Necessary Secrets by Greg McGee (Upstart Press, 2019), 298 pp., $37.99
As much as we might like to believe that our relationships are built on truth, in reality life abounds with secrets: those we tell others and those we tell ourselves; those we forget and those we choose not to know. Secrets can bind people in trust or complicity or be used as a weapon or a shield. But whether necessary or contingent, we all have knowledge we must hide for the sake of others and ourselves. Nowhere, perhaps, is this more true than within families, where the random assortment of genetics means that we may have more in common with our friends than our relations, and the conflicts and allegiances across and between generations are amplified by competition for limited material or emotional resources.
In Necessary Secrets Greg McGee explores these and other themes in rich and satisfying drama that challenges some of our fundamental assumptions about family and society. It is an exemplary piece of work that draws on archetypal characters and dramatic structures to tap into fundamental debates of consequential ethics, touching on complex and controversial issues ranging from the (in)ability of our legal system to respond to domestic abuse to the ethics of euthanasia and the commercial possibilities of legalised cannabis. Above all, it is about the complicated inter- and intra-generational relationships that all of us must negotiate throughout our lives.
The story centres around the changing fortunes of the Spark family as power passes from one generation to the next. In his heyday, patriarch Den Sparks was the man with the magic touch. His ability to commodify people’s aspirations and desires for profit made his advertising agency one of the country’s go-to promotional companies. The death of his wife Carol at the turn of the century may have impaired his ability to mainstream the zeitgeist, but not before he has earned enough to sustain a decade-long retirement collecting brand-name sneakers and reliving past glories. But recently he has begun to lose parts of himself, the slow erosion of vascular dementia creating blank spaces where memories used to be.
His children, meanwhile, have found their way into adulthood by default. The eldest, Will, takes after his father: an ambitious and opportunistic businessman who approaches the world with a sense of entitlement that privileges his own interests in all things. Having joined his father’s business straight from school he believes he knows the advertising industry inside out, but things have changed since his father’s glory days and, unbeknown to the rest of the family, he and the company are near bankruptcy. His brother Stan has reacted to domination by materialistic, bullying alpha males by removing himself as far from them as philosophically and psychologically possible, and now lives on an isolated commune in Golden Bay. Middle child Ellie, who has kept the family together since Carol’s death, has drifted into social work in a subconscious attempt to gain her mother’s posthumous approval. Even now, despite being on leave to care for Den, she continues to take in foster children for short-term placements, and the household is rounded out by the most recent of these, sixteen-year-old Jackson, whose willingness to testify in court against his abusive drug-dealing father has necessitated his removal from his own family.
The stage on which this drama will take place is set in the opening pages, in which critical props and relationships are introduced in true Chekhovian fashion. The story opens on the evening of Den’s seventieth birthday as he stands at his bedroom window holding a Walther PKK—Bond’s weapon of choice—contemplating suicide. His doctor has recently confirmed that his memory loss is due to a form of progressive dementia (a diagnosis Den has not shared with his family), and rather than suffer the long slow slide into senility, he has decided to end things in what he considers a ‘dramatic and somehow noble’ fashion. But out of consideration for Ellie, who is preparing a family dinner in his honour, he postpones his departure until later in the evening and heads down to join the party.
Within minutes of Den’s arrival things descend into acrimony with the appearance of Jackson and his sister Lila. Horrified to discover that Ellie has been inviting ‘strangers’ into the family home, Will becomes even more furious when he learns the boy is on probation for arson. Ignoring her brother’s protests—and the fact that Lila’s presence is a breach of Jackson’s placement conditions—an unrepentant Ellie invites Lila to stay. Will loses the moral high ground shortly thereafter when it is revealed that he wants Den to sell the family home to pay for his own divorce. What’s worse, his ‘date’ is a prospective buyer there to inspect the property. The dinner ends in a state of familiar antipathy, the repercussions of which will be felt well beyond the evening, and the reader is left in no doubt as to the roles each of the participants will play in subsequent events. Den’s insistence on regarding himself as central to everything that occurs emphasises the extent of his own self-regard; and the way in which Stan, Ellie and Will fall back into the allegiances and rivalries of their childhood will be familiar to anybody with siblings. I admire McGee’s bravery in giving voice to the shameful thoughts that all of us entertain at some point regarding matters of inheritance and the division of inter-generational assets, and I felt an echo of self-recognition in Den’s ability to use other people’s arguments to justify his own actions. But what I enjoyed most about this opening chapter was trying to determine how each casual observation or passing remark might relate to the story as a whole—mental notes that I found great satisfaction in ticking off as the novel progressed.
We re-join the family several months later to discover the house gone—destroyed by fire on the night of the party—and the family in disarray. The exact cause of the fire is unknown (Jackson has been cleared and Den remembers nothing), but the circumstances are suspicious enough for the insurance company to refuse to pay out, and the sale of the property is delayed until investigations are complete. Will, who has been counting on the insurance to bail him out of his financial difficulties, is faced with the prospect of having his remaining inheritance siphoned off to pay Den’s rest-home fees, and (courtesy of Lila and her now-paroled father) seeks the solace of addiction. Ellie, having returned to work only to find she can no longer bear to be part of a system which is unable—or unwilling—to protect women and children from abuse, is contemplating having a baby of her own to fill the emotional void in her life (a cliché that I struggled with, but one that is in keeping with her self-identified role as a caretaker). And Den, his mind as gutted as his former residence, escapes from care and returns to his old home, where he finds Jackson hiding from his own family—yet another example of the way in which our society fails to protect the most vulnerable from the harms of its own creation.
The search for their missing father propels Will and Ellie, who have been on seemingly opposing trajectories for ever, towards a climactic reunion that will change their lives irrevocably. But the fate of the family ultimately rests with brother Stan. Although he features only briefly in the novel’s opening pages, having chosen to remove himself as far as possible from his father and older brother, it falls to Stan to decide which of the Sparks’ secrets to share and which to let lie.
McGee’s versatility as a writer and experience with stage and screen shine throughout the novel. Each member of the family has their own moment in centre stage, modifying our perceptions and reflecting the changing dynamics. Stan, for example, is as absent from the main events of the story as he is from the family; his eventual return as necessitated by (and contingent on?) his father’s death provides an external perspective on events.
But it is in the contrast between Den and Will, the two characters who share the greatest similarity, that McGee’s ability to capture the elusive emotional and psychological elements that distinguish his cast as individuals is most evident. For all Den’s egotism and self-regard, he remains likeable; his humour and (limited) insight go some way to redeem him as a person. We watch the slow disintegration of his identity with a sense of horrified pity, amplified by his being the only first-person voice we hear. Indeed, his loss of self is evident in the change from reflective to in-the-moment experience of the world as the novel progresses.
Meanwhile, although Will shares many characteristics with his father, from the desire for material wealth and social recognition to his brand awareness, his selfishness has a harder edge, and his willingness to hurt those closest to him to get what he wants, combined with the distancing effect of seeing him from a third-person perspective, preclude sympathy. It’s to McGee’s credit that he can so clearly differentiate their two voices while highlighting the aspects that unite them, and that ultimately, despite their flaws, we can see aspects of ourselves in both.
The same dramatic sensibility extends to the novel’s multi-layered plot. The tension of Chekhov’s pistol comes from not only the fact of its appearance but also the question of when and how it will be deployed. McGee provides us with the literal article, and also cleaves to Chehkov’s central tenet that in a good plot nothing is superfluous: he provides the Walther with numerous figurative companions. His characters are quintessential opposites—male and female, narcissist and empath, materialist and ascetic—but their development can be measured by their acceptance of moral ambiguity, be it Stan’s realisation that money has its uses or Ellie’s discovery that not only is she capable of violence, she can live with the results of her actions.
In this sense Necessary Secrets resembles a good detective story: events have an inevitability that the astute reader might be able to deduce from conversations shadowed by the unsaid, comments dropped in passing that gain significance in hindsight, and casual encounters that will shape the course of lives. Some readers may find the plot implausible, but Necessary Secrets taps into fundamental debates of consequential ethics. Even the justice it delivers recognises the complexities of contemporary society: the fact that good guys may finish first but bad guys don’t necessarily finish last. And McGee’s truths about family strike undeniably close to home.
CUSHLA MCKINNEY is a mother, scientist and long-time book reviewer for the Otago Daily Times.