Staff Book Reviewer Spencer Dew is the author of the forthcoming novel Here Is How It Happens (Ampersand Books, 2013). A regular reviewer for Rain Taxi Review of Books, Dew is the author of Songs of Insurgency (Vagabond Press, 2008), Mont-Saint-Michel and Chartres (Another New Calligraphy, 2010), and the critical study Learning for Revolution: The Work of Kathy Acker (San Diego State University Press, 2011). His Web site is spencerdew.com.
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The epigraphs at the start of Matt Bell’s new book function much like the smell of blood and manure on the wind in the vicinity of a packinghouse functions. These quotes—like the thick metallic tang of so much blood, the heady vegetable scent of so much waste matter—can be seen as manifestations of the essence of the text to follow. The first is a citation from the book of Genesis, not on creation, but on the Flood, the destruction of “every living substance,” the wiping clean of the slate by the Almighty. The second moves this apocalypse, this overturning, into the future described by Cormac McCarthy in The Road. One quote gives us God destroying nearly everything; the other gives us a father thinking, in sparse language, that if his child “is not the word of God God never spoke.” There is something of a gambler’s swagger in this set-up, Bell framing his pages to come with, on the one hand, scripture, and, on the other, a particularly well-hewn example of contemporary literature. His work will speak to the concerns of each, engage the style and scale of each, from the heights of myth to the buried bunkers of legend, the dreamt past and the feared future.
Each story is titled with a trio of names, words alluding, likewise, to histories, myths, as in the title of the first piece “Abelard, Abraham, Absalom.” What these tales contain, however, are children: children born with flippers or coated in hair; children born with teeth and a hunger for raw meat; children who play games with knives, who hunt their parents; children who swing through high branches or who merely rise and rise and float away. Bell’s book works by accumulation, each piece offering a new valence on possibilities horrific and/or tragic, on what can go wrong for those new to the world or those doomed to watch them grow. Here we have parents “too bloated to climb” who watch their son slip away, into the forest of adolescent sexuality. We have parents, forlorn, who dream of their taken daughter as “nutrient-enriched air” pumps through their prison. We have parents punished by their children or parents so haunted by the child they discarded they pray, fervently, for her return. Details grotesque or magical become the norm. From dystopias where children appear identical in “mandatory facemasks and goggles . . . the baggy state-issued jumpsuits, the preventative head-shavings” or where brothers must strategize over how best to share “this last-caught woman between us” to wondrous counter-realities where mole-like babies burrow through the earth or girls on the cusp of womanhood hover above the lawn in specially designed tethering dresses, Bell offers, new creations and new visions of the end, a palimpsest of trial births, worlds imagined and, after a few pages, tossed aside. Babies are sacrificed, babies prognosticate. There are giant babies, heroic babies, predatory babies, stupid babies, strong babies, babied born crushed, mangled from the womb. And there are parents, baffled, occasionally brave, terrified or temporarily heartless, and old, alone, awaiting death. “Oh lord,” one such parent prays, “just once. Just once, deliver us a child not wrecked from the beginning. Grant us a son not lousy with fur, not ruined with scales or feathers. Give us a daughter made for the old world instead of this new one, this waste of weather and wild.” This beseeching, this lament, comes not even halfway through the book; many babies come after.
These offspring are at once a challenge to conceptions of deity as anything like compassionate, anything like knowable; if these cataclysm babies are “not the word of God God never spoke,” as McCarthy writes. Likewise, these waves of babies represent the caprice of creation and destruction, desire and death, want and waste. A father—with his duster and revolver, already reminiscent of McCarthy’s epics—takes a suicide stand, blasting a path through a pier full of men, trying to give his daughter a chance to make it to the water, to swim toward a ship offering refuge to the few women that, in this fragment of Bell’s book, remain. In the face of all the accumulated narratives here, adults are so small, yet Bell grants them some of his own swagger, even if only in order to arrange their own deaths. Here’s another prayer, from a man who knows the best way to give up is to let his son, like Steinbeck’s Lennie, crush him: “And then you give thanks for a boy too stupid to know his own strength, too broken to understand the patricide carried latent within his sausage-thick fingers, his ox-stunk palms that close over your skull, that crack those flat bones loose from their jagged moorings.”
The language of myth and the mythic past/future frontier is useful for Bell because he wants to show us a world without law, which is necessarily a world obsessed with law. In these pages God is seen to speak or refuse to speak, is seen as good or very, very bad; God is here interpreted as creating only to destroy, as indiscriminately sparing or slaughtering. There is such a hunger for religion among the parents here—for meaning, sense, and narrative—because they find themselves in such senseless situations, having reduced themselves, due to various compulsions, to prisoners or rapists, victims or murderers. The heroic parents are those who accept their babies as cataclysms. “Oh lord,” the praying parent from earlier intones, “for who else might be promised the inheritance of the earth? For who else is meant the receiving of the kingdom?” And with this prayer rises the lament of all parents, not only over their babies when such babies are born less than viable, less than strong, but also of that more banal and yet no less cataclysmic situation in which babies are born healthy and grow and grow as their parents steadily decay. “Who are these next babies, about to be poured down upon the earth, come at least to wash us from off its tear-soaked face?” concludes this prayer, but while in the specific context of the short story Bell means this to ring apocalyptic, implying a plague of future babies, a new order of creation like that which came after the flood, within the deluge of thematic tales that is this book the prayer holds a far more basic meaning: birthing and raising babies is a rite of passage into not just adult maturity but old age, decline, impotence, and death. Babies supersede their parents, render their parents obsolete.
The power of Bell’s book lies in his handling of this truth, his imaginative consideration of the many facets via which a person—a father—might relate to such a truth. From cowardice to hope, butchery to self-sacrifice, the tone of each story inflects the others, lending the volume as a whole a richly textured ambivalence. The regret of the couple who tossed their flipper-child into the waves haunts the father on the pier, fighting for his daughter’s right to live free; the daughters who return tell stories shadowed by the daughter stolen in an earlier tale. This interweaving makes Cataclysm Baby something more than a set of stories; Bell has crafted, instead, a curiously embryonic text, a series of fragments that cross-reference and continue to speak to and through each other in the reader’s mind. The end result is, of course, like a baby, a little bundle of paradox, delicate yet tough, unpredictable even in its known patterns.
Official Matt Bell Web Site
Official Mud Luscious Press Web Site