Making It New
Daniel Davis Wood reviews Caleb Klaces’ Fatherhood
In the opening paragraph of his début novel, Fatherhood, the poet Caleb Klaces goes all-out to disabuse his readers of the expectations raised by the title. Arriving as it does on the heels of Sheila Heti’s Motherhood (2018), Jacqueline Rose’s Mothers (2018), and the post-Kudos re-release of Rachel Cusk’s A Life’s Work (2001, 2019), the novel seems primed to appeal to those who’d seek a lyrical, introspective, ethically charged, analytical-theoretical memoir of childbirth from a man’s perspective. But then, straight away, there’s this:
In the tenth month of my wife’s pregnancy I put aside my lifelong commitment to avoiding harm, and purchased mousetraps. The rodent population had exploded during spring, and now the summer was so hot that young mouse families were fleeing the plane trees’ inadequate shade for the cool of the ancient riverbed which lay under the cellar of our rented basement flat. They emerged in our kitchen at night to lap at the spilled juice of the pineapple intended to entice our unborn child into the visible world.
Surrealism? Magical realism? In a way, readers have been warned: the novel actually begins with a pair of epigraphs, the first from Jorge Luis Borges. Still, it’s hard not to be taken aback by the idea of a ten-month pregnancy possibly induced by pineapple juice amidst a plague of vermin. Klaces does not share the ruminative, contemplative outlook of Heti, Rose, and Cusk, nor, for that matter, their darkness, their propensity for self-laceration. The second epigraph comes from Annie Dillard: “This is the one world, bound to itself and exultant.” Dillard’s words of worldly adoration in effect reply to Borges’ remark that “[t]he world we live in is a mistake”, “a clumsy parody” made all the more ridiculous by the reproduction of our species. How to conceive of the intermingling of these two opposing views of the world? Think of the likely result as a song of reverence for the beauty of human existence in its messiest, muckiest manifestations; imagine a verbal gorging on the gorgeousness of the animal aspects of our species. It’d be silly and sublime at once. That’s what Klaces offers.
There’s a narrative to Fatherhood, but it’s wafer-thin. A poet much like Klaces himself receives a grant to write a novel. His wife has a regular job, being the sole breadwinner of their household, and then they conceive a child. At the same time, the poet recalls, “[a] distant relative from the Russian branch of my family had died, unexpectedly leaving us a slice of the proceeds of his bedsit. The will stipulated that we use it to invest in a piece of England.” But their windfall still isn’t anywhere near enough to afford a property in London, so they start planning a life for their growing family somewhere outside the capital. As it happens, they decide to purchase a very particular countryside spot for a pre-fab home because, the poet learns, that’s where the bones of his mother’s grandfather, Leopold Clases, are interred. Not only will they build their future using an inheritance descended from Leopold, but they’ll also literally build it on top of Leopold’s grave.
Really, though, Fatherhood isn’t about the poet’s pursuit of these plans in any conventional sense. It is, as above, about the ways in which the travails of raising a newborn child make a glorious, hilarious mockery of a parent’s pretensions to personal dignity. In practice, this means that Klaces surveys two parallel pathwayss and sets out to follow both of them, alternating from one to the other as the novel unfolds. The first path leads him closer to his wife, the second to his infant daughter, so Fatherhood preoccupies itself with both the comedy of post-parenthood intimacy and the profundity of watching an entirely new identity come into being.
On the subject of sex during pregnancy, and sexual desire after childbirth, Klaces is sly and subversive, often walking a very fine line between the poeticisation of the body and the no-go zone beyond the limits of decorum. At first, while his wife is pregnant, the poet is reluctant to have sex at all, for fear that it wouldn’t be “polite to the baby”. Soon enough, though, as both of them find their sexual urges growing, the unborn child becomes for the poet an object of bodily attraction, a participant in a tripartite union, in a way that seems almost perverse in the thinking but not at all in the wording:
[W]e slotted together in ferocious agreement. I loved — I don’t know how to say this — the feeling that I was drawing the baby out into the world, that my desire was extending a greeting, to which an unseen body might respond. There were so many pulses: in the throat and in the taut, round stomach; in the places where bodies curve into themselves, fold and open. Each of us pulsed with the blood of the others. I counted myself, counted myself again.
And sex plays a role in the narrative drama as well. The poet and his wife incur the disapproval of their real estate agent, Terry, when, unbeknownst to them, he happens to see them from a distance while they’re having sex in their car, outside the show home they’ve just visited. The street is absolutely quiet. Their daughter has fallen asleep in the back. “We proceeded as if no one was looking”, the poet says, right before he embarks on a poeticisation of the way their desire was inflamed by their constraints:
The main pleasure of sex in the car was the shared fantasy about what we were doing. The sex itself was a distant point of physical intensity buried under a great many frames of reference. There were all the unforgiving contours of the car, then there were our bodies, which were mostly covered and even more inaccessible than usual, and there was the complicated pressure of the moment. … The sex seemed to need all the variously entangled pressures to push against but did not push them away; the sense of [parental] responsibility and the sex intensified one another.
And yet, almost in inverse proportion to the poet’s moments of closeness to his wife, Klaces brings the poet close to his daughter, too, only to experience a feeling of alienation rather than attraction. It happens right from the beginning. With his wife in labour in a hospital delivery room, the poet tries to calm her by stroking her face and kissing her, but when he nuzzles his head against his daughter, as close as can be, he is struck by this realisation: “I was surprised not to know who my daughter was.” Alienation, in a sense that respects the word’s otherworldly connotations, is what the poet feels in his daughter’s presence — she arrives as a “[g]rey baby on a rope”, almost an unapproachable extraterrestrial — and even as time goes on, six months after the birth, he remains unnerved by the “lingering startle” whenever he is alone with her: “I have absolutely no idea who you are!”
What emerges from the poet’s confusion is an exquisite refiguration of language. Unflaggingly, page after page, he casts about not just for a new lexicon but for new modes of expression with which to detail precisely, from an outsider’s perspective, the flickering of an independent human self as it germinates inside the fleshly encasing of an alien thing. Estrangement is clearly Klaces’ forte — finding ways of creating it anew, more than simply conveying the sensation of it — and Fatherhood both illuminates the strangeness of the familiar aspects of parenting and makes the strange parts even stranger by rendering them somehow strangely familiar. The return from the hospital, for instance, isn’t described from the poet’s perspective, or at least not exactly: it’s as if the poet has thrown himself into the body of the child he doesn’t understand, surveyed the situation from that point-of-view, then returned to his own body to report on what he has seen. “The baby arrives at the home of its home”, he writes, “which is its mother’s body. … The breast is a warm round part of [the baby’s] body that is strangely removable.” Similarly, when the baby has hiccups, the poet observes that “[t]hey act severely on her chest, offering her ribs, which take on the appearance of gills. … She seems to be resigned to them, the way the struggling fish in your hand will give way to an occasional pulse of contrition or resistance or dying. … [W]ith each jolt, the memory of sucking life [ie. milk] from a body [ie. breast] flows backwards.”
At other times, the baby, upset, “appear[s] to be eating each cry”, and later begins to speak like so: “Her lips kissed ghosts, then began to sync with sounds: zombie words.” When the poet cradles her, with her head in the crook of his arm, he again reports back from her perspective: “She is different from vertical, she senses, and different from hiccups but not different from the heartbeat she is curled around.” He sees himself through her eyes and laments his own limitations, his “adult male body… large and hard and milkless”, and although he tries to write his novel while also taking on childcare responsibilities, he finds he can’t concentrate because he can “no longer ignore her side of the dialogue”:
falling over (from horizontal position)
At a certain point, reflecting on the first nine months of his daughter’s life, the poet attempts to explain his estranged situation: “I felt I was new to the country. It was a feeling too precious to share, too claustrophobic to keep secret.” Of course he’s not new to the country: she is new to the world. But given his daily proximity to her, often unmediated by other adults, he is compelled to see the world anew — the better to understand who she is becoming — and this task requires him to renew his relationship to the language in which he records the formation of her world on the page:
For much of the first year of her life, my intelligence migrated from my head to my body. It was amazing, being so huge, so powerful and so emotionally dependent on the touch of a creature whose mind was mysterious. From when she woke us up to when I closed her bedroom door behind me in the evening, there was something on the tip of my tongue. …
Part of myself was outside myself; responsibility was connection. … [But a]s she approached her first birthday, outlines emerged. She knew she was different [and] adults, like outlines, come and go. She woke whispering bye. … In the back [of the car], she sweetened her face with ice cream. Dad lick Gina lick it, she said. Her most recent language game was to be a sentence’s subject and object both. Carry Gina carry. … Teddy bear was put out to bed but as hay hits the head it’s morning for Gina.
But remember: it’s not the poet’s job to write about his experiences with his daughter. He’s still in receipt of that grant, so he’s still bound to write his promised novel. And he does, in tandem with his diaries of fatherhood, but when his countryside house turns out not to be as structurally sound as he believed — nor as ancestrally significant — the diaries become the novel. There is a flood. His novel-in-progress is lost, reduced to a “box of wet notebooks”. Terry returns to apologise, to arrange for dehumidifiers, and to help recover as much work as he can. Finally, though, only two notebooks survive, both of them “diaries written in broken lines”. “If you have lost your novel”, Terry tells the poet, “you should make that your book… Fatherhood.” Of course he does, and without too much distress, because he begins to come to terms with his loss thanks to the change in perspective effected by his closeness to his daughter:
I told [Terry] that we had to see it through the baby’s eyes: through the baby’s eyes nothing was lost, because the baby was attached to nothing except people — nothing except people and one Vietnamese hat — and that was beautiful.
It’s unclear whether he really believes this, deep down, or whether he’s only trying to convince himself of it. But those words at least erect a scaffolding from which he can take a different view of the disaster — from which, in fact, he can decisively reshape his worldview by reassembling it around his daughter’s perspective. With this moment, this grace note, Fatherhood makes a powerful new contribution the autofiction of parenting. If it is less metaphysical than Motherhood, less explicitly political than Mothers, and less critical of self and culture than A Life’s Work, it is not a lesser book, because it is no less invested in rewriting the terms on which adults who are not parents might think about opening their lives to children. It discovers new possibilities for love in circumstances that seem to crush adult intimacy, and it finds a certain sweetness in the visceral oddities of meeting a newborn’s bodily needs. While Klaces dwells in detail on the exhaustion, frustration, and confusion of raising an infant while also maintaining a marriage, he doesn’t lament these aspects of the experience as obstacles to some more profound state. Instead he uses them as springboards into a reinvigoration of the language of perception, and self-perception, so that parenthood, as a shared process, is less about accommodating a new life than about learning to see with new eyes.