Relatives, by Geo. Alec Effinger, New York: Harper & Row, 1973, 212 pp., $8.95.
Relatives is a novel that grows out of a genre of literature best represented by 1984 and Brave New World. Unlike these predecessors, however, Relatives takes for granted the evil of totally centralized government and focuses instead on the limitations of freedom that allow the growth of totalitarianism in free societies. In this way, Effinger gives credence to the dystopias of Orwell and Huxley.
A reading of this author's second novel brings to mind the party slogan of Orwell's Big Brother—FREEDOM IS SLAVERY. The paradoxical relationship of those two conditions is, of course, achieved through the subtleties of doublethink. But Effinger finds justification for the slogan outside the limits of 1984. Echoing Aldous Huxley's claim that freedom and the desire for freedom are declining, Effinger carries that assertion one step further in Relatives by describing freedom as a vehicle to apathy. His contention seems to be that people want freedom without responsibility and will accept the illusion of freedom in lieu of the real thing if their personal involvement is not required. And, in fact, the protagonists of this novel err greatly in their trust of systems that grant them such illusion.
If Effinger's approach to his subject is somewhat singular, his technique of storytelling is also unique to the socio-political novel. He presents three stories simultaneously (alternating one with the other two) and so keeps each one fresh and somewhat alien in the reader's mind. At the same time, he bolsters the strength of his themes by describing the occurrence of similar events in quite different situations.
Though the stories are unlike in setting and style, connections are made through the protagonists, the "relatives," who share obvious and subtle resemblances. Each has a variation of the same name and each man faces, in his own world, a situation that reveals both the illusions he has so willingly accepted and the manipulation of his life by governing bodies.
In a 21st century New York, for example, there is Ernest Weinraub, an assembler in a factory designed merely to give utility to an otherwise jobless citizenry. Though his life makes little sense to him, Ernest is secure in his faith that someone, perhaps his foreman, perhaps the World Representatives, knows what's going on. While he recognizes the source of his discomfort—"30 million people in the New York metropolitan area, and he could feel the presence of every individual."—he sees misanthropy as the surest safeguard of his freedom. Unfortunately, it is also the cause of apathy which he knows is "what had deluded them into accepting the world they lived in."
In his world, the Representatives have just declared an impending terrestrial disaster which has sent residents scurrying about in search of tokens which will, according to the government, admit them to shelter. But there is only one token available for every 200 people and the knowledge of this results in global rioting.
In the second of the stories, Ernst Weintraub is on his way to "Ostamerika" in a world where the Germans subjugated the Allies in World War I. As a communist agent, Weintraub's responsibility is to help prepare the way for a proletarian revolt. His method for the corruption of freedom is to encourage more and more of it. "When the attitude is 'Why not?'" he says, "my mission will be accomplished."
Finally, there is Ernst Weinraub, an alcoholic European expatriate who resides in an African city. In this version of the world "decadence and momentary pleasures replaced the drive for dominance and national pride." America remains uncolonized and Scandanavia is populated by wild and barbarous savages.
Ernst's problem is the presence of another European, Czerny, who, fired by the theories of Machiavelli, is moving to organize the peoples of the city into a militia. Ernst finds himself an enemy of Czerny by the reasoning "if you're not with us, you're against us." Asked once by the self-appointed general what keeps a culture alive, Ernst replies, "People not bothering other people."
Such an attitude is one with which we could all feel comfortable. But complacency is, in truth, neither adaptive nor self-maintaining. All three protagonists suffer in the end because they refuse to question systems that were originally so comfortable. It is their apathy and implicit trust in the integrity of their respective governments that lead ultimately to their destruction. Ernest Weinraub in the 21st century learns that the alert was faked to thin out a burdensome population by induced rioting and killing. In Ostamerika, Ernst Weintraub is revealed to the authorities by his fellow conspirators who wish to make a martyr of him, and in Africa, Ernst Weinraub's security is shattered by the political activity instigated by Czerny.
Each of the stories is, in itself, quite compelling and, if assembled and published individually, each would certainly be regarded as serious and excellently drawn. Together, they make up a work that is greater even than the sum of its parts. At a time when political sabotage is old hat in America and when domestic surveillance further separates state from citizenry, Relatives comes as a reminder that freedom established is not freedom guaranteed. That fact that such reminders go generally unheeded in no way diminishes the merits of this fine novel.
Steven Kosek is a teaching assistant in the Department of English at Northern Illinois University. His reviews have appeared in The Chicago Tribune Book Review, The St. Louis Post-Dispatch, and National Review, among other publications. He edits Seems, a quarterly literary magazine.