'stunned by the real'
The TLS Books of the Year edition often involves an awful lot of skimming over non-fiction books you haven't the faintest interest in, lots of academics and critics chummily gushing about books written by their academic and critical friends and usually consensus about a book or two which you were already well aware of. Or is that just me? Anyway, this year under the dependable name of translator Michael Hofmann was a slim American novel published by Louisiana State University Press. Two things to prick the ears up there: Hofmann first (and recommending an American novel rather than something in translation) and then the publisher. LSU Press were of course the people to originally print John Kennedy O'Toole's Pulitzer Prize-winning tour de force A Confederacy Of Dunces. This is a press willing to take a risk or two. Seeing also that the author of Hofman's recommendation was Chris Bachelder, whose name I recognised from my McSweeney's-reading past, and that the subject of this book was a father's musings whilst his wife is in the third trimester of their second pregnancy, I was busy hunting down a copy before I'd finished the paragraph.
And it's brilliant. If you have had a child, buy a copy. If you've had two I can only presume you've already done what I did and gone online to find a copy before moving on to this paragraph. If you haven't then do it now. Right, have you all got one ordered? Then, I'll continue. Abbott is a university teacher on summer break. He and his wife are expecting their second child and we follow Abbott through June, July and August as they prepare themselves for the new arrival. There is a chapter for each day, many just a page, some only a paragraph, and each comes with its own title such as: Abbott Visits the Pet Store, In Which Abbott Is Surprised by Artifice, and Abbott's Imaginary Letter to an Imaginary Nationally Syndicated Childhood and Parenting Expert. Anyone who is a parent knows that day to day life isn't about any of the grand things or big events, it is about the bits in between. Whilst there is a page for each day it is often the smallest or most innocuous part of that day in which Abbott reflects on his life or has what one might call a moment of clarity. Bachelder knows that it is whilst cleaning the vomited raspberries from your daughter's car seat that a father can suddenly realise "The following propositions are both true: (A) Abbott would not, given the opportunity, change one significant element of his life, but (B) Abbott cannot stand his life."
Abbott's life is filled with paradoxes like these. Here for example is an extract from the chapter Abbott and the Paradox of Personal Growth:
Abbott approaches sleep with an ineffable sense of relief that he did not know, before having a child, what it was like to have a child - did not really know what it was really like - because if he had known before having a child how profoundly strenuous and self-obliterating it is to have a child, he would never have had a child, and then, or now, he would not have this remarkable child. Abbott's wife, were she here, might say that it doesn't quite make sense. Abbot might rub her hip lightly with the back of his hand. "That's the thing," he might say.
Even the smallest paradoxes are like moments of illumination. Abbott knows for example that his daughter's nap time is the perfect time to do housework, run errands, rest or read and yet he, like all parents, spends a huge portion of it waiting for them to wake up. WHY? The domestic chores that fill this novel lead Abbott to compare his lot to Hercules at first before realising that a more accurate comparison would be Sisyphus, whose task wasn't impossible but endless in its repetition. Taking out the rubbish, cleaning gutters, mowing the lawn, doing laundry, caring for daughter, dog and wife, Abbott finds new ways to fail at the most basic level on each and every day but also finds moments of triumph in the most unlikely places too.
There will be particular joy for fathers in reading this book, mainly because there will be several moments of recognition. That isn't to say that mothers won't enjoy it, on the contrary, if you want to understand a little better the mindset of the anxious father, or to understand that his clumsy attempt at intimacy came about not because he's some kind of animal but because even asleep in the back seat of the car with mouth open and nylon seatbelt bisecting those wonderful breasts of yours, you were quite simply a thing of beauty and the only wonder is why contemporary art isn't filled with more breasts bisected by nylon straps ('Where are the songs and poems, the sculpture, the oils on canvas?'). There will doubtless also be moments of joint recognition across the sexual divide.
Like many others before him, Abbott discovers, once married, that marriage is a battle - clinically, a negotiation - over possession of the Bad Mood. A marriage, especially a marriage with children, cannot function properly if both its constituents are in a foul temper, thus the Bad Mood is a privilege only one spouse can enjoy at a time. Who gets to be in a Bad Mood? This is the day-to-day struggle. In the Perfect Union, the Bad Mood is traded equitably, like child care or household chores. There is joint custody of the Bad Mood...In a typical marriage, however, one spouse tends to possess the Bad Mood disproportionately. This is called Hogging The Mood.
Any novel that can begin a chapter 'Fucking Thoreau' before going on to point out that Abbott 'could, for his part, happily do without the post office. Leave it to the childless to be complacent about the mail. You put a toddler in Walden and you'd get a new philosophy' (the mail being important because in its regularity 'It not only signals the blessed arrival of mid to late afternoon, it also offers the promise of surprise and wonder') is alright by me. This novel is filled with moments to make you laugh out loud, moments that take your breath away with their simple beauty or truth and the whole book is written with an easy wit and intelligence that will make it possible for even the most tired parent to glide through it. In fact I worry that I'm making this sound too much like the kind of humorous book you'd expect to find in the loo of a middle class house. Be assured that Bachelder is a poet of the ordinary, the short chapters and their short sentences are beautifully put together so that you get that sensation as when...
A cloud covers and then uncovers the sun. Campus is distant and theoretical, like a galaxy or heaven. There is something beyond tedium. You can pass all the way through tedium and come out the other side, and this is Abbot's gift today. he picks up a pinecone, puts it in his palm, and extends his palm toward his daughter. The girl's eyes grow wide and she laughs. She reaches for the pinecone, says, "Pinecone."
This is yet another novel this year with no real plot. Another book whose short chapters could almost be read as separate short stories. Another book that makes a virtue of brevity. Another brilliant book that knows that sometimes the most important thing you might do in the day is simply look out the window.
The window is divided into twelve panes, four rows of three. Abbott imagines that each pane is a framed photograph. He studies the composition of each of the twelve panes. He moves along rows, left to right, beginning with the upper left pane. A cloud of leaves and a single red brick. A squirrel on new shingles. Sky with faded contrail. There is not one pane that is not beautiful.