Nuclear Family: A Tragicomic Novel in Letters by Susanna Fogel

“Hilarious.”—Nick Offerman

“Sharp, funny, and painful. Just like your actual family.”—Simon Rich

Nuclear Family: A Tragicomic Novel in Letters by Susanna Fogel

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From filmmaker and New Yorker contributor Susanna Fogel comes a comedic novel about a fractured family of New England Jews and their discontents, over the course of three decades. Told entirely in letters to a heroine we never meet, we get to know the Fellers through their check-ins with Julie: their thank-you notes, letters of condolence, family gossip, and good old-fashioned familial passive-aggression.

ExcerptS

Your Dad Does Not Care to Negotiate with You about Hanukkah

Dear Julie,

I received your handwritten note in my office requesting that your ­mother and I supplant our traditional eight small gifts at Hanukkah with one “Super Nintendo” video game console, to be bestowed upon you the first night.

Unfortunately, as I told your ­mother, I do not think this is a sound investment for reasons having nothing to do with our religious beliefs. (­After all, as even the most unobservant Jew may note, Hanukkah is in fact a third-­tier holiday that has benefitted from a massive PR campaign ­here in the States due to its proximity to Christmas.) The fact of the ­matter is that I am well aware of current research studies in my field on the long-­term effects of video games on brain chemistry. As their results are yet unproven, I would be as negligent in allowing my own ­daughter to be a test case for this potential ­mental erosion as I would in allowing her to ingest off-­market SSRIs in Phase One clinical ­trials.

That said, I ­will happily ­factor in the spirit of your request when purchasing your gifts this holiday season. I’ve asked my research assistant to cull detailed information about vari­ous Super Nintendo games in an effort to replicate aspects of the experience you seek. You can expect books on vari­ous legends (though “Zelda” may be fictional, The Decameron is thought to be based in real­ity) and fraternity and brotherhood in con­temporary Italian culture (Super Mario World), as well as several CDs of minimalist synthesizer ­music with repetitive melodies.

Love,
Dad

Your Mom Does Not Need You to Write Her Back!

Hi sweetie,

I’m sending this regular mail because I’m staying off my e-mail for now. Some weird things have been happening with my account. I got a very strange message last week from an anonymous address—I won’t tell you what it said because I don’t want to embarrass you, but let’s just say it was clearly intended to be provocative. I called the Apple Store and made an appointment for tomorrow so they can take a look at my computer and reprogram it so I don’t get any more of these. The writer actually seems like he or she might be mentally disturbed. There were all sorts of big letters and different colors and then the whole thing is apparently trying to get me to buy something you clip on to the side of your penis? Or, you know, not your penis. A man’s penis. I really don’t know how they got ahold of my e-mail address.

Before I go on, I just wanted to say don’t feel any pressure to reply. I’ve been thinking about the conversation we had last time I visited you, when you took me to that little bar you and your friends like and you said it seems like I need us to be best friends and it makes you feel like a bad daughter. Honey, I don’t know where you got the impression that I have those kinds of expectations. I have a very full life here in Newton. I’ve been spending a lot of time at Temple Emanuel, and they have so many concerts and activities I’m getting involved in. Of course, most of the women my age there are married, but it’s not like they pity me or anything—except occasionally around the holidays. Anyway, want to hear something fun? My friend Ruth’s husband David wants to fix me up with a man from his work! The only thing is David thinks he might have cancer. We’re going to figure out what kind of cancer it is. I’ll keep you posted.

Other than that, I’ve been having a blast working on my little roof garden! Or trying: it’s about ten degrees out. Last week there was some black ice on the deck and I had a fall, but don’t worry! I’m fine now. They only made me stay at the hospital one night. I thought about calling you, but I know how busy you are, so I just figured if you happened to call me to say hi I’d tell you. It’s funny—the whole time I was lying on that cot at Mass General, I kept thinking, this never would have happened if I lived near Julie! But obviously that’s just a hypothetical. I was only thinking about that because I’m getting into gardening. I really do have a lot going on here. I just signed up to volunteer for the Democratic Party, so that’s been a lot of fun.

That reminds me: the Democratic Party gave us a sign-up sheet for volunteering. I told them I had to check your schedule—I don’t want them depending on me if you want me to come visit. Don’t worry: I’ll book a hotel room this time! I remember at the bar that night, you said you felt weird sleeping in the same bed with your mother now that you’re in your late twenties. I’m so glad we have the kind of relationship where you can be honest with me. I’ll get a room at the Westin. And I’ll make sure it has two beds in case you want to sleep there too. Of course, if you’d rather go home at the end of the night I’d understand, but if you wanted to have a glass of wine and not have to worry about getting all the way back to Queens, we could have a little slumber party at the hotel and then the next morning we could get up and go for a walk in Central Park and then a light lunch and maybe to a museum and/or shopping and then a nice cozy dinner somewhere. But only if that works for you.

One last thing. I’m sending you a little package from Mail Boxes Etcetera. It’s a box of cards I bought at Brookline Booksmith; they’re blank inside but on the outside are these beautiful paintings. They’re very European, almost medieval. There’s a quote on the front: “A friend is a second self.”—Cicero. They remind me of that summer we traveled to Florence before your first year of high school, right before we found out about Dad and the IRS. That may have been the best two weeks of my life. But don’t feel obligated to send me a card! Of course, if you did, I’d put it on the fridge; you just shouldn’t feel any pressure because I already have a lot of cards on my fridge. I just added a really nice one from Dianne Feinstein. Well, not Dianne Feinstein herself; it’s from her office. I donated to her campaign, even though I don’t live in California. I’m just very impressed (and proud!) of all she’s been able to accomplish as a Jewish woman. The card has a picture of her whole family sitting by the fireplace. They seem really close-knit. I heard an interview with her on All Things Considered and she was saying she and her daughter talk every day.

Okay, honey, it’s getting late here. Time to brush my teeth and watch an episode of Law & Order: SVU and hit the sack. There was an interesting episode on last night about parents who hadn’t heard from their daughter in a week. They thought she was just busy at work, but it turned out a sociopathic man had kidnapped her and tied her up in a basement and only untied her when he was forcing her to mutilate herself and some small children. It was very suspenseful. I think you’d appreciate the writing. I’ll try to record it on my DVR so that next time you visit here we can watch it together.

With so much love,

Mom

Your Sister Has an Idea for How to Put the Fun in Funeral

Heya,

Just tried to leave u a voice mail but I think yr phone is dead. Or u are probably busy w/mom helping her make arrangements for the funeral ugh. So sorry to ditch u and put all of that on you . . . my boss is so psycho to make me fly back to Arizona just to work for TWO FUCKING DAYS and then just fly all the way back across the country to say goodbye to my fucking grandmas body. He is such a dick dude. You know this is all bc he tried to bone me when I first started here and i shut that shit down . . . ugh everything that douche does is so fuckin against the law . . .

Anyway i was wondering if u can do me a favor—big surprise cuz i am always asking u for favors haha. do u remember my friend alex from HS who worked at Aaron Bros picture frames? tall with red hair? So he is kinda dealing now and I had asked if he could hook me up with some shrooms when I come back this weekend. I know that sounds weird probably but I did them last fall when I had to put Riley to sleep after he bit that sheriff . . . I went out to the desert with all these pix of us on all of our adventures and his old collar and bowls etc. and did shrooms and just like sat with his memory for a few hours and left all the stuff there and it was like I was laying him to rest in peace in my memory if that makes sense?

U can see where this is going. i wanna do that with grandma rose.

I think Sunday after the funeral I am gunna drive down to the south shore by rhode island where she used to rent that little house and just sit on the beach and like feel allllllllll the feelings ugh. do u wanna come? I am gonna bring all the stuff that reminds me of Grandma, like those ginger snaps she used to buy that i used to hate when I was little then I realized they are actually fucking awesome, and pix of her old house in seattle where she had all those fruit trees and she used to give me rides in the wheelbarrow (I know she used to do that w/you too from your Instagram pix on Throwback Thursday) and that poem she always used to read us about the Jabberwocky.

Ugh fuck im crying even typing this im a fuckin mess. This is hitting me like a ton of fuckin bricks for some reason. Grandma rose was my favorite person in the family except you. and I don’t share DNA with any of you but i felt like i had a resemblance to her in personality u know? she was just this no BS awesome fuckin lady.

anyway that’s why I wanna do this shrooms thing i think u should join me for. I know u are not really a drug person but this is a special occasion and I really think it would be good for you to get out of your head and we would have this special experience as sisters. Omg I sound like a lifetime movie lol but u know what I mean.

Either way this is where the favor comes in . . . so that dude alex said he has shrooms in stock (haha “in stock” u can tell i have been workin retail too fucking long) and he can hook me up but he has to go to Albany tomorrow afternoon to visit his son (did I tell u he knocked up some randomass woman he met at an Eve 6 concert???) so he would need someone to pick them up before 4 p.m. tomorrow. As u know my flight doesn’t get in till like midnight so is there any way u can meet Alex during the day and grab them? he works in dedham in the dunkin donuts at the train station off route 128. He said he will meet u by the commuter rail parking lot. i told him he has to store it in like five containers bc you are fuckin paranoid. text me if u are down and i will give u alex’s #

i hope I am not putting u in an uncomfortable situation by asking this!

i also hope u will decide to come to the beach with me sunday. It will be fucking intense obviously but its like whatever we only live once and so did grandma, u know?

Love u girl,

Jane

Ps—mom said Raj asked if he can come to the funeral since he met Grandma when u were together? are u thinking about giving him a second chance? Just be careful boo. I know im the younger one but when it comes to u, I am a fuckin psycho mama bear.

Pps—I am thinking about getting a tattoo with grandmas bday on it. I told mom cause u know she always said to tell her if we ever get tattoos (not that she has any chance of that happening w/you haha). she was actually cool w/it and I think she was touched, she said just don’t get it on my arm cause of the Nazis. Why is everything always about being Jewish with her!!!?!!?

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Susanna Fogel
© Zach Winnick

Susanna Fogel is a Rhode Island native and apologist. She writes and directs films and television, including the film Life Partners and the ABC drama series Chasing Life. She is an alumna of the Sundance Screenwriters Lab and Columbia University. Her writing has appeared in The New Yorker and Time magazine. She lives in New York and Los Angeles. And she has bangs, obviously. Nuclear Family is Susanna's first novel.

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