Unlike most post-apocalyptic literature, Matt Bell’s Cataclysm Baby relies on no single event – nuclear winter, pandemic, natural disaster – to shape its world. Instead, it asks what if the apocalypse is slow and discontinuous, an uneven disruption of human life that is relative, something we are acclimated to or even practice? Even worse, what if it comes not from external forces, but from within us, from our most direct and intimate contribution to this planet – our children. These are the apocalypses of Cataclysm Baby.
Divided into twenty-six chapters or flash fictions, the book is held together by the nightmarish fatherhoods experienced by its narrators. Gesturing to both definitions of abecedarium, the book is a collection of individuals with only the most rudimentary knowledge of how to repopulate and rebuild their broken worlds as well as a collection of exercises in reproduction and rearing that are as surreal as they are tragic. Unlike Cormac McCarthy’s The Road, which is alluded to in the book’s epigraph, parenting in these new worlds is only occasionally preoccupied with the protection of children from outside forces. Instead, it is the children themselves that are the source of anxiety, fear, and tragedy.
From the opening section, “Abelard, Abraham, Absalom,” it is clear that something is terribly wrong with the babies of the book’s title. The boy is born “hair on cheeks, on forehead, on lips and tongue.” When it does not cry out, the father hooks “a finger into our baby’s tiny mouth and pull[s] out hair, hairball…from matted esophagus.” The children that follow take on myriad forms, disfigurements, and pathologies – a caterpillar child, a cannibal child, children pulverized to dust by the strength of the birth canal, a corral of bleating sheep children. They are capable of real harm, as we see in “Justina, Justine, Justise,” in which the infidelity of the father is punished by his three daughters through a methodical dismembering of his thumb that continues up his arm, one joint at a time, for each indiscretion. In a homage to one of the Grimm’s, “How Children Play at Slaughtering,” Bell’s “Beatrice, Bella, Blaise” describes escalating violence amongst three sisters that climaxes in their parents providing “whetstones…wood blocks filled with meat knives, of blister-packaged scissors” only to hear “screaming laughter…until one night we hear only the voice of the younger, playing all alone.”
The triptych of names that begins each chapter often contain a Biblical (Absalom, Cain, Meshach), literary (Beatrice, Ophelia) or mythological (Fawn, Ursa, Xenos) reference that acts as a thematic compass for what follows. The Brothers Grimm and the Bible resonate repeatedly in Cataclysm Baby and represent an unsettling aspect of the book. These stories read like fables, but we are clearly present within them; they feel ancient yet could occur tomorrow or perhaps today. Part of this is due to Bell’s rejection of temporal or geographical markers, the pop culture references that are ubiquitous post-apocalypse. He also shuns exposition and names. None of these fathers have a backstory. Instead, the reader is placed immediately into the point of crisis, the birth of a child. Each of the births is different, but the tone of the narrator is consistent, as are their reactions to the experience. At times, the narrator is so staid, the stories so ominous, it is easy to see them as a single prophetic, father reliving the point of his own undoing perpetually.
Like its deformed and precocious children, Cataclysm Baby defies expectation of form and genre. It is equal parts prosaic and lyric, as much an ecological thought experiment as horror cinema. The stories often read like prose poems. They oscillate between sentence fragments and wandering, ethereal lines like “All we know is how sad our landlocked bodies are now, comforted only by each other’s flightless, balloonless limbs” or “give thanks for a boy too stupid to know his own strength, too broken to understand the patricide carried latent within his sausage-thick fingers, his ox-stunk palms that close over your skull…” In this respect, and in its obsession with notions of mutations and disfigurement, Bell’s work is reminiscent of prose poem master Russell Edson. Like Edson, the site of conflict in Bell’s stories is often in or around a body outside that of the narrator’s. Bell’s narrators, like Edson’s, often face the chaos transpiring around them with a quiet resignation that is as unnerving as the events themselves. In “Domina, Doreen, Dorma,” the narrator describes the last time he saw his caterpillar daughter:
The next time I see her, how big she’s gotten. My
Only daughter, all grown up.
And now her string of milky eggs across the
Now her own caterpillars, hungry for what world
What differentiates Bell’s cataclysmic children from the cyborgs and mechanical magic realism of Edson is that his hybrids are organic and autochthonous, arising from the soil and elements and wildlife that made up the earlier incarnation of the world into which they are born. Though it is largely overshadowed by the macabre and surreal imagery of the book, Cataclysm Baby is rooted in ecological concerns. Children are born in the form of other animals and promptly flee their homes or are exiled or sacrificed. Consumerism and gluttony manifest as children born as enormous mounds of flesh and in parents who force their children to gather food from the jungle canopy because they are too obese to climb. Parents are all too often left guessing as to the fate of their children as they disappear into a new world, “ascend…into the verdant newness suspended above this fallen earth, this last of all the muck and mud we’ve known.” In spite of all the visceral horror, disease, and death in the stories, it is this fear that remains the most poignant, that we as parents have created a world that we cannot undo and that is cannibalizing itself.
What is most impressive in Cataclysm Baby is its rejection of the apocalyptic rhetoric upon which it is built and the nearly unimaginable softness and humanity that remains throughout its pages. Sometimes this takes the form of forgiveness, such the father of “Greyson, Griffin, Guillermo” who looks past the rapacious, predatory behavior of his sons hoping that they will take to farming, “how to reap…how to sow…when there is nothing better, to plow the world back under.” Other times, it is compassion, such as the long journey that the earthworm daughters Svara, Sveta, and Sylvana undertake to find herbs for their dying mother. Most poignant is the father of “Walker, Wallace, Warren” who loses his wife and children and copes by carving their likeness in trees on his land only to eventually forget their names and lives. Despite this final cruelty, spring follows winter and he finds “sprung forth from the palm of some unrecognizable child: Some new leaf, some green branchlet blooming.” It seems we cannot help ourselves. We are short-sighted and abuse everything our children will inherit, yet we continue to hope their futures hold something better than our own. The world of Cataclysm Baby may not be a better one but it is one for which its children are far better equipped than their parents.