Each of the twenty-six short pieces that comprise Matt Bell’s Cataclysm Baby offers a different take on family life after the apocalypse. The opening paragraphs of “Abelard, Abraham, Absalom”—the first tale in the collection—offers an overview of Cataclysm Baby’s program:
The smoldered cigar, last of a box of twenty, bought to celebrate happier times, now smoked to keep away the smell of our unwashed skin, of our slipping flesh, of our baby grown in my wife’s belly, the submerged sign of a prophecy burning, stretching taut her hard bulge: All hair, just like the others, gone wrong again.
Fists of black hail fall from the cloudless sky and spatter the house, streak the skin of our walls, break windows above broken beds. The birth-room fills with air the texture of mud, with black birds forgetting how to fly, these crows and vultures waiting to make a nest of our child, and still I I focus, keep my eyes on shattered glass, on my wife’s pelvis tilting toward sunlight, toward sun turned the color of baby’s first stool, then the color blood.
We see here the vestiges of civilization, emblematic in the narrator’s cigar smoking down to ash; we see the mutated child, another hirsute monster “just like the others, gone wrong again”; we see the backdrop of ecological disaster, of carrion birds that can no longer fly yet nevertheless maintain a brutal Darwinian competition with humanity; we see a deathly world that seems to all but occlude birth. These motifs—the end of social order, the species-transformation of new children, the utter collapse of ecological norms—run throughout Cataclysm Baby, telegraphed in Bell’s precise, concrete style.
These short fables are also united by the alphabet: “Abelard, Abraham, Absalom” gives way to “Beatrice, Bella, Blaise,” and so on until “Zachary, Zahir, Zedekiah.” However, Bell’s apocalypse is discontinuous; each tale evokes its own paradigm, its own idiom of grief. He’s less interested in the invention and world-building that marks so much of sci-fi and fantasy than he is in tapping into the mythological undercurrents of end-of-the-world narratives. The short pieces in Cataclysm Baby unfold (or burst, or twist) like strange, dark fairy tales, each proposing another vision of collapse.
Even in these collapses, Bell hints at some sense of social order, suggesting the occasional dystopia, as in “Fawn, Fiona, Fjola,” where forced breeders exchange their child for a basement with an oxygen supply and the occasional shower, or “Grayson, Griffin, Guillermo,” where the narrator-father’s awful offspring dooms the rest of the town:
How many babies are born before we realize that all their children are boys? That our town’s women are the past, thanks to my one-note issue, to their deadly sperm making deathly pregnancies, taking each of their partners the way of their own mother: the blood-wet, breath-gasped, split-wombed, at best to linger, never to recover from the makings of their children?
Elsewhere, there’s pure horror, like in “Svara, Sveta, Sylvana,” a riff on parenting-as-grave-digging, or “Prescott, Presley, Preston,” where precognitive children sound out their own infanticidal doom. Horror generally pervades Bell’s language, as in the opening paragraph of “Isaac, Isaiah, Ishmael”:
Even at birth they were already damaged, their brittle bones opened and crushed, powdered by their mother’s powerful organs, her pressing canal: All those thin ribs snapped and splintered upon the stainless steel of the operating room. All those skulls crooked and cracked, all those twisted greenstick limbs. We lifted each child out from the mother’s body and into surgeries of its own, did our best to splint and screw our prides together.
Despite its horrors, there are occasional moments of (very) dark humor in Cataclysm Baby, absurd comic eruptions, like these lines from “Domina, Doreen, Dorma”:
A chrysalis? I ask my wife. A cocoon?
What’s the difference, she says, when it’s your child inside, when it’s your caterpillar?
I’m tempted to offer more examples, but I fear that I’m approaching over-paraphrasing here when much of the pleasure (is this the right noun?) of Cataclysm Baby comes from its strange familiarity, its uncanny contours, its ugly surprises. Bell’s cryptic details—shaved heads, missing mothers, night soot—allow the reader’s imagination do much of the work. This trust pays off; Bell is aware of the tradition he taps into and equally aware of reader awareness.
The apocalyptic tradition evinces in the two epigraphs Cataclysm Baby bears. The first, from the King James bible version of Noah’s apocalypse, notes “the creeping thing” — a bizarre expression, frightening, frustrating, and intriguing in its vivid vagueness. (Bell appropriates the expression later in one of his narratives). The other epigraph comes fromThe Road, Cormac McCarthy’s sad apocalypse story about a father and son who are “carrying the fire.” There’s little room for other characters in The Road and in a sense, Cataclysm Baby offers variations on the characters who might lurk in the margins of McCarthy’s story, or the edges of the other end-of-the-world stories we know. These parents simultaneously fear and fear for their children, harbingers of a world they will not survive. Recommended.
Cataclysm Baby is new from Mud Luscious Press.