Any new work from long-renowned author and screenwriter Richard Matheson is cause for interest and excitement. The fact that Gauntlet Press promotes GENERATIONS as “an autobiographical novel” raises the anticipation bar even higher, as his body of work has yet to include an autobiography. None of his novels, short stories or screenplays (or interviews, for that matter) tells us much about his formative years.
Unfortunately, neither does GENERATIONS, and that is one of several curious and unsatisfying characteristics of this latest work.
The novel is structured like a play, with an overture, acts and an intermission instead of chapters. In the introduction, Matheson states that he hopes the novel will eventually become a play, but also insists repeatedly that the events depicted did not happen – but really should have.
The year is 1956, and Matheson’s Norwegian-descendant aunts, uncles and cousins gather at the Flatbush home of one of the aunts immediately following the funeral service of Matheson’s father. Richard — known to his family as the “Hollywood Big Shot” — and his wife have flown in from California.
As the family gathers round the dining room table for cake, cookies, coffee and Postum, the conversation at first centers upon the service and the deceased. Soon, however, the talk turns inward as members of the family reveal long-held secrets about themselves and their true feelings about each other.
GENERATIONS concludes with Matheson’s brief recollection of his father, the emotions he felt at his father’s funeral following a lifelong emotional estrangement, and an abrupt recapping of the death of most of the novel’s main characters.
Matheson may have envisioned the work as a play, but the novelist in him won out. While the “action” is mostly dialogue, the format is traditional prose rather than a playwright’s script with stage directions. Even the so-called “Intermission” is explained as an opportunity for the characters (and presumably the audience) to pause the conversation long enough to refill their glasses and plates without the lights dimming and the actors leaving the stage.
That well-worn quote from Tolstoy comes to mind: “All happy families are alike; each unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.” In this instance, however, and for the entire emotional toll they are supposed to take, the revelations of Matheson’s clan are rather familiar and pedestrian. They include petty jealousies, personal regrets and a few admissions of alcoholism (which includes the author’s father). Even Matheson’s own personal revelation — which should have been especially shocking for the time — fails to carry the intended emotional punch.
For what is supposed to be an autobiographical work, GENERATIONS results in more questions than answers. Did all these pent-up family emotions lead Matheson to a career creating fiction? Did his dad’s emotional distance and prevalent drinking somehow lead Matheson to discovering the worlds of horror, fantasy and science fiction? Finally, would he have had a significantly better life if the events he depicts here had truly taken place?
We never know, and after tallying the demises of the players at the conclusion, it doesn’t really seem to matter. This is especially disappointing for those of us who have loved and followed Matheson’s work for so many years and would have minimally enjoyed learning what inspired him.
GENERATIONS, then, is an essential work exclusively for the obsessed Matheson collector. The rest of us will not doubt retreat to either the recently published collections of his works or those dog-eared copies we’ve been hoarding all this time, to remind ourselves why Matheson — author of I AM LEGEND, THE INCREDIBLE SHRINKING MAN and dozens of short stories that he adapted into many episodes of the original TWILIGHT ZONE television series — has been so important to us for more than 50 years. —Alan Cranis