Life in Here: Questions of Parenting in Contemporary Fiction

 

Making Babies: Stumbling into Motherhood by Anna Enright. W. W. Norton & Company, 2013, 208 pp., $15.95 (paper).

 

Abbott Awaits by Chris Bachelder. Louisiana State University Press, 2011, 208 pp., $18.95 (paper).

 

Faces in the Crowd by Valeria Luiselli. Coffee House Press, 2014, 2014, 154 pp., $15.95 (paper).

 

This Close by Jessica Frances Kane. Graywolf Press, 2013, 200 pp., $15.00 (paper).

 

The Rise & Fall of the Scandamerican Domestic by Christopher Merkner. Coffee House Press, 2014, 232 pp., $15.95 (paper).

 

 

In 2012, the Irish fiction writer Anne Enright’s collection of essays, Making Babies: Stumbling Into Motherhood, became available in the United States. In the opening essay, “Apologies All Round,” a prologue of sorts, Enright says, “The reason I kept writing about my babies, even when they were asleep in the room, was that I could not think about anything else. This might account for any wildness of tone. The pieces were typed fast. They were written to the sound of a baby’s sleeping breath.” At the end of the brief essay, after apologizing to her children for “writing about their baby selves,” Enright closes with this: “My only excuse is that I think it is important. I wanted to say what it was like.”

The “it” Enright is talking about includes conceiving, birthing and parenting children. More interestingly, it also includes maintaining a sense of self—self as thinker, writer, drinker, smoker, conversationalist, sexually active adult—distinct from the baby, while at the same time tending to (and loving to tend to) the baby. It’s complicated for any parent, and it only gets more complicated when the parent tries to juggle child rearing and some other professional pursuit, to, as I’ll call it, “parent-plus.” In Enright’s case, she was making babies but also wanted to continue making fiction. As for many parents trying to lead a double life, it came down to time: there didn’t seem to be enough of it to do two things well.

The challenge of time as it relates to parenting is best depicted in Enright’s essay “Nine Months,” about the first nine months of her first child’s life. Structurally, the essay is as orderly as it gets, which is to say as orderly as time marching forward, always at the same pace. After an opening section subtitled “Day One: Ah,” the essay progresses in monthly installments: “The First Month: Dream Time,” “The Second Month,” “The Third Month,” and so on. Within these sections, there are always two subsections describing the baby’s progress and Enright’s struggle as a writer: “DEVELOPMENT (THE BABY)” and “REGRESSION (ME).” It’s an essay with a clear and logical structure, yet the content is not tidy—how could it be? It’s an essay about infancy. There are literal messes: tears, blood, wounds. There are also deliberate messes at the sentence-level: a two-word paragraph, “Besides. Look”; the snippet of a short story Enright begins and apparently drops; a paragraph that trails off, “And so on, and so forth.” The effect is not unlike visiting the home of new parents and seeing, in the midst of total chaos—dirty burpees, empty water glasses, diapering supplies and breast pump parts strewn about—a feeding schedule taped to the refrigerator door. Overlaying order on disorder is a parent survival mechanism.

From a parenting-plus perspective, “Nine Months” very clearly parallels the baby’s development as a person to Enright’s regression as a writer. In the delirious pleasure of the hours right after the baby’s birth, Enright feels like a superhero. Not only does she start planning when to have another baby; she thinks of her work as a novelist and decides that now, post baby, she’s a better version of the writer she was before. She’s going to finish her new book in five months: “Usually, it takes me three years to write a book, but that’s no problem: I can make babies, for heaven’s sake, novels are a doddle.”

In the baby’s fifth month, Enright has not completed a novel, of course, but work is going well. The child has reached a point where she sleeps a lot, which means Enright has time to write. But she is beginning to understand the toll becoming a parent will take on her work. By the eighth month, she is frustrated. She and her husband, Martin, and the baby have moved into a new house. Enright can’t work; she can’t unpack; she can’t afford childcare:

 

Martin stays late after work in order to dry out the flat while I unpack cardboard boxes—or try to, while looking after the baby—and complain, complain, complain. I have no time to work, I say. I don’t even have time to unpack. How does it always, always, fucking end up like this, with the woman climbing a domestic Everest while the man walks out the door? I would go out and look for a nursery, but I have to start earning before I can pay for a nursery. I have to start earning to pay for the house.

 

The section ends with a freak snowstorm, no milk, and labor of a different kind: “I put the baby in the buggy and, slithering along the path, I push her through the gale.”

Which leads to the final installment, “The Ninth Month.” In the “DEVELOPMENT (THE BABY)” subsection, the baby demonstrates that she has her own perspective on the world as she “looks out into the garden at the changing light. There is something about this scene that she understands and I don’t know what it is.” The subsection ends with the child, “the baba,” giving a speech about the garden, writing, if you will:

 

As far as I can tell there is nothing she wants in the garden, she just wants to say that it is there, and that it is good. She wants to say this loudly and at length.

The baba bears witness. The baba testifies.

 

In contrast, here, in its entirety, is the final “REGRESSION (ME)” subsection:

 

I have no notes for this month.

I unpack boxes. I hold the baby and love her, like a tragic event. She loves me like the best joke out.

On the day she is nine months old, I think that she has been outside of me, now, for as long as she was inside. She is twice as old.

I am the mirror and the hinge. There she is. She is just as old as herself.

 

There’s been a reversal in terms of storytelling and agency. The baby’s development ends with her adding her voice to the world; in contrast, Enright’s regression ends with her note-less, not writing, at least for the time being. And yet we’re holding the essay, the narrative about these nine months in our hands. For Enright writing does happen. Later. In a new form.

In recent fiction, we see many protagonists—largely women but also increasingly men—struggling with the same questions Enright considers in her essays. How does one parent well? How does one maintain a sense of self separate from her or his role as parent? How does one parent-plus? How do the time demands of parenting impact the shapes of stories that characters and authors tell? Finally, how does one accurately describe the emotional range of parenting? As hard as it is to convey how frustrating it can be to take care of kids (at least without sounding like a bad parent), it’s equally if not more difficult to convey the pangs of love, joy and tenderness one experiences as a parent without lapsing into sentimentality or boring readers. In an essay titled “The Glass Wall,” in which Enright imagines a glass wall dividing mothers from “women who simply were,” she writes, from the mother side of the glass, having long been contentedly on the childless side: “I look at women in their thirties with their noses pressed up against the glass, and all I can tell them (wave!) is that life in here on the other side is just the same—only much better, and more difficult.” And that’s really what it comes down to: in the books reviewed here we see characters who become parents, and life for them is the same, better, and more difficult.

 

One such character is Abbott, the title character of Chris Bachelder’s hilarious, realistic novel Abbott Awaits. Abbott is “an untenured humanist at the flagship campus of a state university system,” and the novel tells the story of a summer when he’s off from teaching and is the primary caretaker of his unnamed two-year-old daughter. His unnamed wife is in the third trimester of pregnancy with their second child and has terrible insomnia, so much of Abbott’s time is spent tending to the two-year-old while his wife tries to sleep. The “awaiting” of the title refers to the arrival of baby number two, who’s born at the end of the book. It also refers to Abbott’s return to teaching, the sweet relief of work outside the home.

Like Enright in “Nine Months,” Bachelder uses a time-based structure to organize the narrative. In this case, the novel has a brief opening and a brief closing, each marked at the top with a little alarm clock. Between these bookends there are three sections, “June,” “July” and “August,” and within these sections are numbered, subtitled entries that correspond to the days in each month. The overall design is like a diary, but the novel doesn’t read as overly intimate or confessional, largely because of the third-person perspective, as well as the lack of other character names besides Abbott’s. Even the wife and child are referred to as “Abbott’s wife” and “Abbott’s daughter,” making the novel feel, more than anything, like a riff on a medical chart—the sort of medical chart one would construct about himself, chockfull of details only the patient could know. As example, here’s a very short entry, this one from July 19, titled “Abbott and the Sticky Shit All Over the Fucking Steering Wheel Again”:

 

Gone are the daydreams of academic notoriety and glistening vulvas and whatever else. All Abbott wants right now—the only thing—is to be knocked unconscious by the long wooden handle of a lawn tool.

 

The diary-like structure is important because it is, in essence, the plot of the book: time marching on, day by day. It’s like Enright’s “Nine Months,” a slice-of-life story about parenting (and, to a degree, parenting-plus: Abbott can’t wait to go back to work) divided neatly into time-stamped sections.

As in the Enright essay, the time-based structure overlays order on the disorder of parenting. But in Abbott Awaits, the format also drives home two related points: parenting on a daily basis is repetitive and, in the present tense, it is slow. Its slowness is wonderfully represented in an early entry, June 6, “Abbott and the Paradox of Personal Growth,” in which Abbott lists the activities he and his daughter do over the course of a little more than two hours:

He reads a book to her six times in a row, wanting very much to set the author’s house on fire. The girl spills juice on the carpet, and Abbott blots it with his shirt. They look at a neighbor’s cat in the yard. They ruin a yoyo. They spin a propeller. They eat animal crackers. They play with a long-necked toy dinosaur whose wonderful scientific name, Abbott will learn later, has secretly been changed to a name not nearly so good. Abbott looks at the clock and calls out in pain.

 

One of the best repetitions in the novel is Abbott taking his daughter to drop rocks into a grate on the street. We first hear about this activity in the June 17 entry, “Father’s Day”: “Abbott and his daughter listen for the sound of the rock hitting water—a faint, high-pitched bloop that reverberates in the dark tunnel. The girl laughs when she hears it.” These exact sentences are repeated word for word in the final section of the book, in which we at first see Abbott blissfully back at work—“He walks across campus, and the day is so beautiful that he notices it.”—and then we see him at home, taking his child, now the “elder daughter,” on their standard walk around the block. Each time Abbott and his daughter are by the grate, dropping rocks, an older neighbor stops and says he or she used to do the same thing with his or her child. A “spry, gray-haired man, either a full professor or a retired full professor,” says, “Every kid in this neighborhood has dropped rocks in that grate. Decades of rocks. It’s a wonder the tunnel isn’t all clogged up.” An elderly woman, also “spry”and “gray-haired,” says she used to do the same with her children: “‘What a blessing,’ she says, and then she walks off.”

Much of what Abbott struggles with in the book is perfectly represented by Abbott and his daughter dropping rocks into the grate. In the moment, it is not what he wants to be doing. And yet he knows that in the not too distant future he too will miss these days. On that final walk around the block, Abbott ends up carrying his daughter home: “‘You’re getting so big,’ he says over and over.” He repeats the observation, as if in disbelief. Earlier in the summer, in the July 2 entry, “Abbot and the Disturbing Images,” there is this:

 

The one-year-old child in the home video that Abbott shot but did not want to watch tonight is doing some adorable things that Abbott and his wife had forgotten, even though they believed when they saw those things, only a year ago, they would never forget them. For instance, she is putting a ceramic serving bowl on her head. Abbott and Abbott’s wife watch without smiling. Abbott is stunned, and he does not know what his wife is. The family room, past and present, looks post-tornadic. That child, so alive right now on the television, is missing, gone forever. That ceramic serving bowl, a wedding present, has also disappeared. Abbott does not want to pick a fight. He does not want to spoil the evening with gloom. But how else to say it—mortality permeates home video.

 

Only a year has passed, and he and his wife have forgotten little, personally significant details. As was the case with Enright, we get the feeling that Bachelder, by way of Abbott, writes about the minutiae of parenting because, as Enright says, “My only excuse is that I think it is important. I wanted to say what it was like.” Bachelder says what it was like, day by day, with a two-year-old, and it’s at once hilarious and thoughtful and moving. Like the home video, it’s a text permeated with mortality.

 

At times, Valeria Luiselli’s swirling, layered novel, Faces in the Crowd, shares this “tell what it was like” quality with Bachelder’s novel. Faces in the Crowd is the story of an unnamed female narrator, a writer and a mother of two, “a baby girl, and a little boy,” who lives with her husband in Mexico City and is struggling to get work done. She’s trying to write a novel about a Mexican poet, Gilberto Owen. Owen spent time in Harlem and Philadelphia, where he’s buried; he moved in the same circles as Nella Larsen. The narrator discovered traces of Owen when she was a translator in New York City in her youth, and she became obsessed, eventually forging work by him, as well as imagining and inventing his life. She says of the night she first read Owen’s collected works, Obras, “it was the first night I had to spend with Gilberto Owen’s ghost. If I believed in turning points, which I don’t, I’d say that I began that night to live as if inhabited by another possible life that wasn’t mine, but one which, simply by the use of imagination, I could give myself up to completely.” Over the course of the novel, this is what the narrator does with some success: give herself up to “another possible life.”

Faces in the Crowd is constructed as collage, told in snippets of varying lengths. There are no chapters or sections, just snapshots stacking up. At the beginning, the story is grounded in the reality of mothering young children. Here is an early section in which the narrator very clearly states her problem:

M

Novels need a sustained breath. That’s what novelists want. No one knows exactly what it means but they all say: a sustained breath. I have a baby and a boy. They don’t let me breathe. Everything I write is—has to be—in short bursts. I’m short of breath.

 

By necessity, Luiselli’s narrator’s story is told “in short bursts.” Here she is in another early section talking explicitly about how the structure of the book she’s writing, the book we’re holding in our hands, is a direct result of her being a parent:

 

I go back to writing the novel whenever I’m not busy with the children. I know I need to generate a structure full of holes so that I can always find a place for myself on the page, inhabit it; I have to remember never to put in more than is necessary, never overlay, never furnish or adorn. Open doors, windows. Raise walls and demolish them.

 

Intermingled with sections about parenting, both its frustrations and its pleasures, like the charmingly odd things the boy says (“Do octopuses have little mobydicks?”) are sections about the narrator’s youth in Manhattan. In the beginning of the book, there are also interjections from the narrator’s husband, who’s purportedly reading pages as they’re being written, taking issue with the way he’s being depicted and getting jealous of the sexual experiences of his wife’s younger self. Gradually, though, over the course of the book, the story shifts away from the narrator, both her present life as wife and mother and her past life as single woman and forger, becoming instead the story of the poet, Owen. Increasingly the sections are narrated in first-person by Owen. By the end of the book, it’s sometimes difficult to tell whether the “I” is the female narrator or Owen.

With reference to the title of the novel, the narrator and Owen are each other’s “faces in the crowd” or, anyway, the faces he and she look for and imagine finding. Here is one such subway section, written by the female narrator but in Owen’s perspective—in which he describes seeing her reading a book he doesn’t recognize, but a book we recognize as his collected works:

 

In the opposite carriage, her head resting against the window, was the woman, wearing an olive-green cloth hat and a red coat, buttoned up to the neck. She was reading a hardcover book. By leaning forward a little, I managed to see the title, which, to my surprise, was a Spanish word: Obras. The woman felt herself being watched and raised her head—the enormous shadows under her eyes, her enormous eyes. We stared at each other like two animals dazzled by a strong beam of artificial light until her train pulled out.

 

If we think back to the night the narrator tentatively called “a turning point,” the night she “began . . . to live as if inhabited by another possible life that wasn’t mine, but one which, simply by the use of imagination, I could give myself up to completely,” what the narrator is describing is what it feels like to be a productive fiction writer, fully immersed in a story one is writing. This is a feeling she can’t summon at the beginning of the novel, burdened as she is with the intense demands of young children. She can only describe having had this feeling in her youth. But by the end, she’s back, feeling this way again. Her life and the life of her character have blurred. As readers, we were privy to the change.

And so the narrator of Luiselli’s Faces in the Crowd accomplishes something that neither Enright, noteless at the end of her essay “Nine Months,” nor Abbott, awaiting the start of the semester, dropping rocks into the grate, pull off as characters (which is not to be confused with what Enright and Bachelder accomplish as authors): she cleaves her mother self from her writer self and gets work done. Luiselli’s narrator fills the new form, her “structure full of holes,” a shape born of necessity. And yet to say that the separation between mother self and writer self was clean would be to simplify things. Even in the latter half of the novel, as Owen and his story take center stage, the demands of parenting on the narrator cannot be shut out. The final utterances of the novel aren’t made by Owen or the narrator, but by the children:

 

Beside me, in the white darkness, I hear a soft laugh, the merry chortle of a baby. I feel the blazer that covers my eyes rising, the heat of the room entering and shaking my body, the excited voice of a little boy beating my face:

Found!

 

As was the case in Enright’s “Nine Months,” which concludes with “the baba” bearing witness and Enright noteless, one gets the sense in Luiselli’s beautiful novel that this shift in authority is not entirely a bad thing. Quite literally, she, the mother, is found, but so is a new, more complicated form. If the story the narrator makes is a piece of fabric, the children and their demands, their voices, are necessary threads in it. To return to Enright’s observation, life with kids “is just the same—only much better, and more difficult.”

The final two books of fiction I’ll consider differ from Abbott Awaits and Faces in the Crowd in a few ways. First, they’re collections of stories: This Close by Jessica Frances Kane and The Rise & Fall of the Scandamerican Domestic by Christopher Merkner. Second, neither book is as blatantly about parenting as the previously considered texts, and yet parenting and its impact on characters is central to many of the stories. The questions Enright considers in her essays are taken up in compelling ways by many of Kane and Merkner’s creations. And, finally, though there are stories in both books that have at the center of them the very intense initial period of parenting considered thus far, many of the stories also deal with the later stages of parenting, ranging from when the children are adolescents still living under the same roof to when the children are adults in the world on their own.

Jessica Frances Kane’s This Close is made up of five stand-alone stories and two suites of linked stories, both of which follow parent-child relationships over the course of several years. Her work falls soundly into the category of psychological realism, the best of it resembling stories by Alice Munro, pieces we come away from feeling like we’ve gotten to know new people in strange predicaments in believable worlds. One such example is the three-person family—John the father, Elizabeth the mother, and Hannah the daughter—of the final three linked stories: “The Stand-In,” “The Old Beginning” and “Local Birds.” Together these stories chart shifting familial alliances, especially as they relate to the mother’s debilitating depression.

In “The Stand-In,” Hannah, a teenager, accompanies her dad on a trip to Jerusalem in her mom’s place. The story is narrated in third person, primarily granting us access to Hannah’s thoughts. At the time of the story, Elizabeth’s depression is a relatively new thing, and at the beginning of “The Stand-In,” Hannah’s allegiance is with her mother. She’s dubious of their tour guide, Rosa, who seems uncomfortably familiar with her father, as if she has a crush on him. But by the end of “The Stand-In,” Hannah’s allegiance shifts. She offers to leave her father alone with Rosa. On the phone, she tells her mom that her dad is a different person away from home: “He’s happy here.”

In “The Old Beginning,” it’s years later; Hannah has graduated from college and is working in New York, and Elizabeth’s depression is a familiar part of their lives. This story shifts between John and Elizabeth’s perspectives. They are newly arrived at the family beach house, and their cat, Hodge, which they normally don’t bring, has caught and hurt a mole. The story opens mid-conversation as John and Elizabeth discuss what to do with the animal; it closes with John thinking about having done the thing Elizabeth suggested at the beginning, letting the animal die. Actually, he let Elizabeth’s cat finish the job. Much of this story’s strength comes from its insights into the tangible ways John and Elizabeth love each other. He feeds the mole to her cat; she makes him coffee. But as was the case in “The Stand-In,” we also come to understand more about the parent-child relationships. Hannah isn’t an active character in “The Old Beginning,” this is the first summer she’s not joining her parents at the beach, and yet she enters each parent’s thoughts about the other. John attributes their having brought the cat with them to some need of Elizabeth’s, now that Hannah’s gone. Elizabeth thinks of the reason Hannah’s not there: because she wants to use some of her vacation time on friends. And she considers how she’s handling Hannah’s being an adult as opposed to John, who is “struggling.” Most significantly, Elizabeth offers this beautiful reading of their triangular parent-parent-child relationship:

 

Their daughter brought out the best in John. She had fun with him and he came alive around her; the two of them joked and teased and laughed. Between Elizabeth and Hannah, the atmosphere was more solemn. Hannah talked earnestly of self-improvement, vitamins, books, exercise. She brought her candles and special teas. It was exhausting, all this evidence that she was not living the way Hannah wanted her to. No one problem ever came to the fore, but all the historic fault lines would yawn slightly. Hannah said everything was fine; Elizabeth wasn’t sure. Their relationship was like a chalkboard that had been erased over and over again, but hadn’t been washed clean in a very long time.

 

Finally, in “Local Birds,” we see all three characters together in the same scene. Hannah, a writer and mother of young children, has organized an unwanted birthday party for her father. We know it’s unwanted because the entire story is told from his perspective. The party is at a trendy restaurant in town, and Elizabeth has surprised both John and Hannah by attending. During the party, we see the grown Hannah tending patiently to her mother. She checks on her, brings her a glass of wine, remembers that she takes her wine with ice. When Elizabeth decides abruptly to leave, Hannah arranges for a cab. John watches these two closely, happily: “This is perhaps the greatest surprise of his later years, the way his wife and daughter have come back together.” He doesn’t know how Hannah managed this “remarkable transformation,” how she became this “calm and helpful” daughter, attributing it to the passing of time.

It seems clear to me, though, that Hannah finally understands her mother and can empathize with her depression because she’s a mother now herself. In fact, in “Local Birds,” if one were to say that any of the characters was slightly unhinged, it wouldn’t be Elizabeth, but Hannah. Hannah over shares personal stories at the table; she drinks too much and, at the end, has to run out to be sick.

Kane’s stories are a pleasure to read for many reasons. She makes characters that are layered and deep. She creates evocative settings economically. Her short stories become full, real worlds that, when we’re finished reading, we still have in mind. And, as is the case in life, when we mull things over after the fact, we realize what was at work all along. Such is the case with Elizabeth’s depression. Nowhere in the triptych of stories is it overtly linked to mothering, yet that it is linked to mothering becomes clear in the end. Roiling beneath the surface of Kane’s stories is, among other things, a line of thought about mothers and fathers and how parenting is necessarily different for them, especially when it comes to establishing and maintaining a sense of self separate and distinct from one’s parent self.

 

The last book I’ll discuss here, The Rise & Fall of the Scandamerican Domestic by Christopher Merkner, is a collection of fabulist short stories. The premises are wild and strange; the writing is full of dark humor. In one story, a grown man haltingly tells his mom that he killed her brother while fondling his mom’s pet pig; in another, a new mother enlists the help of her husband to host a party with a guest list that’s all thirty-six of her former lovers; in another, a lake community tries to drive out the one family who still owns waterfront property by filling the lake with dead, rotting fish, fish the children play with, fish the husband and wife make love atop, and that’s just the beginning. In Merkner’s worlds strange things happen, and they happen quickly. In terms of parenting, what we see in Merkner’s work is dark lines of thought pursued, the sort of dark thoughts that flit through the minds of all parents—certainly through the minds of Enright, Abbott, Luiselli’s narrator and Elizabeth—when they’re tired, overwhelmed, spent.

One such piece is a very short story called “Check the Baby.” It opens like this: “The grandest joke about the baby is who goes up to check on him. Because whoever goes up always wakes him, and no one wants him woken, not at three weeks, not ever.” We’re told the husband and wife have started promising each other sexual favors in exchange for checking the baby: “The stakes are not low, I might add. I have 4,027 blowjobs coming my way someday, it’s not exactly clear when; and my wife has roughly fourteen hours of French-style kissing.”

The huge and exact number 4,027 is funny, especially since the child is only three weeks old, as is the overly formal “French-style kissing.” And yet Merkner’s story doesn’t linger on the laugh but instead keeps pushing forward. By the end of the next paragraph there’s a brief dialogue between the husband and wife. She accuses him of getting drunk so he can’t check the baby. She suggests he’s not interested in “the sex [they’ve] been bartering.” He says, “Is it really a form of fair trade, what we’re doing there with that?” And then, abruptly, the story shifts. Here’s the very next paragraph: “The grandest joke about the baby isn’t the sort of joke one laughs at. But when I’m offered sex at the grocery store by a strange woman, the entire child-rearing phase of my life looks rather like a farce.”

Again, the “entire child-rearing phase” of his life is, at this point, three weeks. It turns out the stranger makes this offer because she can smell baby on the narrator: “Can’t actually stand children, but she loves their smell, wants to eat the smell.” They keep passing each other in the aisles of the supermarket, so at first we don’t know what the narrator decides. The story ends like this:

 

I shudder, but I’m a little drunk on four vanilla bottles from Baking, so at some point I titter—

Yes, I commit adultery against my god, my wife and son, and every time the blowjobs and French-style kissing are mentioned I’m nearly vomiting, and I don’t mind saying my journeys upstairs to my silent-asleep son, just to make sure he hasn’t inexplicably stopped breathing, hurt.

 

A journey is, of course, a long trip. It’s not a word one would typically attach to walking upstairs. It is a word one hears attached in a clichéd way to parenting: the lifelong journey, etc. To use a rather grand, somewhat sentimental noun in a sentence about walking upstairs to check the baby is at once surprising and perfectly reasonable—the anxiety about your newborn child dying in its crib is the first of many anxieties parents experience on their lifelong journeys.

It’s in this way that Merkner’s outlandish stories become much more than just wild romps: beneath all the craziness, they point to truths. Parents of three-week-old babies do desperately want them to stay asleep, if they can get them to sleep at all. And the same parents likely check those babies compulsively. And all parents have moments, especially early on in their new roles, when they long for the easier childless days. This is one of the dark lines of thought that flit through tired parent minds: what if baby hadn’t been born? We caught a glimpse of this in Enright’s essay “Nine Months: “I have no time to work, I say. I don’t even have time to unpack.” If Enright had had an opportunity, in that moment, to return to her life pre-baby, she might have been tempted.

In Merkner’s stories, the things that tempt us come to pass. In “Scandamerican Domestic,” a father who snaps at his children and “may have called them idiots,” makes an over-the-top promise at bedtime to get back in their good graces: “I said I was sorry about earlier, I’d take them to Sweden in the morning.” And then he does, and it’s crazy and troubling. The dad and two young kids do a stint in a hospital, eating “intravenously behind thin and flimsy curtains.” The story ends with them sitting on a street corner in Sweden, the kids begging for food, shelter: “They said they wanted peace restored to their existence.”

In a longer story, “Time in Norrmalmstorg,” the narrator and his family attend a completely over-the-top birthday party for a five-year-old boy “the size of a fifteen-year-old.” Everything at the party is violent. The birthday boy’s father is showing off his gun; there’s a full-sized pirate boat on the back lawn that kids are throwing each other off; there’s a piñata and all the attendant anxiety and pressure that come with piñatas. The narrator’s four-year-old boy is made to swing, and he doesn’t do well. Then the three-year-old sister shouts, “Kill it!” That night she strikes her brother in the eyeball with the spine of a book, and the narrator, emboldened by gin, calls the birthday boy’s father and asks him whether he’s “worried about breeding violence in a world already rocked by so much violence, hatred, mistrust, and rage.” This sets off a series of bad events. The accused father beats the narrator to a pulp; the accused father and his wife shoot the narrator; the narrator, after months of convalescing, has his attackers over for dinner at his wife’s urging and ends up breaking their five-year-old son’s hand.

What’s interesting is that the initial impulses in Merkner stories are often familiar parent impulses—flirt at the grocery store while away from the spouse and kids; make a big promise to kids to atone for bad behavior; call another parent to task on the ways his bad parenting is affecting your household—but they’re impulses most parents don’t act upon. There’s a perverse pleasure in seeing them played out in Merkner’s worlds. And yet what comes when these impulses are acted upon is always more than bargained for: sex in the grocery store, hospitalized children, gunshot wounds, an intentionally broken hand. What comes is also absurd, and it’s this absurdity that makes seeing dark, over-the-top scenarios realized on the page somewhat of a release. Merkner’s stories act as a steam valve; they make us laugh. Parents need laughs.

And parents need insights into other parents’ minds. That’s one of the things these five books provide. Parenting, as anyone who has done it can attest, can be very isolating, which seems contradictory, of course. On both the normal days—changing diapers, filling bottles, cleaning messes, making snacks, reading board books, repeating instructions, repeating everything—and the abnormal days, it can feel like its just you and your kid alone on an island. Of course we know we’re not alone in this, but these books can make the feeling of being part of a community come rushing back.

For example, the first time I read Anne Enright’s Making Babies: Stumbling Into Motherhood, it was May 2012 and I was in Rome, lying on a hotel bed in a room with a window that looked out on an empty street, beside my feverish seven-month-old baby. He’d been fine at lunch that day, but by evening he was hot. There he was, tossing and moaning on the bed beside me, breathing fast. That night, it didn’t feel like we’d get past the fever. Sick periods with kids have that tacky quality. And so I lay beside him reading Anne Enright and very much appreciating the things she has to say, the way she says them: “My only excuse is that I think it is important. I wanted to say what it was like.” I jotted the circumstances of this reading on the back cover of the book: May 2012. In Rome, lying next to B with a fever, feeling his head without waking him. I wanted to remember this: the feeling of helplessness; the feeling of Enright helping a little. On different occasions, all of the books I’ve talked about here have given me a place to fold in my own experiences as a mother, like photos tucked between pages for safekeeping. Sitting alone reading what these authors wrote, what their characters thought and did, the ways they grappled with what it means to parent, made me feel not at all alone.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Foreword: Loners

It’s sometimes said that realism and social commentary are at the heart of British and Continental literature—Flaubert, Dickens, Eliot, Tolstoy—while American literature is replete with haunted Romantic seekers, loners and existentialists of various sorts, including some who yearn for a greater connectedness and others who are merely destructive. The causes for America’s early fascination with such characters may be obvious. For the first two hundred-some years of our existence as a colony and nation, we were in the process of settlement—underdeveloped and continually being both repopulated and threatened by waves of immigrants.

Harvard historian Bernard Bailyn’s The Barbarous Years describes the first century of America’s occupation by Europeans as a tumultuous time that was very nearly overwhelmed by flux, confusion, illness and mortality. Perhaps it’s natural that we should have latched on to the long-popular British genre of gothic literature, with its ghosts and loners. However, by the late 1800s, when Americans yearned for nothing so much as cultural stability and gentility, our great “social realists” continued to wander into the bizarre or ghostly or to follow Romantic yearnings. Characters became alienated even in a realistic world. In some of their most intriguing work, writers like Henry James and Edith Wharton didn’t seem to be just questioning the “real” but to be inviting Nietzsche into the drawing room.

This was even more the case in the twentieth century. The madness of the century couldn’t help but affect literature and most other art forms. And so J. D. Salinger writes about the lonely, haunted Holden Caulfield, grossed out by American materialism and phoniness, envisioning himself standing at the edge of a field of tall rye where children play, hoping to catch them before they fall off the cliff; or Jack Kerouac and his fellow Beat writers after World War II shun materialism in return for a cheap bottle of wine, a tank of gas and raw experience lived in the present moment; or Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man, at the end of his quest for an identity, finally gives up and lives in a basement room lined by 1369 lightbulbs, listening to jazz music and seeking visibility within himself rather than in the outside world; or Joseph Heller’s bombardier Yossarian of Catch-22 malingers in the hospital and goes AWOL, trying every way he can to escape the absurd world of even a “just” war. One could go on with examples: William Burroughs, Charles Bukowski, Philip K. Dick, Ursula Le Guin, Paul Bowles, Ray Bradbury; and Thomas Pynchon, who envisions the whole twentieth century as something between a paranoid’s nightmare and an amusement park of mass destruction. And as was the case a century ago, even our high realists can go to some pretty dark and metaphysical places: Vladimir Nabokov, Marilynne Robinson, Annie Proulx.

The authors of this issue present us with several loners and characters caught in existential dilemmas. In Jeffrey E. Smith Editors’ Prize winner Rachel Swearingen’s story “How to Walk on Water,” the protagonist, Nolan, has come back to live with his mother after a series of failures, beginning with dropping out of college. His parents divorced years ago, following his mother’s brutal rape and mutilation by a serial killer she met in a bar; Nolan has discovered copies of the old police reports, the details of which he can’t get out of his mind. As the story plays out, we see an ever scarier character who lives in self-inflicted sociopathic isolation, unable to discover whether the blame lies in the violence against his mother or somewhere else.

In “Miniature Lives of the Saints” by Anthony Wallace, Kathleen is a recovering alcoholic, mother of a young child, with a husband in prison. She works as a waitress in her mother’s luncheonette and tries to find stability. She has been sober for eighteen months, but the story catches her at a moment of crisis, during and after an AA meeting. It is a sensitive and insightful portrayal of her fellows in the storm and of Kathleen herself, who suffers from isolation and anger toward others, particularly men. M. G. Stephens’s “A Day in Court” describes a woman who also has drug problems as well as a fascinating life story. Eileen is a native Dubliner who left Ireland and lived and traveled all over the world in the years when she was married to a Cuban jazz musician, Santa. The story moves fluidly between her past experience traveling and an inauspicious rainy day in London, where she attends a tribunal for a job grievance that she fears will not go in her favor. The focal point of the flashback is her memory of meeting Samuel Beckett in Paris with her husband, when she was a young woman, before her downhill slide into addiction.

“Indígena” by Edward Hamlin presents another peripatetic Irish protagonist—Maeve Kelly, who runs a tourist resort in a town in the Amazonian jungle that has recently suffered destructive flooding. She meets a wealthy and enigmatic American who has his own fortified compound in an elevated area nearby. Their secretive relationship is part of this tale of past and present that reads like a finely tuned crime novel, involving the IRA, Baby Doc Duvalier, computer crime and an odd milieu of rainforest exiles.

Nonfiction Editors’ Prize winner “Ronaldo” by Andrew D. Cohen depicts the author’s friendship with his father-in-law, a Jewish golf aficionado who grew up in Chicago and by accident discovered a passion for the sport. A charming but undisciplined character, Ronaldo later moved to Los Angeles and fell into managing a driving range and golf shop where he stayed for decades—until being fired when someone else takes over the business. The essay shows us a character who is large hearted, with an affinity for losers and an inabilty to understand when he is being cheated. Poor with judgment and investments, he’s alternately lovable and difficult, yet always philosophical and self-aware enough to bear the consequences of his bad decisions.

The essay “Airhead” describes Brent DeLanoy’s decision to try to restore an old BMW motorcycle. DeLanoy’s secret hope is that the project will bring together him and his father. Even though he is married now, with his own son, and living in another state, his father is a better mechanic. DeLanoy depicts the ups and downs of rehabbing the bike, suggesting the sometimes lonely struggles of one’s midtwenties. In the process he discovers something that is both sobering and oddly liberating about his relationship with his father.

“Rash” by Nicole Banas is a gently comic narrative essay about a life stage and some of the ordeals that go along with it. Banas was a college student at the time of the events and had developed a chronic, undiagnosable and very itchy rash. During a time when she’s between boyfriends, she has an embarrassing one-night stand and later learns that the man has been arrested for threatening someone with a gun. He contacts her and asks for her help. Though she initially wants to distance herself from him and his legal troubles, her own ordeal has taught her a new degree of compassion.

In our Editors’ Prize winner Alexandra Teague’s poems, the lyrical speaker writes a series of letters to Phryne, the fourth-century BC courtesan and artists’ model, contemplating the relationship between the female body and its representation—the real and the artifice—and what happens, what gets lost or erased, in between. Imagining herself in a variety of contemporary locations, the lone speaker raises questions as relevant now, and just as unaddressed, as in Phryne’s time. In Sally Wen Mao’s poems, the Asian American Golden-age Hollywood actress Anna May Wong speaks from beyond the grave. Traveling back and forth in time, she recounts the roles she and her various incarnations are assigned to play—Mongol slave, Chinese maid, geisha, the minor and disposable, “taproot and crook.” “We were born / to beg and bow in this country,” she laments, all too aware that “When the show is over, / the applause is meant for stars / but my ovation is for the shadows.”

In his poems, Anders Carlson-Wee describes hitchhiking across the country, meeting and remembering other loners along the way. We see an ex-prisoner recount his murder, a mother wait at the food bank, an elderly man try to make it to Bergen, two brothers dumpster-diving, and a grandmother aging in the nursing home. We see the speaker listen alone to a rail’s tremor and consider briefly “the kingdom of heaven” before he is again on his way.

Kristine Somerville’s visual feature “Model Behavior: the Life and Art of Lee Miller and Tina Modotti” tells the journey of two of the twentieth century’s most important photographers as they stepped out of the shadows of the famous artists they inspired and sat for—Edward Weston, Man Ray, Picasso and Cocteau—to forge fulfilling artistic careers of their own. The two women lived big lives filled with glamour, adventure and struggle, working as photographers against the backdrop of some of the most hectic historical events of the last century. Both women were pioneers in the emerging field of photography, and both were complex, intelligent and at times bewildering to those who loved them.

This issue’s Curio Cabinet shows some of the work of Joseph Cornell, the American artist who popularized assemblage in the form of shadow boxes as an art form. Cornell was a personal and professional loner. After the unexpected death of his father, he left school to enter his father’s profession in the textile industry in order to support his mother, handicapped brother and two sisters. During one of his lonely lunch-hour explorations of New York City, he found his way into Julien Levy’s gallery and eventually into a career in art. Inspired by Levy and the Surrealists’ work that the dealer imported from France, Cornell began making collages and later shadow boxes. His pieces slowly became popular, but rather than attending exhibits or gallery openings, Cornell preferred to remain in his small white frame house on Utopia Parkway in Queens among the collection of trinkets and old prints. While he borrowed inspiration from three artistic movements—Surrealism, Abstract Expressionism and Pop Art—he remained outside any school of thought, working from his own imagination.

 

 

Speer Morgan

A Day in Court

These men looked as rumpled and sleazy as characters out of a Raymond Chandler novel. Talk about Jarndyce v Jarndyce, nothing had changed in this world in over a hundred and fifty years, although the tribunal itself was a product of the postwar era, instituted in a time when the working poor were given some legal rights. Eileen had the same thought entering the building that she had had the week before: she was entering the graveyard of justice. She had girded herself as she turned the corner off Fleet Street and came down to the square, and during that walk she had told herself not to be fooled or become overly optimistic. This was not a fair hearing. The appeal’s tribunal had already dismissed her claim in November, exactly half a year ago, writing that she had no reasonable grounds to succeed with an appeal. This was going to be a formality, one last chance to make her point about what had happened and how the lower court’s judgment contained errors of law. It was going to be Eileen’s last aria.

This story is not currently available online.

Indígena

It wasn’t the guns that bothered her but rather the heat, which was the true killing machine. Guns had always been with her; they figured in her earliest memories. Her father dismantling a revolver on the kitchen table as she picked at her greasy Ulster fry. The RUC boys armed to the teeth outside the greengrocer’s smashed door, outfitted for war in a dank city street. High-powered rifles with sniper scopes laid out in the boot like firewood, or cradled like infants as her uncles stalked through the muddy darkness along the right-of-way. Guns were cityscape.

This story is currently not available online.

 

Airhead

I just wanted to stare at it for a while, to sit on it and make engine noises. I was scared of it, though I wouldn’t have admitted it at the time. The bike was too heavy for my scrawny ten-year-old body. My old Bell helmet rattling on my head, the motor running, the whole bike vibrating beneath me, I asked only to hang on and not tip it over as my family looked on. I rode in tentative circles, barely cracking the throttle. Round and round I rode in first gear, my father jogging beside me, shouting directions. Then, gear shifts. Then farther up the street, until my father was on his Harley, riding next to me, goading me past our stop sign and onto the open road, down to the Pic-Quick for a candy bar. I was soon bopping along behind my father all over town, unlicensed, free.

This essay is not currently available online.

Rash

I was usually on the dean’s list, but that semester in my senior year things had nosedived. It began with a bout of influenza in January, followed by a sprinkling of angry red welts across much of my body. The rash was intensely itchy, and both a family physician and a dermatologist were confounded by its persistence. Antihistimines, steroids, prescription creams—all had proved powerless against the rash, which crept to new crevices on my body each week. An allergist at the university hospital advised me to stop eating wheat and soy, and then dairy, before finally saying he thought the rash might be a sign of an autoimmune disease, maybe lupus. He prescribed antimalarial drugs in addition to the other pills and creams and shook his head each time he scraped a line down my forearm and watched it swell.

This essay is not currently available online.

 

Miniature Lives of the Saints

Everybody knew her as Gretchen, but that wasn’t her real name. That was just what her brother Tommy called her—had called her one time when they were teenagers—and it had stuck. Gretchen Fetchen is a character in The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test, which is a book about a bunch of hippies in the ’60s taking acid and traveling around the country being irresponsible. Everybody called her Gretchen. A lot of people didn’t even know what her real name was. Sometimes even she forgot, only for a second, less than a second. But even so. Her real name was Kathleen.

This story is not currently available online.

Ronaldo

Winner of the 2014 Jeffrey E. Smith Editors’ Prize for Essay.

My wife and I have this running joke about my father-in-law, Ron, a blind-in-one-eye, seventy-nine-year-old retired golf pro with a penchant for canines, Carl Jung and awful stock picks—about how he might have survived the Holocaust if he’d been there. In one version he’s waiting in line for the gas chamber, working on his golf swing, shifting his hips, talking to himself as he tends to, when he draws the attention of an SS guard and his trusty German shepherd. “Vat do you sink you are doink, vermin?” screams the guard, who happens to be a long-suffering golf fanatic, over the barking, lunging dog. Before long, Ron is critiquing his swing (“No legs! You gotta move the legs!”), analyzing his psyche (“You’re afraid. That’s why you’re not bringing the club head back.”), even offering up a casual analysis of the Führer himself (“A few issues there, wouldn’t you say?”), all the while cozying up to Oskar, his new favorite dog.

This essay is not currently available online.

How to Walk on Water

Winner of the 2014 Jeffrey E. Smith Editors’ Prize for Fiction.

I’ll show you the backside of your soul. That’s what Arvel Wilkes told Nolan’s mother, Sigrid, the night of the attack. Nolan had found a manila envelope with a smeared carbon copy of the original police report inside. She had been just twenty-six when it happened, younger than Nolan now. The report didn’t note what his mother said in response to Wilkes, just that there were “minimal defensive marks on victim.” They had been living on the north side of Seattle at the time, his father away on a business trip, Nolan asleep in his crib.

This story is not currently available online.

Poetry Feature: Sally Wen Mao

Featuring the poems:

  • Anna May Wong fans her time machine
  • Anna May Wong blows out sixteen candles
  • Anna May Wong meets Josephine Baker
  • Anna May Wong makes cameos
  • Anna May Wong rates the runway