Thursday, May 24, 2012

Courtneybelle's Freaky-Awesome Exploration of the Many Hyphens in Matt Bell's Cataclysm Baby

Some of my PBR book club compatriots know that I tend to notice the words that authors choose. Grammar is also fascinating to me.  So, I'm actually surprised how long it took me to notice Matt Bell's religious use of hyphens in Cataclysm Baby. Evidently, I was the only one who was distracted by this, let alone took the trouble to obsessively highlight them.

At first I considered the author's hyphen use an affront. But quickly I realized that Matt Bell is quite masterful, however prolific, in its use. Other authors are wasting opportunity by not abusing it as readily as he. All other authors must be envy-greened.
So here's the somewhat-jokingly requested list.  I personally love some of the imagery these create. And BONUS! My favorites (like blood-wet, hurt-drowned, cougar-hearts, and hope-bloodied) double as goth band names. 

right-birthed x2
beast-headed x2
daughter-voice x6 (at least)

Thursday, May 17, 2012

"These fragments I have shored against my ruins" : Richard Reads Matt Bell's Cataclysm Baby

There's a long stretch of Lynch's Eraserhead where Henry is trying to sleep and he's listening to the terrible mewling/wheezing noises of his deformed monster-baby and you can feel the seething hatred of this beast (which he will eventually destroy).   That unsettling feeling is conjured in parts of Matt Bell's post-apocalyptic vignettes in which fathers speak of their offspring, but just as often there is a powerful attachment to these children, one which is always on the verge of being severed as they (sometimes literally) float away into a new and terrifying world. 

Cataclysm Baby is nothing if not odd.  With no real characters to speak of (just nameless paternal voices), it's hard to develop any kind of real emotional attachment, and I suspect the best bet is to read this short work straight through in one setting: forced immersion into this painful world.  I didn't quite manage that--my reading is scattershot--but nonetheless I was able to get caught up in its bleak vision, not that I really understood much of it (in fact, I'm not even sure if this is the same post-apocalyptic world evolving over time or just a bunch of different imagined scenarios?).   Also, after reading stretches of the work, I found myself unable to specifically recall many of the tales and narrators.  At the same time, everything circles back to tone here, and on that level it's pretty well-sustained. 

A recurring theme that I found particularly interesting is the idea of devolution, as the post-apocalyptic offspring seem to transform over time into animal states.  One tale that does stick out to me is the "beast-headed" men running in a pack and finding no human women to mate with:  "...they cannot give us human children, cannot keep our lines from drifting toward wildness.  They cannot, and if we complain they cry bitterly, for they do not see why our children should look only like us, why they should not also take after their mothers" (71).

Is there ultimately any hope in this world?  Maybe.  Bell can't resist ending with the essential post-apocalyptic trope of new life emerging:  "And then at last, at last, the age of seeds."  (105).  But even within the earlier stories there are seeds of love amid the harsh conditions:  fathers who must allow their sons to be killed to save the rest of the community; fathers who try to preserve their offspring's memory by carving their faces into trees "so that I might practice falling in love with them, as some father must have done, so long ago" (90).

Random observations:

Although there's no obvious humor to be found among these vignettes, some of them are sort of comical if you think about them out of context, such as:  Upon reaching adolescence, kids suddenly fill with "gas" and float away!

I'm curious to hear what the parents in our book club think about this work.

Another work that came to mind while reading Cataclysm Baby was Katherine Dunn's Geek Love, one of my all-time favorite novels.  Dunn's book is about a family of circus freaks who have been deliberately deformed by their parents to be part of the carnival.  Geek Love might scar you forever, but you won't ever forget it (and apparently Dunn has never been able to produce another book after writing this piece).

I'd like to teach a class on post-apocalyptic literature at some point.  Michael Chabon has a great essay on the genre but I'm not sure it's fully available online anywhere these days:  here is a bit of it.

Eraserhead photo: Henry and his baby

Karen asks "Where is the love?"

Although our new book Cataclysm Baby is a short novel, it packs a punch with its small doses of horror with each chapter.  The book shows what life is like generations after an apocalypse. The physical environment is intolerable and toxic, including wet conditions and flooding. Birth defects occur. People feel isolated.  Parents participate in the unthinkable.
As Steve points out in his blog post, the author uses the premise of an apocalypse to “catch a true glimpse of the kind of lives some in this world lead by contriving an apocalypse.”  Some chapters in the book are like the real events in New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina hit the city. Scenes of dead bodies floating in flood water, abandoned cars, and people stranded on rooftops seem a direct inspiration.  Others include living conditions in the Superdome where deaths occurred and the standoff at the Crescent City Bridge 
People evacuating to the Superdome after Katrina

People stranded on a rooftop after Katrina

Dead body in floodwaters after Katrina

Like the parents in the book, a doctor and nurses caring for patients at Memorial Hospital after the hurricane resorted to acts that seem horrific.  As flood water continued to rise around the hospital, conditions for care became bleak. It became clear during patient evacuation that not all of the patients could be transported, especially the very sick. As the remaining patients' health deteriorated and  no rescue was available, a well regarded doctor and two respected nurses hastened the deaths of some of these patients by injecting them with lethal doses of drugs.  Mortuary workers eventually carried 45 corpses from Memorial.
Where is the love in this book? There is none to be found, which probably breaks the hearts of the sentimental faction of the PBR Book Club.  
"Show Me  Love"

Thursday, May 10, 2012

Time of the Cataclysm Wolf-Baby

Having just finished Matt Bell's brand new novel(la?) "Cataclysm Baby" I must say that it is, after all, a true success.

I doubted so on The Road there, but as I progressed through the miring half-light, I went from disdain at the easy pickings of just creating stark creepy snippets to begrudgingly admiring his ability to control his relentlessly desolate texture with such surgical precision - yet texture alone does not the success make, in my ledger, be it fiction, cinema or music, no matter how sexy or groundbreaking or heart-shredding.  By the end, the one-too-many episodes of emotionally icy and despairing beauty mounting up or the grim humor I was sometimes able to connect between the episodes' baby names and their story content was still not what made me really like this work.

It was the aggregation of all the bits and pieces and the mastery on sum which with Bell paints a vital and visceral warning for us while intertwining the dread and fear-driven ignorance with love, sacrifice and compassion. It works the best for me as metaphor and allegory. When I was younger, the phantasmic fantastical textural creations would have been enough for me (and they are surprisingly similar to inspirations I used to use in musical collaborations) but nowadays that alone wouldn't cut it.

The figurative power of this work affects me in three ways - one is the tried and true post-apocalypse effect which evokes the now-cliche reaction "oh we never knew what we had until we threw it all away" (be that family, love, life, freedom, advanced civilization, or a functioning earth to live on). The second is simply as disturbing and riveting abstractions of child-rearing and parenting, of families and relationships.

But Cataclysm Baby most strongly works for me by pulling a clever little trick that one of my favorite directors Michael Haneke has up his sleeve and employs most skillfully in "Time of the Wolf" - he wants to make those of us living a relatively comfortable existence catch a true glimpse of the kind of lives some in this world lead by contriving an apocalypse (the explanation isn't even important and is typically omitted, as Bell does here) to plunge us into a horrorful other-life before we have a chance to censor any implication through our defensive filters. The dreaded Cataclysm is already here. But only for some.

In that sense, this observation may constitute spoilerage and if so I apologize after the fact. But this smallish gem is so convincing and urgent in its totality I personally feel the ploy enhances the magnitude and magic rather than undermines any enjoyment or lessons gleaned on the part of the reader. And if you end up snatched by its creeping scalpel claws as I was, I highly urge a thorough exploration of Haneke's filmography for dessert!

Thursday, May 3, 2012

Hipster Trifecta and Quasi-Irony

Chapter XV of Portland author James Bernard Frost's Hawthorne Books "A Very Minor Prophet" was probably my favorite. There wasn't as much focus on religion or politics (which admittedly were primary elements of the book) but there was one of the locally legendary nicknamed houses with creepy stuff going on in the basement, and there are wonderfully awkward lurches forward with the love story arc.

And I think by this point in the work I'd hit two hard to resist references: a black The Residents t-shirt and Zia of the Dandy Warhols. The trifecta was later complete with a tertiary "Sweat Loaf" quote.

So yes, while it may not be a perfectly realized work - one triggered by the shock and passion of those years following 9-11 but lingering into a detached aftermath by a years-later publication date - it is a loving, not-yet-jaded tour of Portland and in particular the counter-culture scene and it was actually that aspect and the various scenes and settings, as well as the rhythm and pacing of the story that I enjoyed the most.

And for me the most resonant theme by far was the battle between irony and earnestness. This infuses so many layers of our culture, from politics to entertainment, from what it means to be hip versus what it means to be "good people". Get it wrong and you may get your eardrums perforated with a massive gong hit blasted through a steroidal PA system.

So, what would you do if you were naked, injured, and dripping wet and wandering lost through the subterranean corridors of the Bug Cave and kept passing a room with a buzzing sound on the other side of the door?

And did I mention there was a Zia reference in this work?

Tuesday, May 1, 2012

PBR Book Club Gets Its Skype On With James Bernard Frost and Announces Its May Selection: Matt Bell's Cataclysm Baby

We offer a big shout-out today to Portland's Hawthorne Books for helping us organize last night's Skype chat with A Very Minor Prophet author James Bernard Frost and an even bigger shout-out to Jim for taking the time to chat with us last night (even though he WAS drinking the wrong beer during the chat!).

Topics discussed:

--how autobiographical is this thing anyway? (answer:  not as much as you'd think).

--the importance of Fayetteville, Arkansas as the origin of many religious quests.


--the extreme difficulty of reading an unusual manuscript such as this in electronic formats and whether or not it should even be attempted.

--dwarf preachers and why they are important.

A good time was had by all and we look forward to the film version of A Very Minor Prophet (please, please, let it star Peter Dinklage!!).