A Strange Object Covered with Fur, or: Matt Bell's Cataclysm Baby
With Cataclysm Baby, Matt Bell gives us Barthelme’s “strange object covered with fur which breaks your heart,” and that’s just in the first story. By the end of Bell’s relatively slim tome you’ll have had your heart broken by a surprising variety of strange people, places, and things. Cataclysm Baby is, in fact, that rarest of things: surprising. Some of these cataclysmic stories will be familiar to aficionados of apocalyptic fiction, or of other, older myths and legends, but they never feel stale, as Bell invests each with such care and humanity. In fact, in some ways the most familiar disasters feel most uncanny in a book as unpredictable as this.
What we have here, on its face, is twenty-six short stories about parents and children, each infected with its own unique cataclysm. Here we find murderous children, a child with an insatiable appetite, even for human flesh, or parents immobilized by their own obesity, trapped in the jungle that grew up where their home used to be. Here we find children mutated into tunneling worms, or seal-like beasts, or giant insects, or siren-like killers. A world where everything is sinking into the softening earth, a world where a wind of forgetfulness blows through the cracks in the windows, and more, more worlds flooded, poisoned, uninhabitable, strange. The sheer variety of Bell’s imagination is daunting.
One common thread is that nowhere, in all of Bell's worlds, does there seem to be a place where parents and children can coexist peacefully and happily. These are not stories of the past and future finding common ground, but rather of how progress is fractured, how the old and the new are often locked in a brutal struggle. Or, as Bell much more poetically frames this conflict, “Who are these next babes, about to be poured down upon the earth, come at last to wash us from off its tear-soaked face?”
All that's not to say there aren't moments of genuine love and hope, there are, and they shine particularly brightly in this book's darkness. There is plenty of despair to go around in this book, plenty of anger and doubt, but as fantastical as these stories can be, the emotions they contain are always genuine, both good and bad. It's clear that Bell approaches the page with love, and without reservation, and the result is explosive and honest and unforgettable.
Bell's prose also deserves mention – technically, it deserves a medal, but I'm all out of medals, so a mention will have to do. For all of the unpleasantness in these stories, Bell manages to invest the page with a great deal of beauty, and with a sense of meaning that keeps the book's violence from entering the realm of shock-value. For example, when Bell writes, “So at last their lesson in how to reap. And how to sow. And how, when there is nothing better, to plow the world back under,” he may be talking about a father making his children kill their bastard babies, but even though the subject matter is penny-dreadful, the writing is pure poetic inquiry.
I will say, by way of voicing some sort of complaint, as this is supposed to be a review and not a slack-jawed endorsement-gasm, that the baby-name-book titling for the stories (from Abelard, Abraham, Absalom, to Zachary, Zahir, Zedekiah) didn't really make much of an impact on me. When I remember one of these stories, I don't remember it's name, I remember it's content – and that content is indelible. This is a memorable book, and while the naming scheme has it's purpose, “For our baby, a name chosen from a book of names. Each name exhausted, one after another, a sequenced failure,” the names for each story don't seem to directly to relate to the story's content. They have meaning when considered as part of the book's thematic whole, but taken individually, these titles don't feel particularly important.
Bell also makes heavy use of the phrase “and then” to start sentences and paragraphs, which, in the latter half of the book, becomes more and more noticeable. On my first read-through that particular anaphora started to feel overused, but Bell ultimately contextualizes his use of “and then” in a way that makes the phrase integral to the overall narrative. So while Jonathan Franzen might not approve of this particular repeated usage, a dedicated reader will discover how a humble conjunction can become transcendent in Bell's capable hands.
“And then” comes to stand for the impossibility of giving up. Bell tells us there will always be an “and then.” No matter what cataclysms come, the world continues, “And then every morning, some new and constant sun, born upon the horizon.” The characters in Cataclysm Baby bear this out. Most of them never consider giving up, when they try, some find they are not allowed to. When one, for instance, attempts suicide, he is not permitted to die, but must live, even more broken than he was. Those who do find ways of giving up become less human than any of the monstrous children – like, chasing-off-your-mentally-handicapped-son-with-a-gun inhuman.
What does it mean to be hopeful when giving up isn't an option?
Like all the best art, Cataclysm Baby is a question without an obvious answer. It's also a damn good book, and you should read it.