Tuesday 6 March 2012

Abbott Awaits - Chris Bachelder

'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.


Linda,  6 March 2012 at 21:24  

A new Chris Bachelder? This is GOOD NEWS! The hard-to-find Bear V Shark is really excellent. I can't think of any other writers like him.
Unrelated: just finished reading the beautiful Melisande! What Are Dreams? by Hillel Halkin. It is as enchanting as its title.

William Rycroft 9 March 2012 at 09:10  

Thanks Linda. This book is fabulous so I hope you enjoy it too. Bear V Shark sounds bonkers. Is it?

I'm off to look up the Halkin, not one I've heard of before....

Jonathan 9 March 2012 at 09:56  

Great review - much enjoyed and much appreciated. I wasn't even aware of the book's existence. For which I can't help feeling I should take the merest atom of blame, as I reviewed Bachelder's 'U.S.' (which did get a UK publication) and erred on the side of calling it a largely wondrous failure, rather than just out and saying it was plumb great and everyone should read it.

('U.S.' if you haven't read it is well worth seeking out, with what seems a similar take on politics as this has on parenthood. But perhaps more surreal. It's about the now dead left-wing writer Upton Sinclair, whom the American Left keep digging up and reanimating so he can keep on writing books bashing capitalism, and the American Right keep assassinating. V weird but some lovely touches, as when a one group of book burning bigots have trouble finding enough of his books to burn. Here's the result:

"I have a friend who runs a book-burning in Kansas. He left things to the last minute and then he went to the mall. They only had a few Socialist books and he had to buy a lot of non-Socialist books just to fill out the pile. The thing to do is order directly from Sinclair, in bulk. He's got a small publisher, very friendly and efficient. His books are available, they're cheap, and they burn well."

Take that, George Saunders!

Andbutso I shall definitely be ordering this book (from the publisher if I can...)

Also - have you read Nicholson Baker's Room Temperature, that other recent classic of Intelligent Dad Lit? Can you compare?

William Rycroft 9 March 2012 at 10:18  

Thanks for bringing me up to speed with Bachelder. As I said, he's a writer who was on my radar but this is the first of his books that I've read. What a great start. Why a writer so smart and funny isn't better known I'm not sure. He's too good to keep secret.

As for Nicholson Baker I have his back catalogue, including Room Temperature, on the shelf but have so far only read The Fermata (naughty grin) and The Anthologist so I can't compare the two. Will rectify that at some point....

Thanks again for the comment (and for persisting in getting it posted: for anyone suffering problems posting a comment it was Jonathan's OpenID that was causing the problem for him)

Linda,  9 March 2012 at 22:14  

Bear V Shark bonkers but biting media satire, and scarily prescient. It's more than ten years old and features an outlandish "future" which is not so alien to today's reader. Razor sharp wit, full of one-liners that you want to underline and memorise. I wonder will any of the UK publishers pick up Abbott, don't understand why Bachelder is so overlooked.

William Rycroft 11 March 2012 at 21:44  

My hunch is that Bachelder's sharo eye is so firmly focused on American culture/politics that UK publishers might feel it wouldn't travel so well to these shores. Abbott Awaits however is far more universal so I'd encourage any UK publisher to give it a go. The campaign starts here!

Anonymous,  2 May 2012 at 14:13  

Well, as promised, I went to the US and found this at New York's famous St Mark's Bookshops, and, as promised - by you - enjoyed it, devoured it, generally rubbed it all over my face and body like it was some literary form of catnip and I a cat.

I won't say it's better that Bachelder's 'US' - I think that book is more ambitious, and this is a novel resolutely concentrated on the domestic, although of course it does dig up all sorts of miraculous, near-ineffable truffles there.

Obviously, i could just quote any number of passages here to add to yours (it's one of those books that is impossible to choose a quotation from; over time, you feel, the WHOLE TEXT would become underlined), but just at random, here are two:

"Abbott's wife says, 'One of these days, you know?' Abbott says, 'I know. I know.' He does not know what his wife means. He thinks she could mean any number of things, and he thinks he agrees with all of them."

"'Wait,' his wife says. 'Did you put sunblock on her?' Abbott nods his head in the manner of someone who could later deny having nodded."

Marvellous, marvellous stuff. I fully second your statement that everyone who has children, who is a father (okay, and who is vaguely intelligent, liberal-minded and literate) will love this book, but I did have a problem that occured at one point, when I realised it reminded me of Tim Dowling's column in the Saturday Guardian magazine. Have you read that? Anyway, I started going into that, but it got so long I decided to make it a whole blog post, which you can find here: http://tinycamels.wordpress.com/2012/05/02/on-the-uselessness-of-men-chris-bachelder-vs-tim-dowling/

William Rycroft 4 May 2012 at 07:38  

So pleased you enjoyed this too Jonathan, as well as finding it hard, like me, to not just quote the whole damn thing. I have read Tim Dowling occasionally (his recent article in response to Samantha Brick's notorious piece about beauty had me chuckling away) but I think the differences you point out in your blog post (anyone reading these comments should go and read that now) were enough for it not to seem like such a problem to me.

I think I shall have to order US...

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