LSU Press, March 2011
Reading Abbott Awaits, Chris Bachelder’s third novel, felt eerily familiar at times, like reading the inside of my head. The book follows its titular character—first or last name, we don’t know—one single-day chapter at a time through his summer break from teaching at a state university, during which he watches his two year-old daughter, awaits the birth of a second child, and lives a life of lawn-mowing, of frustrating and being frustrated by his wife, and taking care of small tasks around town. The university is the one I attended, so the town is one where I lived and to which I would gladly return, and I, too, spend summers watching my daughter between semesters as “an untenured humanist.” So as Abbott visits the landmarks of Massachusetts’ Pioneer Valley, including the “pet food store that is also a soft drink outlet,” I may well be reading an alternate version of my own life.
I mention that not to make this review about me, but Abbott, too, is defined by that kind of duality: faced with the arrival of not his first but his second child, his path is confirmed whether he likes it or not. Though his actions are those of a dutiful, devoted father and husband, his fantasies are sometimes of escape and often of difference, but difference tempered by that devotion. He’s in stasis, between one semester and the next, between being a father of one and a father of two, between the life he’s had only two years to grow used to and the new one about to begin. And he’s struggling to find grace in his upheaval, as when his daughter demands a living room somersault:
He prepares but then stops to wonder if what he’s envisioning is actually a somersault. He hasn’t thought about somersaults in years, maybe decades. What he is doing—or what he is preparing to do—does not seem like a somersault. It can’t be a somersault. For one thing, what he’s preparing to do—fling his body over his head to land on his back—seems extraordinarily difficult and dangerous. […] What he knows of somersaults is that they are simple, joyous, carefree exercises, very basic tumbling, and so he knows he is getting something wrong.
Abbott is alienated from his body and what it once knew how to do, and he’s alienated from who he was and who he wants to be at once—asking, at times, for his wife to remind him of what he remembers and whether those experiences were good ones or bad. He’s alienated from his wife’s body, too, and from what is happening inside it as fathers-to-be always are. But what makes Abbott compelling is his attention to this alienation as it creeps into each day, and Bachelder’s precise rendering of it through the constant self-corrections and contradictions of Abbott’s thought. We read, “Abbott would like to think he’s a good guy, and yet his wife is up there sobbing, and he’s down here with the superglue.” Later we’re told, “there is, in fact, not one thing the same as love, including love.” And getting right to the heart of his character, Bachelder writes, “The following propositions are both true: (A) Abbott would not, given the opportunity, change one significant element of his life, but (B) Abbott cannot stand his life.”
Whereas Bachelder’s earlier novels refracted the world through reality TV in Bear vs. Shark, and through American history in U.S.!, Abbott Awaits refracts the world through itself. It gives us the sharp details of domestic life, with Abbott a part of it all but apart from it, too, as he simultaneously relishes and reviles his life. He’s a flâneur on a domestic dérive, having abandoned his work for the summer—and that work is conspicuously absent, as we never see him write or conduct research during his break, and never even learn what his discipline is. But as Guy Debord wrote, “the dérive includes both this letting go and its necessary contradiction: the domination of psychogeographical variations by the knowledge and calculation of their possibilities.” And Abbott is all about possibilities, his alienation as much the product of worry as anything else: over the accidents that could befall his daughter, the secrets his wife might be keeping, and the omnipresent lost children and trapped miners on the nightly news and the web. He is made nervous by the possibility that a fetus can sob in utero, and a photograph of a dying Sudanese girl:
abrades him like a hair shirt. The inevitable substitution of his daughter for this Sudanese girl does not increase Abbott’s gratitude; rather, it warps the gratitude into guilt and sorrow, which are, like gratitude, insufficient to the problem.
His are the worries of a father responsible for an entire and growing family, not those of a man who regrets his life. Abbott is a man who pores over actuarial tables from his new life insurance policy, not in search of escape but to keep himself and his family safe, and this makes him a powerful literary figure of fatherhood.
There’s a fellowship of men and of fathers in this story that is recurrent but understated. Abbott shares an unspoken moment with a refrigerator repairman, and there is a constant, almost comforting hum of lawnmowers and power tools in the near-distance of his neighborhood. It’s a fellowship of men who are largely ignoring each other, of mutual alienation and unremarked unity, as on the morning when:
compelled as if by some binding treaty of biological imperative or perhaps The Farmer’s Almanac, many of the men in Abbott’s neighborhood rose early to clean the gutters. Abbott, more vulnerable to this kind of suburban pressure than he might care to admit, today borrows a ladder and climbs it roofward during the hottest part of the day.
These aren’t the familiar fathers of fiction, depicted through fear and absence or the rosy lens of nostalgia. Abbott Awaits is neither sentimental nor cynical, as complex in style and content as it is honest. At this year’s Tournament of Books there was a recurring discussion of “white male fuck up novels,” but perhaps Abbott Awaits, like recent books by David Barringer, Ken Sparling, Ben Tanzer, and others — is the opposite: novels that take the subject of fatherhood as seriously as they take literary craft, through protagonists whose fuck ups are neither so massive nor so severe as to dominate the story or derail their lives, just the everyday disasters of domesticity. Rarely, at least from the paternal perspective, have those high stakes and tiny glories been captured so well as they are in Abbott Awaits.