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

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