The New Yorker, The New York Times and the American Values Crossword Club. He lives in Brooklyn.
John Lingan is the author of Homeplace: A Southern Town, a Country Legend, and the Last Days of a Mountaintop Honky-Tonk, (2018, Houghton Mifflin Harcourt) and forthcoming A Song For Everyone: The Story of Creedence Clearwater Revival (2022, Hachette Books).
Catherine Nichols is a freelance writer whose work has appeared in many places, including Jezebel, Aeon, and Electric Literature. She lives in Brooklyn.