Magical Realism, Fatherhood, and Steve Jobs: Creating a Universal Story Through the Strange and Unfamiliar
Small Fry, a memoir written by Lisa Brenna-Jobs, is one of the most melancholy, tender, and mesmerizing books that I’ve come across in the past few years. The writing evokes a mystical yet familiar feeling—which is a surprise since the memoir centers on a very specific experience: Lisa’s strained relationship with an absent father, Steve Jobs.
In a 2018 interview with The New Yorker’s David Remnick1, Brennan-Jobs explains the motivation behind writing Small Fry:
“Despite the fact that there’s this really famous person in my family … I felt like if I got into it enough, if I got deep enough into it, it was a universal story.”
Strangely, the presence of a celebrity father expands the scope of Brennan-Jobs’ story and creates a magical-realist effect that grounds the fantastic in an ordinary setting. Like Kovalyov’s runaway nose in The Nose or Oskar’s decision to stop growing in The Tin Drum, Steve Jobs’ character emphasizes the absurdity and poignancy of reality. Throughout Small Fry, Steve Jobs’ ambivalent parenting highlights the psychological complexity, power struggles, and yearning that defines many father-child relationships.
Forming a relationship with a parent is a common source of love and suffering. Everyone has a parent, and yet, for many, theirs is special—their own personal celebrity. Brennan-Jobs dramatizes the uneven power dynamics between father and child by describing an early visit from Steve Jobs.2
“You know who I am?” he asked. He flipped his hair out of his eyes.
I was two and half; I didn’t.
“I’m your father. … I’m one of the most important people you will ever know,” he said.
Steve Jobs is the one of the most important people Lisa (Brennan-Jobs’ character as a child3) will know because he is her father. But beyond that he may also be, from a historical point of view, the most important person she will ever meet—a cultural icon and tech god. Throughout the memoir Lisa watches neighbors, waiters, business people, and celebrities try to understand and please Steve Jobs. By recounting these efforts, Lisa heightens her own attempts to connect with a father who is the center of everyone’s attention.
The mystique surrounding Steve Jobs is further developed through descriptions of his home and possessions, both of which are charged with import and mystery. Notably, the first time Brennan-Jobs refers to her father by name—emphasizing her attempt to define him as a person and not just a parent—coincides with her first visit to “Steve’s” mansion4. For years, Steve has denied his paternity and Lisa hopes that examining his belongings will provide insight into her father.
The memory of this day, the outlandish house and my strange father, seemed surreal when I thought of it later, as if it hadn’t really happened. … Being near him in the bright light with the smells of dirt and trees, the spaciousness of the land, was electric and magical.
Inside the house, Lisa finds a lamp with a cloth shade and a gold-colored base.5
You only had to touch the base to turn the lamp on and off. I tried it a few times. Ingenious. Why didn’t everyone have one? Why did we bother with switches and serrated knobs?
Through these scenes, Brennan-Jobs captures the bewildering experience of a child investigating the paraphernalia of the adult world and an inscrutable father. Like Lisa, many children attempt to understand their parents by leafing through their desks or trying on their clothes. But as before, the presence of Steve Jobs enhances the thrill and mystery of childhood exploration. As readers, we can identify with Lisa’s curiosity, but that empathy is also overlaid with our own amazement at travelling through Steve Job’s mansion where even everyday objects, like lamps, are glamorous and defamiliarized.
Ultimately, Lisa’s attempts over multiple visits to connect with her father fail. Their disconnect is symbolized through the near infinite size of the cavernous mansion. Like a character in a Borges short story, Lisa spends days exploring her father’s house but continues to discover new rooms. The mansion—like her father—is sophisticated, cold, and unknowable.
In addition to heightening the parent-child relationship, Brennan-Jobs’ use of magical realism humanizes her father. Despite Steve Job’s portrayal as a mythical being, readers also experience his personality quirks and contradictions, his alternating currents of generosity and cruelty. Steve drives a black Porsche convertible while wearing jeans with holes. He distances himself from Lisa, omitting her from family photos, while inviting her to family vacations. Feeling hurt after not being invited to parent’s weekend at Harvard (where Lisa is attending college), he cuts off contact with his daughter.
This magical realist technique of writing the miraculous as ordinary, allows the reader to glimpse elements of their own parents in Steve Jobs. Through Lisa and Steve, readers may recognize the distance between themselves and their own parents. Although the exact causes of these rifts (language, culture, expectations for life, or other forces) may differ, the psychological consequences and emotions can be mapped over Lisa’s struggle to build a relationship with her father.
The closest Lisa comes to her father is on his deathbed when he unexpectedly acknowledges and apologizes for his absence.
“I’m so sorry, Lis,” he cried and shook his head side to side. He was sitting up, cradling his head in his hands, and because he had shrunk and lost fat, his hands looked disproportionally large and his neck too thin to hold his skull, like one of the Rodin sculptures of the burghers of Calais. “I wish I could go back. I wish I could change it. But it’s too late. What can I do now? It’s just too late.”
Near death, Steve Jobs exposes, for one of the few times in the memoir, his emotional interior.
He is not a billionaire or an inventor, but something more vulnerable and familiar: a man bemoaning the transience of life and missed opportunities. Although too late for redemption, the admission evokes pity and empathy for Lisa’s father and, for a few moments, the reader may even see Steve Jobs as their own parent—the most important person in their life.
1. The New Yorker. “Lisa Brennan-Jobs on the Shadow of Steve Jobs.” The New Yorker Interview with David Remnick. https://video.newyorker.com/watch/the-new-yorker-interview-lisa-brennan-jobs-on-the-shadow-of-steve-job
2. Lisa Brennan-Jobs, Small Fry (New York: Grove Press, 2018), 13.
3. To avoid confusion (or maybe to cause more of it), I refer to Brennan-Jobs as the author who actively shapes the memoir and Lisa as the character who inhabits the story.
4. Brennan-Jobs, Small Fry, 19.
5. Brennan-Jobs, Small Fry, 101.