Matt Bell Chats with Biblioklept About Apocalypse, Hairy Infants, Cures for Writer’s Block, and His New Book Cataclysm Baby

When an advance copy of Matt Bell’s new novella-in-stories Cataclysm Baby showed up in the mail a few months ago, I was immediately intrigued. Post-apocalyptic fiction is right up my proverbial alley, and the book’s conceit—Bell’s site describes the book as “twenty-six post-apocalyptic parenting stories, all narrated by fathers, each revealing some different family, some new end of the world”—seemed refreshingly different than the “family issues” novels that publishers tend to send my way. I was not a jot disappointed in Cataclysm Baby either; in my review I write:

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.

Matt was kind enough to talk to me over an exchange of emails. In the margins of our exchanges—those little quips that aren’t part of the interview proper—I found Matt to be a very nice, generous fellow. I enjoyed talking with him.

Matt teaches writing at the University of Michigan; he also works for Dzanc Books, where he runs the literary magazine The Collagist.

Cataclysm Baby, new from indie Mud Luscious Press, is Matt’s second book after the collection How They Were Found.


Biblioklept: Cataclysm Baby is a highly structured work that follows a clear pattern. Where did Cataclysm Baby begin? At what point did you start using the alphabet as an organizing principle for apocalypse family fiction?

Matt Bell: The writing of Cataclysm Baby began with its first story, “Abelard, Abraham, Absalom,” although I didn’t have that title for it then: I was just starting off to write a standalone short about this father, who was describing the birth of his son in what turned out to be fairly grim circumstances, and I didn’t know anything more than that—as is often the case with me, I was probably more interested in the voice than in the content or the character, at least at the very beginning. At some point in that draft, I wrote an early version of these lines: “For our baby, a name chosen from a book of names. Each name exhausted one after another, a sequence failure.” It was that suggestion of the baby name book that offered up that narrative’s title, and then alphabetizing as an organizing principle for more stories. Before that, I hadn’t intended to write a series, or this novella that they became, but the book’s structure was held in those lines, and that structure ended up driving a lot of the rest of the book’s drafting, by giving a shape for the other narratives to attach to.

Biblioklept: “Abelard, Abraham, Absalom” contains a horrifying image—the baby is born with a “furred esophagus,” and the dad must pull a hairball from the baby’s mouth. The following stories build on this horror: mutant offspring, forced-breeding, still birth, monster birth . . . You say that your initial concern was more with voice than content or character—but did you have any of these images in mind at the outset?

MB: It’s always a little hard to remember exactly—I wrote the first drafts of Cataclysm Baby in mid-2009—but I think that I would probably say that I didn’t have the imagery of the “furred esophagus” and that hair-choked baby before I started, but I might have had some of the others before starting their sections. Some of the sections were suggested by the names I chose, which in certain cases came first: Including the name “Cain” in the title of the third story, for instance, suggested at least a fratricide, if not exactly what that killing might entail.

For the most part, I’m typically not much of a planner, at the plot or situation level: I don’t have particularly good ideas, and so if I start there, I tend to end up with stories that are all surface, or that at least capture only the most surface stuff of me. By starting at the level of the sentence or the sound or the image—and then by staying at that level as long as I can—I feel more likely to dredge a little deeper, to discover something a little stronger. It’s in subsequent drafts that I do a lot of the plot and character shaping, and even some of the conceptual thinking. I need a certain critical mass of workable language before I can do too much story-work with it.

Bibliokept: Your language—tone, syntax, diction, etc.—inheres across the collection and works to unify the themes and images in Cataclysm Baby. Still, there’s a sense of disconnection of time and place between these stories, as if each one is its own discrete apocalypse or dystopia, even as they blend together.

In a sense, you seem to be playing obliquely with the tropes of end-of-the-world fiction, but resisting the heavy exposition and tendency for world-building we see in so much sci-fi. I suppose I’m pointing toward what I see as restraint in CB, but might have actually been editing on your part—how much of CB came from pruning and paring down?

MB: Generally I’d say that it’s my process to overwrite and then to cut back to the best version of any given story. That said, Cataclysm Baby was never a dramatically longer book, either as a whole or in its individual pieces. For me, many of these stories often operate more like fairy tales or biblical stories than contemporary sci-fi, and so have to do their world-building in different ways. I often write in fragments, and try to create useful spaces in the white spaces between—some regions of ambiguity or juxtaposition—and I think that when that’s working well those regions can end up standing in for what might otherwise require a lot of connective tissue and explanatory exposition.

Biblioklept: Why are end of the world stories are so compelling?

MB: The apocalyptic goes deep in us: Every civilization has its origin story, and also its story of how it’ll all end. Less of us might believe in more supernatural apocalypses now than in the past, but we’ve replaced those fears with secular ones, made all the more frightening for being manmade—global warming and constant war and economic inequality are the results of choices we’ve made, not the supernatural nature of the universe. We’re also within the first few generations that grew up during the environmental movement, taught to see the earth as something that needed to be saved by human action, from human action. All that adds to the gravity of certain kinds of apocalyptic stories: Our ending is now an act of agency instead of prophecy, and for me that changes everything.

Biblioklept: In what ways?

MB: What I mean is that if the end of the world is completely out of our control—if it’s the second coming or an unstoppable asteroid headed for earth —then we don’t bear any responsibility for it happening, and probably be can’t be tasked with stopping it. But if it’s a side effect of the way we live or the way we exploit the earth’s resources or of the way we treat each other, then I think we can be held responsible, both for what has already happened and our failures to make things better. The problem is that most of don’t actually have the chance to make a direct impact, or at least we don’t get to feel like we’re making one very often. It’s hard to make the links between our individual lives and our communal fates, in the biggest ways. But that doesn’t free us from the anxiety or the fear: If anything it probably makes it worse, because someone is making the decisions that might cost us everything, but it’s hard to pin down who it is, or to hold them accountable for their actions.

To bring it back toward Cataclysm Baby: The fathers in the book are rarely if ever responsible for the situations they and their families are in, and they aren’t generally given opportunities to improve things in a large-scale way. All they can do is focus on themselves and their families—which is, of course, what most of us do too, no matter how badly things are going outside our doors. This tension between what we know is wrong (climate change and oppression and war and every other kind of global problem) and what we are best suited for (caring for ourselves and the people closest to us) is problematic, and the solutions to that closing that gap aren’t particularly obvious, or at least they’re not obvious to me.

Biblioklept: I think that Cataclysm Baby has a positive ending—not necessarily a happy ending—but a positive one, or at least one that points to a future and generative capability. I’m curious if you tried out other ways to close the collection than those last few lines of “Zachary, Zahir, Zedekiah.”

MB: I’m so glad you read the ending that way: It’s definitely not a happy ending—and couldn’t be, after what’s come before—but I’d like to think that it at least leaves open the possibility of hope. That seems like such a slim solace, but it’s something, and sometimes enough.

As for whether there were other ways to end the novella: As I said above, I’m not generally a planner, and I ideally like to reach the final pages of a book or story in a burst, writing headlong, possessed by a sort of measured recklessness, in hopes that by moving as strongly as possible from sentence to sentence in a controlled sprint I might arrive at the end surprised and invigorated by what I find there, rather than overthinking or over-determining it. The final sentence of Cataclysm Baby was almost certainly tweaked through the rewriting process, but I arrived at its basic shape for the first time in much the same way I imagine a reader might, coming out of that run of repetitions and endings into something else, some possible future. I was glad that it contained that hope you felt, glad to know that was the way I instinctively responded when I reached the last page.

Biblioklept: Cataclysm Baby bears two epigraphs; one from the King James bible, and one from Cormac McCarthy’s The Road. The content of both quotations resonates with your work, as does the style.

McCarthy has said that “books are made out of books.” What writers or books were especially important or influential when you were composing Cataclysm Baby?

MB: I  love that McCarthy quote, and couldn’t agree more: I think that for me a lot of my formative experiences didn’t happen in “real life,” but inside of books, in that space between what’s printed on the page and what happens in the reader. So the books I’ve read are at least as important an influence as the things I’ve done.

The Bible is obviously an influence on the voice of the book, but it also owes a debt to texts like Beowulf or the Greek mythsthere’s a purposeful attempt here to use a more archaic-seeming way of speaking to talk about these futures. Fairy tales are an important part of how I structure stories and character development, and I think that way of thinking was a huge help when working with all of these compressed narratives. And of course there are all the end-of-the-world tales I read when I was a kid or a teenager or more recently: I grew up almost exclusively on science fiction and fantasy and horror, and so much of that still filters into the work. It’s some of that stuff from when I was younger that sticks with me the most, the different world-ending plots of Swan Song and The Stand and Robots and Empire and so on. And then there’s stuff I read later, like Beckett’s Endgame, like Shirley Jackson and McCarthy and Brian Evenson. But of course all of this is over-simplifying, or choosing only the most direct or obvious choices, the ones I couldn’t deny anyway: As I said above, I’ve lived a rather large part of my life inside the books I love, and so it’s no surprise that part of my books would end up being set in some combined world, some landscape they’ve all been mashed into inside me.

Bibliokept: You work as both an editor and a writing teacher. How do those jobs overlap or contrast or influence your own fiction writing?

MB: By the time I finished grad school I was doing most of these things in some form: I was teaching writing there too, and I’d started The Collagist and was just about to join Dzanc full-time. I truly love my teaching and my editing, and am very grateful to have them both as part of my daily work. I think that more than anything they’ve allowed me to see all of these pursuits as part of a bigger literary life, and that this life was the real goal I wanted to realize. I’m very lucky to get to spend my days as a writer and as a reader and teacher and editor and reviewer and whatever else, and I think that all of these different activities add up to one satisfying whole. If there ever came a time when I couldn’t write—where I lost my nerve or my drive to create—I’d like to think that these other activities might sustain me through that loss.

Biblioklept: What about just plain old writer’s block? I seem to be suffering from it these days. Any suggestions you offer your students?

MB: First, my sympathies: I know how frustrating that sensation can feel. Personally, I think I rarely have true writer’s block, the kind where I don’t write. Instead I have days where I write only badly, and sometimes miserably so —and sometimes those days stretch into weeks. When I’m working on a project, there’s almost always something to do, so if I can’t go forward I just move backward in the story and try to revise my way into forward motion again. If I’m between projects, I try to start something new every day until one catches. Immediately after finishing Cataclysm Baby I must have written the beginnings of a dozen terrible short stories, not letting myself abandon one before my writing time was over for the day. So maybe I spent a month writing three or four hours a day on work I wasn’t going to continue with—but at least I was writing. That’s the only way I know to get past writer’s block that isn’t dumb luck.

Biblioklept: Obviously Cataclysm Baby is just out, but do you have any other books or writing projects on the horizon?

MB: I do, thankfully: I’ve been working almost exclusively on a novel for the past three years, and am in the very final phases of that book. I can’t say much more about it yet, but hopefully soon. Once that’s finished, who knows? I’m looking forward to getting back to that place of surprise and uncertainty, after a couple years of knowing what to work on every day.

Biblioklept: Have you ever stolen a book?

MB: Not from a store, I don’t think. Mostly, I probably have some borrowed books I never gave back, and after some number of years those have become something like a theft. When I was 21 or so, I believed someone lent me a copy of Sam Lipsyte’s Venus Drive, which absolutely blew me away, and was hugely influential on me as a writer. I had no idea who Lipsyte was, and at the time there weren’t any other books of his to read. I was sure my friend Irene had borrowed me the book, but she said she hadn’t, and later I tried to return it to a few other friends, but they wouldn’t claim it either. So maybe I did buy it, but I don’t remember doing so, and every time I see it on the shelf I wonder who it really belongs to. Assuming it does belong to some friend of mine, I owe them far more than the cover price: I wouldn’t be the same writer without having found Lipsyte then, or even the same person.

Parenting After the Apocalypse — I Review Matt Bell’s Cataclysm Baby


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.

How to Enjoy the Apocalypse: A Post-Rapture Reading List

We published this list last year under the heading Ten Excellent Dystopian/Post-apocalyptic Novels That Aren’t Brave New World or 1984, but what with the Rapture going down and all, why not post it again, this time with links to pieces we’ve written on these novels—

1. Riddley Walker, Russell Hoban

2. Camp Concentration, Thomas Disch

3. A Clockwork Orange, Anthony Burgess

4. Oryx and Crake and The Year of the Flood, Margaret Atwood

5. The Hospital Ship, Martin Bax

6. Naked Lunch, William S. Burroughs

7. VALIS, Philip K. Dick

8. Ronin, Frank Miller

9. Ape and Essence, Aldous Huxley

10. The Road and Blood Meridian, Cormac McCarthy

The Passage — Justin Cronin

Apocalypse literature, when done right, can inform us about our own contemporary society. It can satirize our values; it can thrill us; it can astound us with its sheer uncanniness. I’m thinking of Russell Hoban’s Ridley Walker, Kurt Vonnegut’s Cat’s Cradle, Margaret Atwood’s dystopian novels, Cormac McCarthy’s novels Blood Meridian (yeah, Blood Meridian is an end-of-the-world novel) and The Road, Aldous Huxley’s Ape and Essence and Brave New World. There are many more of course–hell, even the Bible is bookended by the apocalypse of the flood (and Noah’s escape) and the Revelation to John. Then there are the movies, too many to name in full at this point (China Miéville even called for a “breather” a while back), but the ones that work become indelible touchstones in our culture (George Romero’s zombie films and Children of Men spring immediately to mind).

So, my interest in such works foregrounded, perhaps I should get to the business of reviewing Justin Cronin’s massive virus-vampire apocalypse saga/blatant money-making venture The Passage. But before I do, let me get anecdotal: earlier this summer, because of my aforementioned interest in apocalypse lit I tried to listen to the unabridged audiobook version of Stephen King’s The Stand. I bring this up here because Cronin’s book is utterly derivative of The Stand. I also bring it up because I had the good sense to quit The Stand almost exactly half way through–good sense I did not extend to The Passage. Yes, dear reader, I listened to the whole damn audiobook, all 37 hours of it. It helped that I had a home renovation project going that took up most of this week. So I listened to Cronin’s dreadful prose, hacky twists, and derivative plots while sanding joint compound and painting for eight hours at a stretch. True, it’s a much easier audiobook to follow than, say, something by Dostoevsky–but that’s only because anyone with a working knowledge of apocalypse tropes has already seen and heard it all before.

So what is it? In The Passage a government virus turns people into vampire-like zombies with hive mines. There’s a mystical little girl at the center of it all. Does she hold the key to mankind’s salvation? Does all of this sound terribly familiar? Cronin’s book begins in the not-too-distant future, tracing the origins of the virus that will unleash doom and gloom; then, about a third of the way in, he skips ahead about a 100 years to explore what life is like for the survivors. While the commercial prose had taxed me about as far as I could go, I have to admit that this twist a third of the way in intrigued me–what would life be like for these folks? What savagery did the “virals” (also called “smokes,” “dracs,” and a few other names I can’t remember) unleash? Luckily, there’s plenty of exposition, exposition, exposition! Cronin saturates the second part of his novel with so much background information that he essentially ruins any chance the book has to breathe. There’s no mystery, no strangeness–just many, many derivative plots and creaky set-pieces thinly connected with enough chapter-ending cliffhangers to make Scheherazade blush. This wouldn’t be so bad if Cronin’s characters weren’t stock types that would seem more at home in an RPG than, I don’t know, a novel. It’s hard to care about them as it is, but as the novel progresses he frequently puts them in mortal peril and then saves them at the last-minute–again and again and again. The derivative nature of The Passage wouldn’t smart so much if the characters weren’t so flat and the prose so mundane. The action scenes are fine–just fine–but when Cronin gets around to like, expressing themes and ideas the results are risible. It’s like the worst of Battlestar Galactica (you know, those last three seasons), maudlin soap opera that tips into mushy metaphysics.

But I fear I’ve broken John Updike’s foremost rule for reviewing books — “Try to understand what the author wished to do, and do not blame him for not achieving what he did not attempt.” I think that Cronin has set out to make money here, and he’s written the type of book that will do that, the kind of book that will make some (many) people think that they are reading some kind of intellectual alternative to those Twilight books. There will be sequels and there will be movies and there will be lots and lots of money, enough for Cronin to swim in probably, if he wishes. In the meantime, go ahead and skip The Passage.

Two Visions of Apocalypse: Margaret Atwood’s The Year of the Flood and Martin Bax’s The Hospital Ship

I finished Martin Bax’s surreal dystopian romance The Hospital Ship last night and then finished the audiobook version of Margaret Atwood’s hyperreal dystopian anti-romance The Year of the Flood today. Both books take their cues from that first apocalypse story, the story of Noah and his ark, and continue that tradition imagining a version of the end of the world. Despite their mythical-biblical origins, such books tend to get ghettoized into a certain genre of science fiction — let’s call it apocalypse fiction — despite the artistic power or literary merit of the author’s prose itself. Apocalypse books like Kurt Vonnegut’s satire Cat’s Cradle, Cormac McCarthy’s The Road, and Aldous Huxley’s Ape and Essence diverge in style, tone, and execution. It’s their subject that compels us, each vision a proposition, a promise of some kind of future, a future after the future. Many of these apocalypse books remain prescient today. However, others feel dated simply because so much of what the author wrote twenty or fifty or more years ago more or less came true. For instance, is the homogenized, greenzoned aristocracy of Brave New World who lavish in the trivial culture of the feelies and centrifugal bumblepuppy all that different from contemporary exurbanites who basically live in walled-off compounds, little homogenized townships that strive to exist outside of civic reality and history? Robert Siegel’s recent report for NPR on the The Villages, an eerie Florida compound for senior citizens, illustrates how willing people are to buy into a company-owned, company-governed greenzone. The Villages even has its own whimsical fake “history,” complete with markers and plaques. It’s like The Prisoner or something. But enough about real life. We have apocalypse lit to tell us about the present.

The heroes of Atwood’s The Year of the Flood are not, for the most part, from the corporate-controlled compounds that keep the rest of the world at bay. There’s Toby, the orphan who grows up tough yet learns the healing arts. There’s Ren, a young girl trying to find her identity wherever she can. There’s their would-be spiritual guide, Adam One, and his lieutenant/rival Zeb. They are outsiders, members of an eco-cult called The Gardeners who worship saints like Rachel Carson, Ernest Shackleton, and Sojourner Truth. Flood is the sprawling companion to Atwood’s 2003 novel, Oryx and Crake, which I enjoyed very much. Both take place in a world where the “Waterless Flood,” a SARS/mega-flu type virus brought about via genetic tinkering, has turned most people into zombie-goo. I could go and on about the world Atwood shapes here, one full of genetic modification, eco-terrorism, religious fervor, and radical disparity, but other folks have already done it. So, in the grand tradition of internet laziness, I point you to excellent reviews here and here, which do a better job explicating the plot than I’m willing to do now (and it was an audiobook, remember, so I don’t exactly have it in front of me. Mea culpa). Apocalypse lit isn’t so much predictive as it is descriptive of the contemporary world, and Atwood’s dystopian vision is no exception. Viscerally prescient, Flood paints our own society in bold, vibrant colors, magnifying the strange relationships with nature, religion, and our fellow humans that modernity prescribes. Atwood ends her book in media res, with Toby and a handful of other characters somehow still alive, ready, perhaps, to become stewards of a new world. Flood concludes tense and, in a sense, unresolved, but Atwood implies hope: Toby will lead her small group to cultivate a new Eden. Despite all the ugliness and cruelty and devastation, people can be redeemed. The audiobook rendition of The Year of the Flood is very good, employing three actors to play the three principal roles, Ren, Toby, and Adam One. There are also terribly cheesy full-band versions of the hippy-dippy songs the Gardeners like to sing on certain Saint Days that are witty as parody but ultimately distracting. Atwood’s prose sometimes relies on placeholders and stock expressions common to sci-fi and YA fiction, and her complex plot (disappointingly) devolves to a simple adventure story in the end, but her ideas and insights into what our society might look like in a few decades are compelling reading (or, uh, listening in this case). Recommended.

The doctors, specialists, sailors, and patients of the titular vessel in Martin Bax’s The Hospital Ship are afloat in their own greenzone of sorts, a moving compound that seeks to treat the troubled world. What’s the trouble with the world? No one’s sure, exactly–there’s permanent all-out-war, of course, famine perhaps, insanity for sure. There’s also a bizarre army of bureaucrats going from continent to continent crucifying men and raping women for no clear reason. The ship’s psychiatrists diagnose it “The Crucifixion Disease.” Euan, Bax’s erstwhile lead, tries to figure out how to love and how to heal in the middle of hate and extinction. Aided by the eccentric, Falstaffian Dr. Maximov Flint, Euan conducts an experimental therapy between a Moi prostitute named V and a suicidal Wall Street broker named W. He also finds a lover and partner in an American girl named Sheila. About half of The Hospital Ship comprises citations from a variety of non-fiction texts, including medical textbooks, psychiatric studies, sociology texts, travelogues, war diaries, and more. The technique is bizarre and jarring, and Bax often imitates the style of such texts, most of which linger on sex or death. There’s also an obsession with the Vietnam War, which makes sense as the book was published in 1976. There’s a lovey-hippie type vibe to the hospital ship’s personnel, and like Atwood with her Gardeners, Bax is satirical and loving to his heroes at the same time. He mocks some of the silly idealism of the movement even as he finds solace in their vision of love and healing in an apocalyptic world. Bax’s book is wholly weird, disconnected, lurching and farcical, a madcap dystopian Love Boat on peyote. I spotted it at my favorite used bookstore, intrigued first by the (now retro-)futurist font, then the name, echoing Chris Adrian’s The Children’s Hospital, another book about a hospital-as-ark. If the black-and-white collage cover art didn’t seal the deal, then the blurb from J.G. Ballard comparing Bax favorably to William Burroughs did. Burroughs is an appropriate reference point, with the sexual alienation and the medical flavor and the cut-up technique and all, but Bax’s writing is utterly Ballardian (he even directly cites Ballard among other authors–like, you know APA style in-text citations). The Hospital Ship is a cult novel which might not have a big enough cult. It definitely belongs in print again; until then, pick up a copy if you can find one.