The novel that turns fatherhood into art
Once, when my daughter was six months old, my mind started to wander while washing the dishes. The chore had become a soothing break from the baby’s incessant need. I was lost in thought as the hot water rushed over my hands, and this time I was trying to construct a theory from my dishes, how uplifting and rewarding the rote task could be. My working title for the exercise was The Dish of Sisyphus, which I was immensely proud of, before a scream came from the next room and dispelled my pot philosophy.
As with most things new parents don’t write down, I quickly forgot about this episode. A few months later, a friend – a childless writer friend – recommended Chris Bachelder’s 2011 novel, Abbott is waiting for youvolume. Best known for its National Book Award nominee The Return Special, which follows a group of friends who reunite each year to re-enact the football game that ended Joe Theismann’s career, Bachelder is acerbic and often painfully funny, employing humor to strike at the heart. My friend said I would like Abbott is waiting for you as much for its literary merits as for its view of fatherhood.
Getting recommended books is a typical postpartum rite of passage, and the market is full of parenting literature. Motherhood, as a topic, is covered from most angles imaginable: one can read Danzy Senna, Sheila Heti, Emily Oster and Dani McClain and gain an in-depth understanding of motherhood – across race, economics and gender. feminism. For fathers, the pool of options is a little shallower (Keith Gessen’s new memoir, Raising Raffiis a promising addition to Dad’s book canon).
Many dad books are presented as smart guides, memoirs, or manuals; and though most have helpful guidance, they seldom succeed in rising above their duty. Early authorship, when portrayed in literature, is often practical in the same way: it serves to color characters, plot, and themes, but rarely warrants sustained gaze. Take John Updike’s bunny running, which traces the struggle of a restless young father who abandons his family. By the time Rabbit returns home, later in the novel, his chances of proving he is a father are tragically lost. All this to say: fatherhood, as depicted in these books, is not usually shrewd, subtle, or consoling. Abbott is waiting for you is the antidote.
Bachelder’s short but indelible novel overflows with kitchen-sink wisdom; it was exactly what I lacked as a young father, struggling to make sense of my irrevocably changed existence. For all the depth one experiences in becoming a parent – the primordial love; humble wonder – there is also a lot of boredom and banality. Raising children is an immense task composed of many mind-numbing moments. Among the reasons Abbott is waiting for you is remarkable because it collects these moments and brings them to center stage. She makes everyday aspects of bourgeois parenthood objects of study, of tender observation.
Abbott is waiting for you takes place over the course of a summer and is divided into three sections: June, July and August. The titular Abbott is a teacher on break, his days spent caring for his 2-year-old daughter. He is filled with terror on many fronts – of his growing family (his wife is pregnant with their second child), of his job, and of the planet in peril – all exacerbated by the fact that he regularly searches for horrific information. online in his home office: a steamboat explosion, starving zoo animals, photographs of Chernobyl orphans.
The days are long, and sometimes the moments can seem to stretch on forever. Once, while taking his daughter for a walk, Abbott expends an inordinate amount of mental energy wanting time to pass so he can trade shifts with his wife, only to find himself home and realizing that almost no time has passed. Although the book is set around 15 years ago, it finds particular resonance with our current pandemic moment. Many of us have found ourselves parenting far more than we ever imagined, struggling to fill the hours with education and entertainment, while maintaining our sanity.
So what’s going on in this book? All and nothing; that is, there is virtually no plot to speak of. That is to say, it is very much like parenthood. The chapters are extremely brief (none exceeds four pages), written in the third person over Abbott’s shoulder. Most of the chapter titles, i.e. “In which Abbott sits in a parked car for quite a while”, are ironic. The tone is sometimes slightly academic and philosophical, sprinkled with Soare, in additionthe sand in additions; Abbott’s analytical attention to the bland moments of his life adds an irony to the non-action as it unfolds.
In late June, in a typically tedious scene, Abbott and his family are out shopping when his daughter vomits up raspberry compote in the car. As Abbott cleans up the mess, he summons three mythical heroes – Hercules, Sisyphus, and Prometheus – to help him deal with the mess. Ultimately, he is led to a paradox, which could serve as the central thesis of the novel. “The following statements are both true: (A) Abbott would not, given the opportunity, change an important part of his life, but (B) Abbott can not stand his life.”
Bachelder examines Abbott’s internal dilemma with a focus usually reserved for fictional men with greater ambition (Don DeLillo’s Jack Gladney or Colson Whitehead’s Ray Carney come to mind). Existential questions predominate for such characters, allowing only a fleeting look at parenthood. In a passage from his novel Information, Martin Amis describes the scene in a playground where the protagonist, Richard, is passing through a gray and monotonous morning with his child: their watch. They exchange slow nods of resignation and hear the wall of childish sounds from which no meaning stands out: his snaps, his snaps and his whippings. When I first read this passage, I was excited enough to read it out loud again, shouting “Shit! after I finished (it was also the first time I heard my daughter swear, as she was close enough to parrot). This penetrating look at the gloom of fatherhood resonated, but as soon as the paragraph ended, the novel and its protagonist quickly moved on to more pressing concerns.
But Abbott has nowhere to go. We are given a catalog of his troubles and struggles, learning how many times in a row he has read a book to his daughter; or how difficult it is to sprinkle leftover raisins from the folds of a high chair. We catch a glimpse of a dad sipping an evening cocktail amid the ruins of his toy-covered living room, in a brief moment of respite. Bachelder renders a scene that many beleaguered parents will recognize: how sometimes something as simple as a vacant seat on the sofa can feel like a throne.
Parenthood can be isolating and weird. If you find yourself first among equals with a child, you might mourn the loss of a lingua franca. As Bachelder writes: “Parenting is a distant and peculiar country with its own customs and its own language.”
For those parenting with a partner, navigating that country is also an integral part of the relationship. One of the great pleasures of this novel is the way Bachelder renders the fragility of Abbott’s marriage as he bears the weight of a new life. It is hard and often thankless work. There are fights, disagreements and a ton of psychological transfers. A chapter titled “Abbott Hogs the Mood” will ring emotionally for anyone in a relationship where parenthood is involved. Marriage is “a battle—clinically, a negotiation— on the possession of bad temper. Two parents can’t both be in a bad mood because the parents can’t stand it, and both parents are well aware of that. It’s a matter of give and take. And of love.
In the end, Abbott is preparing for the arrival of his second child. He paces the hospital room as nurses prepare his wife for a C-section. He reassures his wife that everything will be fine as their lives are about to change again.
Before you start Abbott is waiting for you, I was struck by its title, which reminded me of Samuel Beckett. A little like expect, pending suggests anticipation – perhaps the return of something. As parents, we all expect: the reconstitution of our independent selves; the former glory of our novels. But we have no choice but to stay here in this strange land, making sure its new inhabitants are safe and protected. Bachelder is a keen surveyor of this place, and he understands something more about Beckett’s infamous plea: I can not continue; I will continue. It is often the children who do this.