Matt Bellâ€™s Cataclysm Baby has been a tremendously difficult book for me to review. Iâ€™ve read it twice now and still find myself at a loss for words, though, admittedly, itâ€™s a loss in an extremely good sense of the term. [N.B. I typically donâ€™t reread books I really enjoy immediately after finishing them, but it seemed important â€” nigh wholly necessary â€” for Bellâ€™s latest.]
Iâ€™m not even sure how to begin describing this novel(la). Twenty-six beleaguered fathersÂ of animal-like children â€” arranged alphabetically from A to Z â€” tell a story for every chapter. The title of every chapter is a triumvirate of names that begin with the same letter (e.g. â€œAbelard, Abraham, Absalomâ€ â€” the names of the narratorsâ€™ progeny â€”Â their â€œsequenced failuresâ€ â€” who might lead humanity into the future, somehow carrying on in the face of more impending cataclysms.
The bookâ€™s most significant overarching theme is one of raising children in an aprÃ¨s-cataclysm world. Bellâ€™s concept alone is mind-boggling on so many levels, i.e. how does a parent teach his/her child to hope, to believe, to simply see the good in things despite the ubiquitous badness of their world? Or is it perhaps intrinsic in all of us to seek the light at the end of a seemingly interminable tunnel? Cataclysm Baby does a truly fantastic job of addressing all of these questions â€” and many more yet unasked â€” without doing so directly or formulaically (aside from the aforementioned alphabetizing of the childrenâ€™s names).
The book vacillates seamlessly between elegiac and poignant:
Like the other parents afflicted before us, we took her to the lonely end of the island, to the cliffs hung high above the breaking surge. There my wife kissed our daughterâ€™s wet nose, after which I bound tight her swaddling, stilling her wide limbs to her sleek middle, and then together we let our baby tumble from our hands, through the tall air, into the swallowing sea.
The reader also encounters a trio of daughters who are born ventriloquists, only able to mimic the their parentsâ€™ voices and those of other survivors of their home village slowly disappearing under flood waters:
It wasnâ€™t until the rains started that the oldest learned to mimic her motherâ€™s mouth-noises, and so it was she who first licked her lips at the dinner table and then repeated every sonorous syllable of my wifeâ€™s speech, the description of her day at the dykes, binding dams with all the other mothers recently pressed into service, no longer allowed to stay home with their children. Soon the younger two could do as well as the oldest, all of them speaking in their motherâ€™s many voices, matching the pitch and timbre that accompanied each shift of mood and mannerism.
Keep reading and youâ€™ll come across a different trio of sisters engage in truly disturbing â€” though beautifully described â€” sibling mutilation.
The older was the first to show us the scars, theÂ archaeologyÂ of her sister-scribed history, hard- written by their cutting, their stabbing, their sawing. The younger better hid her sisterâ€™s handiwork, bore well the bands of reddened flesh and puckered scars beneath shirt, beneath sleeve, beneath shorts and underwear.
Itâ€™s impossible to quote all of the truly memorable passages.
Bell rounds out the book on a solemn but fitting note as he writes: â€˜And then ashes to ashes. And then maggots in the ash. . . .â€™ in â€œZachary, Zahir, Zedekiahâ€, closing with:
And then at last, at last, the age of seeds.
And then. And then. And then.
And then every morning, some new and constant sun, born upon the horizon.
Cataclysm Baby is a brilliant, remarkable product of imagination. What praises could be sung about this book that haven’t already been sung? I imagine a lot of what I feel about the book has been expressed by countless others. Itâ€™s a book that defies categorization and generic pigeonholing. It does not want to be constrained by card catalogs or Deweyâ€™s decimals. Itâ€™s a chimera of rich and bold sentences, expertly woven together to create incredible stories.
Matt Bell is a man on fire!