Cataclysm Baby by Jena Salon

Sacrifice and selfishness in Matt Bell’s new novella, Cataclysm Baby.

Cataclysm Baby

When my children were born the doctor reached into their throats and cleared out the sputum in such a swift motion that I barely noticed I was supposed to be waiting for them to cry out. When the first child is born into the apocalyptic world of Matt Bell’s new novella, Cataclysm Baby, the father reaches into his baby’s throat to clear out the hair which is lodged there, the hair from “the furred windpipe,” from the matted esophagus,” but only his “wife cries.” And yet, it is not the idea of a still born, or quickly fading child that wrenches my heart, but rather the father’s reflection—as his wife begs him to “Pull. Pull. Pull,” and he desperately continues to clear fur from the lungs and stomach—that the child is not right for the horrible world into which he has been born. His body is not right, is not capable of survival, and yet, the father tells us, “what a coward I would be to stop.”

Upon reading those words I did not move on to the next chapter, but instead reread that page, just to relive the rhythm of the words, the desperation of the syllables, the terror in the moment of becoming a parent where you know that you can never save your children, and yet, know that there is no other choice but to try.

I am sucked in by this idea, swallowed by Bell’s poetic paragraphs, arranged into twenty-six sections—more elegies than chapters—whose titles move through the alphabet, from “Abelard, Abraham, Absalom” to “Zachary, Zahir, Zedekiah,” creating a virtual baby name book for the children born into this dying earth. It is a comfortable idea—despite the oddity of the book’s world—that as a parent you fight for your child, you mourn their fatal flaws, your heart breaks for their losses. Bell, I suspect, knows how comfortable that position is, because as the book progresses with more children born into this verging-on-apocalyptic world, he writes not just of parents desperate to save their deformed children, but of parents who, faced with the environmental disasters that they themselves have created “by the deforestation diet of my hungry wife and my own hearty appetite,” are willing to sacrifice their children for their own survivals. The parents in this world say, We have created these disasters and horrors which you inherit, but we aren’t finished yet. We still want to live, even if it means sacrificing you.

The children of this world are sometimes violent, sometimes sweet, often physically or mentally disabled, and time and time again the parents, after bringing them into the world deformed—causing their deformities—need saving by their children. It is unpleasant and uncomfortable to watch the father in “Fawn, Fiona, Fjorla” choose his wife over his child, and discouraging to watch the father in “Beatrice, Bella, Blaise” lock himself into his bedroom, first in seeming nonchalance, then in fear, as his daughters hack each other to pieces in the rest of the house. It is terrifying in a way to think that as a parent you could abandon your children to protect yourself. But in Bell’s world the choices these parents are making, these violent, selfish acts, are no different from their earlier decision to destroy the possibility of birthing healthy children into a healthy world in favor of drinking water from plastic bottles and cutting down trees and wasting electricity. Not that he would say it so blatantly; the chapters function in a way like prose poems communicating through implications, pregnant images, and tropes.

It would be easy to think that this is a book about how we’re destroying the world and our children’s chances, how we’re demanding that they fix it for us, that they help us survive. But what separates this book from an indictment of humanity is its tenderness. These parents, for the most part, are choosing themselves over their children, and yet, there is never a question that like the father in the first story desperately pulling hair from his child’s lungs, they love their children. In “Hali, Halle, Hamako,” the mother “kissed our daughter’s wet nose,” a moment of true affection before he tells us, “I bound tight her swaddling, stilling her wide limbs to her sleek middle, and then together we let our baby tumble from our hands, though the tall air, into the swallowing sea.” And more graphically in “Lakin, Lamia, Lakshmi,” a father severs his legs from his body to feed his wife and daughter. We watch this man, his wife and “gristle-spat” daughter feeding on his legs, his “best attribute,” and we wonder if this is a reasonable sacrifice. Love, Bell reminds us, is not as simple as putting someone else first, and humanity is not even close to black and white.

Bell is exploring not just why people are selfish enough to destroy themselves and their children, but how people can love so fiercely and so destructively in the same breath. In the town of “Nessa, Neve, Nevina,” where the children are born as goats, the parents sacrifice one of the children each time they fear drought. After the narrator’s daughter is stoned to death he tells us, “The other children bang their bodies against the slats, bleat with their mouths so different from ours, enough to distract us, to give us pause./ To give us pause, but not to make us stop.” It’s an uncomfortable question to try to answer: How much sacrifice is required of a parent? When is it admissible to love yourself more than your child, or in another way, to fear your own death more than the death of your child? Bell doesn’t propose answers, but instead begs us to consider that a real question exists here.

Ultimately, this lovely, intense book accomplished what many other non-traditional novels—and truthfully many traditional novels—fail to do: it moved me. It moved me in the way that resonates so strongly that still, weeks after finishing the book, I am pulled to revisit its opening pages and relive the moment where the father is pulling and the mother is yelling, and I know, I feel he would be a coward to stop.

Jena Salon is the Books Editor at TLR. Her most recent fiction and nonfiction appears in Bookforum, The Collagist, n+1, and Annalemma.

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