“In a world that’s dying, isn’t this all sort
Reviewed: Cataclysm Baby by Matt Bell
(Mud Luscious Press, April 2012)
Every month, Indie(cent) Exposure will review a book from a small, independent publisher. This month's selection is from Mud Luscious Press, an online quarterly dedicated to publishing “raw & aggressive works by writers unafraid to destroy & re-suture words.” Mud Luscious Press began as an online journal in 2007 and now has a dozen novel(la) titles, two anthologies, and includes the imprints Blue Square Press and Nephew. Mud Luscious is headquartered in Fort Collins, Colorado.
In Cataclysm Baby, a weird and lovely novella, Matt Bell arranges twenty-six flash fictions in alphabetical order to create a sort of post-apocalyptic baby-name book. I know what you’re thinking: Again? But this isn’t your typical end-of-the-world abecedarium. The twenty-six fathers in Bell’s book have to worry not only about starvation, violence, and all the classic apocalyptic problems; the greatest challenge these parents face is contending with their children, whether they be malevolent sirens, taunting clairvoyants, or, worst of all, innocent kids who must be protected.
While Bell’s dads still have to cope with classic social realist problems—the one recurring problem is how to deal with the empty nest—they must also contend with less common issues like: What do I do when my daughter, who was born a caterpillar and has long since sprouted wings and flown off to protect my wife and I from the ravenous locust herd at the gates, comes back to eat after all the locust are gone?
My wife and I at the nursery window, watching her leave. Watching her join the town’s other golden children, together flying a sky clouded shut…
The next time I see her, how big she’s gotten: My only daughter, all grown up.
And now her string of milky eggs across the window.
Now her own caterpillars, hungry for what remains.
Bell’s often verbless syntax combines with a slightly otherworldly language to create an atmosphere of unfamiliarity, one not unlike the experience of facing a foreign world: “And then it comes, becomes: A baby boy, born just like the others. Hair on cheeks, on forehead, on lips and tongue. Inverse our own nakedness. Shame in equal and opposite amount.” While it can take a little while to adjust to the prose, like any good book, Cataclysm Baby teaches you how to read it very quickly, and by the time I got to the “C” chapter, I had totally acclimated to the rhythm and rules of the language.
The individual stories in Cataclysm Baby aren’t narratively connected. Instead, the accumulation of chapters builds a thematic core centered around ecological disaster, the melting barrier between animal and human existence, and, most importantly, sacrifice and loss. But that’s not to say that the individual chapters do not carry riveting plots of their own.
In “Justina, Justine, Justise,” the narrator’s daughters punish him for cheating on their mother: “For the first crime my daughters took only my thumb.” The narrator tries “to be sneakier” and to “change [his] clothes away from home, so that they might not smell the other upon [him],” but the daughters aren’t fooled, and for each transgression, they put him on trial: “One daughter for a judge, one for prosecution, and one for the defense.” The narrator’s sneakiness brings the father to wake, midway through the chapter, “with my hand gone, divorced from my wrist, a tourniquet tightened around my stump and my mouth cottoned with morphine.” In this utterly violent story of a father losing more and more of himself (and his daughters) with each infidelity, we see how well Bell creates familiarity in his alien landscapes. Throughout Cataclysm Baby, we recognize our own world in an earthly dystopia in much the same way we can pick out the smudges of newly erased letters on a blackboard.
The richness of Bell’s novella lies in its versatility—each individual fiction can be read as a fantastical story or an allegory for parenthood. What do you do when your children must destroy you in order to self-actualize? How do you live with the guilt of infidelity knowing that your daughters see everything and will punish you? How do you let go of your children, knowing that losing them is the only way to save them? In “Quella, Querida, Quintessa,” the last question becomes quite literal, as a daughter rapidly fills with gas that will float her into the heavens only if her parents (literally) cut the cord tethering her to the ground. If they do not let her go, she will never reach the heights that only her generation ascends to.
“Greyson, Griffin, Guillermo” asks one of the most difficult questions of the book: How do you deal with the knowledge that you’ve raised bad children? “Every wife and daughter and matron and maiden from fourteen to forty-five swelled with my sons’ oft-spilled spunk,” says the narrator of these three womanizing sons. The young men take great joy in their ability to seduce every woman in the town, and even after cuckolded husbands start leaving the illegitimate offspring at the sons’ door, the boys are still pleased with themselves. “This is how you start a dynasty,” one says. They do not understand the consequences of their actions and remain “unfeeling for what they have done.” Their father walks out on his porch and sees “the rows and rows of abandoned twins and triplets, the exponential crop of my line.” Before the brutal conclusion, in which the father makes the sons take up the scythe and the shovel to reap what they’ve sown, the third son delivers one of the knockout lines of the book: “In a world that’s dying…isn’t this all sort of beautiful?” Amen.