Mudluscious Press, 2012.
This collection of prose vignettes are arranged in an abecedarian series with triplets of names for each letter. The stories all portray parents in post-apocalyptic, dying worlds dealing with surreal circumstances – mutated babies, dying gene pools, hostile landscapes. Even though the characters and situations might appear alien, the emotional struggles of these characters are very human. Parents worry about feeding their children, keeping them safe, keeping them happy.
Often, Bell’s choice of titular names resonates with some theme of the story. “Cain, Caleb, Cameron” is the story of a baby born with teeth, born ‘hungry,’ trailed by the mostly devoured corpse of its twin. In two short pages, Bell manages to tap into primal issues of parenthood as the parents must decide whether to continue to feed this baby:
At home, it is my wife who cries, while our firstborn sucks her tit fry, while his rows of teeth puncture her skin, pock-mock her areola. And how to respond when she complains of his always-hunger, when in an empty voice she begs me to allow the bottle instead?
But look at our son, I say.
Look how tall he’s grown. Look how strong.” (Bell 7).
Many of the children of these stories are born mutants, born different from their parents in some meaningful way, usually physical. The parents struggle to come to terms with their disappointment while also letting go of their increasingly unrecognizable offspring. In “Edgar, Edric, Eduardo,” the narrators live on the floor of a jungle, “too bloated to climb” to the fruit and freedom above (11). They send their child to scavenge for them, “teach him to climb, to imitate the monkeys that screech from the branches” (11). This encouragement is actually their undoing. At first, he brings them food, which is easy for him because he’s “made for this world to which we cannot adapt” (12). Later, though, the boy meets others, and the question becomes: for how long will he continue to remain with his parents in their dying situation? And aren’t these the issues all parents must deal with? Letting their children go off to succeed in their own lives while also wanting them to stay?
“Justina, Justine, Justise,” is one of the more striking stories involving a man being punished for infidelities by his children. “For the first crime my daughters took only my thumb,” Bell begins (29). For each transgression, another punishment. Bell mirrors this idea in “Yaretzi, Yasmina, Yatima” which chronicles children born as nothing but wind: ghost children who torment their father for his indiscretions and force him to build increasingly tall towers in order to reach his mother, presumably in heaven.
Many of these stories are more in the horror genre, in which parents live in fear of their children as they grow more and more unrecognizable. In “Svara, Sveta, Sylvana,” the father is so focused on his sick wife, he allows their rodent-like children to burrow free. He has no faith in these children; he believes they’ve abandoned their mother and is desperate in his faithlessness, which leads him to dig into the basement to follow them, while his wife is dying upstairs.
There are moments of real talent in these stories. Though some of the themes and situations do overlap, the majority of the stories hit home with striking effectiveness, and it’s impressive that Bell is able to genuinely surprise and delight the reader with his creativity (again and again) while working within the constraints of the collection’s structure. He also attempts certain structural tics with some of the stories – beginning each paragraph with the same word, for example – and these can distract on occasion, but when he settles down and just tells the stories, he’s at his best.
Matt Bell’s been making a name for himself through his formally inventive fiction, and this collection certainly adds to that. Mud Luscious Press has, likewise, been making a name for itself by publishing groundbreaking work for a few years now, and they’ve outdone themselves again. Cataclysm Baby is, at times, a touch graphic if you’re squeamish, but it’s a solid book well worth the read. I’m eager to read more of Bell’s work.