ALONGSIDE THE NOW COMMON postcolonial readings of The Tempest, one of the most enduring understandings of Shakespeare’s play relies on the belief that Prospero, that studied and callous magician, is a stand-in for the Bard himself. From the moment Prospero summons the gales above the sea, to the ending in which he coaxes the audience to applaud, his magic can be likened to Shakespeare’s theater. Both use pageantry and deception; both justify these manipulations because their artifice is in the service of a grander design.

To liken Shakespeare to Prospero, of course, is to view Shakespeare in a harsh light. Prospero is singularly focused on his studies to such a degree that he first loses his title (“My library was dukedom large enough,” he says) and then fails, emotionally, his daughter Miranda and the residents of his island. He is arrogant in his intellect, and the result is a deficit of compassion. But if Shakespeare did intend for Prospero to be his surrogate, the play doesn’t exactly imply that either was self-critical. Prospero, in the end, turns away from the magic that had so occupied his mind — just as Shakespeare would turn away from the theater soon after the play’s composition. But the protagonist’s is a disingenuous turn, the magician barely recognizing that his manipulations are misguided, or that his treatment of his daughter might not, in fact, be in her best interest. Prospero is a man who enslaves almost everyone he meets (and quite literally when imprisoning the prince he hopes will marry Miranda), only to smugly celebrate his actions at play’s end.

That Seth Lerer, in his new memoir Prospero’s Son: Life, Books, Love, and Theater, places the magician at the center of his own story is a similarly abstruse and loaded decision. Lerer’s memoir laces together several threads: the death of his father, who came out as gay late in life; the formative impact of literature on the author’s life; and the author’s relationship to his own son, who spends his adolescence experimenting with drugs before being shipped away to a treatment facility. In The Tempest, of course, Prospero has no son, only the dependent Miranda. In Prospero’s Son, he seems actually to have two — first Lerer and then, as he matures into his own version of the magician, his own child. The tethering together of these lineages into a single text necessarily influences a reader’s understanding of them.

Structured in recurring flashbacks, most chapters in Prospero’s Son return to the days immediately following the death of Lerer’s father. As Lerer goes through his father’s possessions, eats at a diner his father frequented, and interacts with his father’s neighbors and boyfriends, Lerer is called back to his childhood and early adulthood. These trips back through time comprise the bulk of the memoir. Driving to the San Francisco hospital after news of the death, for instance, Lerer recalls his father’s love of fast cars and the spontaneous overnight drives of his own youth. In another chapter, visiting the used bookstore near his father’s house prompts a reflection on the father’s lifelong love of the theater. Increasingly, this structure edges out the father and focuses almost exclusively on the storyteller and, in particular, the development of his academic career. Toward the end, this movement breaks, and Lerer’s preoccupations are pushed aside, somewhat, to make way for his own son’s story.

A memoir in personal essays, Prospero’s Son has an intricate (if at times obvious) motor at work. Just as the narratives of fathers and sons are woven throughout, so too are allusions to literature and the theater. Lerer attempts a craft of suggestion and intimation, often preferring to quote King Lear or summarize a children’s story rather than state directly how he feels about a situation or a person. The author’s dance through time and literature, however, proves effective in the essay that begins with a visit to his father’s neighborhood diner. He deftly guides us from the opening scene to his college days, when he bonded with male peers and found his Jewish upbringing a suddenly useful charm. Summoning a gentle and lyric magic in his dormitory during an improvised bar mitzvah for his gentile friends, Lerer “renamed all of them: Greenberg and Finkelstein and Rosenbloom and Kaplowitz; Lebel and Yankel and Mendel and Velvel. They doubled over as I blessed them in their toilet-paper tallises and earflaps.” The movements here feel natural, and a rich sense of community is summoned through the quoted Hebrew songs and texts. A few pages later, this scene lingers in the background as Lerer brings one of those friends into the city. When the father then takes them to a too-trendy restaurant and orders a feminine Lillet, he suddenly elicits from Lerer a rare sympathy. It’s a moment that feels honest, if only in the revelation that each member of the dinner party, though preoccupied with his own insecurities, clearly needs and deserves the others’ acceptance.

The college chapter — in its careful portrayals of young masculinity, friendship, and belonging — successfully allows Lerer to reach a place of generosity toward his father, realizing that the burden of honest communication and understanding rests on both of their shoulders, that the man’s social blunders and need to impress belie a deep discomfort that Lerer could have relieved with the right conversation: “And I would never ask you if you spoke the truth. Can you forgive me?” This moment accomplishes a coincident recognition of both men’s failures and both men’s dignity.

Throughout other chapters, however, the braiding of narratives hinders the text rather than working in its favor. The turns away from the father and toward Lerer’s own life (his academic successes, his affairs with knowledge) suggest a rejection of both the father and, later, of the son. “My library was dukedom large enough,” quotes Lerer, in a moment of literary-minded self-doubt. These reflections are so frustrating because they preclude any extended attention to the father, who supplies both the overarching structural device and the impetus for the memoir, but whose adult relationship with the author is left unclear to a distracting degree. We learn that Lerer’s father and brother had a distant relationship at best, the brother having refused to attend the funeral, but we are left only to surmise that such is the case between Lerer and the father; his exploration of the father’s apartment following the death seems to imply that the author, despite living relatively near, had never been to the place when his father was still alive.

We learn, too, that the father was less-than-perfect in the family’s early years, dragging them to new cities in pursuit of a stuttering career; mismanaging money; and speeding recklessly in cars and boats with the children beside him. Yet it’s apparently his coming out late in life that incites the most anger in some members of the family. The mother is particularly harsh. Of a car accident the father was in years ago, she says:

That accident. Please. There was no meeting. It had been a tryst. You know what he is. I knew it when we married. I brought him home to meet my mother after we were in the Brooklyn College production of Blithe Spirit together. She said to me, “Who is this man who is an actor?” And at the wedding, Aunt Gussie came up to me and said, “You know, he’s a fagelah.” Well, what did I care? I wanted to get out of that house, and he married me. […] Here’s what I think: one night he was going off to meet someone, and someone else had heard about it and they set out to get him. Someone tried to kill him plowing into the parked car like that. Maybe it was one of those boys, or an angry dad, or somebody from school he made a pass at.

Later, when Lerer contacts his mother about the death, her immediate reaction is, “Thank God. What a relief for all of us. You know it’s a blessing that boy of yours won’t have to grow up with him. He never cared about anyone other than himself. Don’t fool yourself. He never really loved you. You were his pet.”

While the mother clearly holds no love for the father, Lerer himself is occupied with memories that are either positive or, at worst, weighed down with some embarrassment at the man’s social blunders and poor judgment. For the most part, however, the father comes across as a man who loved his children. Lerer recounts small moments, typical of many families, with sentimental care, even as he acknowledge his father’s reckless behavior:

At night, Dad would pile me into the car (no baby seat, no seat belts, a cigarette held out the window) and drive for hours till I dropped off. Sometimes, he would sing as he drove, his tuneless voice repeating the same nursery rhyme over and over. 

I had a little nut tree, nothing would it bear,
But a silver nutmeg, and a golden pear. 

And then I would wake in my own bed, not knowing how I got there, the smell of Kents hanging on my pj’s like a caul.

In other memories, the father brings Lerer into Manhattan to see an exhibit about atoms and chemistry, playfully recites lines from theatrical productions with the mother over breakfast, and seems, in general, to sincerely wish his wife and children joy, molding his life to some degree around that wish.

But still, the issue of the father’s sexuality and affairs forces a disconnect for Lerer and the rest of the family. It could be argued that the mother, by acknowledging that she knew this fact fully and without a doubt when she married him, might have sacrificed a good bit of her cause for anger. And Lerer seems to have been blissfully unaware of this aspect of his father’s life in his childhood, although the actual details of the coming out are never mentioned, leaving what seems like a crucial aspect of their life together obscured.

What we are given is Lerer’s confrontation with his father’s sexuality in the days following the death. In these moments, gay life and culture are deep wedges in their relationship, the particulars of his final days so unseemly that Lerer is, at moments, literally unable to face them fully:

I played the messages. “Larry baby, this is Miguel. Where were you last night? You know how much I miss…” I stopped it and erased the tape.

Elsewhere, the kitschy decorations in the apartment become inexplicably ominous:

[H]e’d hung an oversize poster of Marilyn Monroe over the toilet. It showed only her face, the outlines merely suggested in black, but the lips full, deep red, and barely parted. I turned my back to it and washed my face, half expecting it to disappear when I reopened my eyes. But there it was, filling the mirror as I raised my head, her lips the only color in the room.

And, in a strikingly unkind move, after finding leather gear and matchbooks from gay bars, Lerer goes “back to his closet, looking for anything to make him human.”

Regardless of how deep his father’s coming out might have cut him, how devastating of a betrayal it might have seemed, the fact that Lerer views his father’s sexuality as so explicitly dehumanizing is crass. And it is not limited to these isolated moments above. One of the many inclusions of Shakespeare in the text is the famous speech by Shylock, the monologue of “Hath not a Jew eyes? Hath not a Jew hands, organs, dimensions, senses, affections, passions?” Quoted in Prospero’s Son, this speech seems like a moment where compassion and forgiveness might rise, some hint of a shared experience (through life, through literature) helping Lerer to understand his father’s own complicated path. Instead, Lerer concludes:

I said those lines for him like a Kaddish, thinking of the collar and the chains, the leather and the spikes, the costumes of his company, begging that he be understood, begging that even for his faults he be forgiven. If we are like you in the rest… But he was not.

The shortfalls of compassion and failures of love are worthy topics for any literary work, and the honest exploration of our own such failings can be both compelling and honorable. These are among the topics that occupy Alison Bechdel’s Fun Home, a book strikingly similar to Lerer’s memoir in topic and mode, yet successful in all the ways Prospero’s Son falters (the fact that Bechdel has her own queerness to draw from is relevant also to this success). Prospero’s Son comes, at times, oh-so-close to achieving such an honest exploration. Yet it seems, again and again, that it is exactly Lerer’s own discomfort with gay culture and life that prevents this. While he turns his attention to careful memorization of Western literature, boasting of his ability to celebrate humanity through the written word, he inadvertently misreads and misunderstands the art and culture that made up the material of his estranged father’s final days. Many incidental moments attest to this bias, such as when his gay friend speaks “like he was letting air out of a tire,” turning his lisp into a banal punch line, or when he erroneously declares that television superheroes from the 1960s “should really be appreciated as the origins of camp, playful tales of effeminates who find themselves transformed for public maleness,” entirely ignoring the actual history and significance of a cultural force that seemed significant to his father’s life (not to mention his use of the dated insult “effeminates”).

One reason Lerer’s critical takes on his father’s life seem so damning is that, when the narrative inevitably turns to Lerer again, a similar critical awareness is dropped. A later chapter focuses on an extended stay with a rural family in Iceland. This stay occurs during his graduate coursework and is ostensibly designed to increase his knowledge of the language. While there, Lerer develops feelings for the host family’s much younger daughter. While the affections remain unrealized, the fact of her age and the description of his attraction to her come across as, well, icky:

Anna-Solveg, thirteen, towheaded, spoke some English, smart. She had the same garnet-brown eyes as everybody in the family, and she wore a torn rag around her neck with as much panache as if it were a Hermes scarf.

Love at first sight. It was her room they’d put me in, much to her anger, and her anger made her even more compelling.

Elsewhere, he imagines confessing his love to her in Icelandic:

I’d look around these afternoons, at all the boys flirting with Anna-Solveg, and her laughter, and her towhead and her eyes as brown as garnets, and she’d look at me across the room and jerk her chin away like a shying horse, and turn her back on me. “Ég elska þig.” I practiced it silently.

It is relevant that Lerer does not implicate himself here, that he does not even suggest that there might be something discomforting about a graduate student lusting over a 13-year-old who is forced to share a room with him. Contrast this narrator with the narrator who turns inward following an awkward college dinner with his father, the moment when Lerer recognizes emotional distance to be the fault of both men and acknowledges his own role in the construction of their relationship (“And I would never ask you if you spoke the truth. Can you forgive me?”). The impact there relies on that difficult mixture of empathy and accountability, both forces extending equally to Lerer and to the father. For most of the memoir, such awareness is lacking.

When this empathy is not achieved, the memoir becomes the story of Lerer’s life, rather than the exploration of love, forgiveness, and literature that it strives to be. It becomes autobiography but not art. It is not enough, simply, for a life to be channeled into careful prose. When Lerer sends his son away to a treatment facility, he eventually visits the young man out in the desert, where he has lived for three months in the blazing heat, eating nuts and searching out water. While this excursion is a part of his therapy and forced recovery, for Lerer, it only triggers his own charmed memory and the logistics of his academic career:

I thought: this is his Iceland, this is his time alone, the solitary sky spread out above him like a bedsheet for his dreams. I thought: and let me tell you about my own time, walking across rivers to bring fish for dinner, herding cows, living amid a language not my own. Let me tell you about the sheep-head dinners and the blood-pudding, and the day the relatives came and they bought a tomato. Let me tell you all of this, as we sit here in the dirt, eating your seeds. 

But I did not. I sat there thinking only of the move that we would make when we returned: from Palo Alto to La Jolla, a move that had been in the works for over a year but that we’d planned to finalize that fall.

Lerer is hardly unfamiliar with the power of literature. Prospero’s Son is flush with lovely asides and discursions into the edifying effect it has had on his own life, and his previous book, Children’s Literature (winner of the National Book Critics Circle Award), stands testament to the persistent, illuminating influence children’s literature has on our lives and culture. Which is all part of the oddity of Prospero’s Son. The pieces are there: the words are carefully placed, the narrative’s charming, the allusions productive in gesturing toward the grander truths of other texts. Yet all of these tools result in just that: careful words, charming narratives, and productive allusions — rarely anything greater.

Lerer does symbolically become his father in the end — seeing a film at the Castro Theater, wearing the man’s old clothes, he believes for a moment that he is recognized by some nameless queer face who himself recognizes that outfit. However, this is a small gesture in comparison to the love and forgiveness we might reasonably expect from our narrator at this point. But he is again like Prospero. Toward the end of The Tempest, the magician claims he is moved, at last, to free all of his prisoners, saying:

Though with their high wrongs I am struck to th’ quick,
Yet with my nobler reason ‘gainst my fury
Do I take part; the rarer action is
In virtue than in vengeance; they being penitent,
The sole drift of my purpose doth extend
Not a frown further. Go release them, Ariel;
My charms I’ll break, their senses I’ll restore,
And they shall be themselves.

Prospero’s change of heart is a speech both eloquent and disingenuous. To stay in his fury, he declares, is as much a disservice to himself as it is to his prisoners. It is a powerful and ambiguous moment — the kind Shakespeare achieves when at his best — in which a man defined by his self-interest relinquishes some of his power in the interest of a kinder world, yet does so only after he has achieved his vindication and restored himself to a position of dominance. Prospero professes the kind of forgiveness on which the memoir, as a genre, so often beautifully relies — a complicated, torn, yet resolute emotional work that allows us to see more honestly our place in the world.

The stories we tell of our fathers are useless if we have not struggled in our quest to understand them, just as the stories of our own lives are nothing if we cannot forgive and blame ourselves with the same breath. Yet when this claim comes only after Prospero achieves his power once more, when he no longer has need to hold others toward his own purposes, his speech is made null by self-aggrandizement. Lerer, as Prospero before him, seems only to have turned outside of himself when claims of insight and understanding were close at hand — necessary scaffolding in his own story. Or, as an old friend of Lerer’s father tells him on the day following the death, “The most important thing you need to understand about your father was that he was terrified of being alone.” The inward gaze of the memoir does not, by necessity, distract us from hearing words so simple and human — it is the writer’s choice whether to sincerely listen to the loneliness of another or to simply cull that loneliness to serve a narrative. When memoir results in the latter choice, we’re left only with Prospero once more, his declarations of virtue perhaps eloquent, perhaps arresting, but ultimately shallow.