One of the frustrations of being a librarian — right up there with irritating patrons and not being allowed to drink coffee at work — is the occupational stereotyping. Like nuns and teachers, librarians tend to be depicted in books and movies as elderly spinsters, rigid and frigid. More recently, in a predictable attempt to subvert convention, the slutty librarian trope has emerged — young, hot-blooded, yet not exempt from the cats-eye glasses. As a librarian, it’s hard to see this as much of an improvement.
“Everyone has a librarian fantasy,” asserts the librarian-narrator of Aimee Bender’s story “Quiet Please,” from her collection The Girl in the Flammable Skirt, and then she sets out to prove herself correct, propositioning the patrons at the circulation desk and taking them into the back room. There is, naturally, eyewear to be torn off, long hair to be let down, and an overpowering smell in the mysterious and otherwise off-limits area behind the desk.
Nothing so exciting happened to me during my floundering career as a librarian, though I enjoyed the ceremony of putting on white gloves to handle a rare material. In some ways, I embarked on being a librarian as if it were an extended game of dress-up, attracted more to the stereotype of what it would be like — a quiet, bookish job in pleasant surroundings — than genuine interest in the profession as it really is now. I had once gone to a Halloween party dressed as a librarian — a “real one,” I feel it necessary to mention, not a sexy drunk one with date-stamps on her midriff. The night was a success and may have weighed on my subconscious when, a few years later, I decided to actually become a real one. I already had the right skirt.
In retrospect, this decision seems to owe too much to the Parker Posey movie Party Girl, in which a stint in the library puts a young woman’s disordered life into order. In the movie, the rules of the library straighten out the protagonist, who finds peace and purpose through correct use of the Dewey Decimal System.
Recently, at a professional crossroads in my library career, I read two books that happened to be about young women’s sexual identity and their journeys into — and out of — librarianship. Both books are set in an earlier era, and yet some elements remain extremely familiar.
In Elaine Dundy’s The Dud Avocado, originally published in 1958 but reprinted in 2007, Sally Jay Gorce, struggling to make it as an actress, moves to Paris, where she encounters a man so magnetic that when he clasps her hand in a café, she has an orgasm. Unfortunately, such concentrated charisma tends to lead to regrettable acts, and after many adventures, Sally Jay renounces the depravity of Paris and returns to New York to become a librarian: “And (here it comes): a librarian is just not that easy to become…Apparently there’s a whole filing system and annotating system and stamping system and God knows what you have to learn before you qualify.”
Revirginalized by her new occupation, she moves into an all-girls residence hotel and begins shelving books. Within paragraphs she has dropped some on the head of a male patron. The next morning, he asks her to marry him. (“I’m tired of living in sin with you.”) The whole good-natured romp of it bespeaks a clear message: Bad girls are redeemed in the library. Casually promiscuous would-be actresses can be reissued as the wives of successful photographers. No matter how many times an item is checked out, when it returns to the library, its past is wiped clean.
Just as being in the library exerts a purifying influence on hot-blooded Sally Jay, close proximity to libraries paradoxically brings wholesome girls into the orbit of depravity. This is a theme of certain paperbacks on eBay and also more tastefully and literarily rendered of Beverly Cleary’s memoir My Own Two Feet. In it, Cleary, then Beverly Bunn, is ambitious, hardworking, warm-hearted, and sensible — more Beezus than Ramona.
As a library school student, she and her classmates at the University of Washington concoct wholesome cataloguing challenges, like “an imaginary series of books…six volumes, each with a different editor or sometimes two, one of whom wrote under a pseudonym and the other under her maiden name, some volumes translated from foreign languages.”
And yet a less wholesome undercurrent intrudes. When she wears a red dress to work, a man whispers to her, “You look like bait in that dress.” When she’s chastised by the senior librarian for her sloppy handwriting, the word “fetish” is invoked: “I don’t want to make a fetish of printing, but…” Later, working in an army library, the commanding officer, “a huge man, tall and heavyset…sat up, reached out, pulled me toward him so I was standing between his knees, gave me two pats on my bottom, and said, “So you’re a librarian. You can have the job anytime you want it.”
What is most affecting about Cleary’s book is her evocation of the Depression and the grind of survival. In the girls’ co-op where she lived, residents earned part of their keep through chores and were not allowed to sit on the beds, which Cleary explains cheerily was no hardship for her as she never had been allowed to at home either. The idea was not to wear out the mattress prematurely.
Rules like this seem unbearably intrusive now, 75 years later. In the decades since Cleary was a librarian, many aspects of the profession have changed. Books are no longer the only, or perhaps most important, element of a library. Handwriting doesn’t much matter, though competency with technology is useful. But though there is still tension about what the library and librarians of today should be, the connection between librarians and sex is surprisingly persistent.
Licentiousness in an atmosphere of restraint comes through in Tony Hoagland’s poem “Not Renouncing,” which begins:
I always thought that I was going to catch Elena
in the library one afternoon, and she would shove me gently backwards
into the corridor of 822.7 in the Dewey Decimal System,
where we would do it in the cul-de-sac of 18th century drama.
Why in the library? Maybe it’s the covetousness brought out from being around large quantities of things which may be borrowed, and renewed for two more weeks more, but may never actually be possessed? Or, perhaps, in a place where the mind is paramount, the body finds a way to remind you that it’s the one that brought you and will take you home.
Nicholson Baker’s work presents one possibility for where librarians are headed. Baker may be best known for Vox, a phone sex extravaganza, and The Fermata, with its memorable descriptions of non-consensual sex acts with women stopped in time. In 2011, he published House of Holes: A Book of Raunch. Amid these projects, he wrote a New Yorker article lamenting the demise of card catalogs and the 2001 book Double Fold: Libraries and the Assault on Paper, which castigated librarians, in entertainingly severe terms, for discarding old newspapers. Librarians were shaken by the book and responded with a tsunami of aggrieved articles, blog posts, and even a pedantic book-length rejoinder, Richard Cox’s Vandals in the Stacks?
Baker, who writes about sex acts with pointillist attention to sensation and pragmatics, brings a similar level of attentive scrutiny to librariana — the card catalogs, annotations, marginalia, paper, and ink. The point of these objects, in Baker’s view, is that they bear up to sustained close attention, that each one is capable of an authentic and individual response that no scan or facsimile can provide. Compared to the original object, using a microfilm surrogate is, Baker quotes, “like kissing through a pane of glass.” There is something pretentiously smutty about the attention he lavishes on a broadsheet newspaper or his painstaking examination of penciled notes on catalog cards, recto and verso. But isn’t that what people want from their lovers, even more than from their librarians — to be examined, catalogued, known?
In Baker’s vision, libraries and librarians are in danger of becoming the opposite — soulless information providers like Siri, or Scarlett Johansson’s breathy-voiced character in the movie Her — efficient, non-corporal, excellent at answering standard reference questions, and only an illusion of humanity simultaneously conversing with hundreds or thousands of others.
In contrast, a more human-centered view of the librarian appears in The Giant’s House by Elizabeth McCracken. Although its protagonist has some stereotypical librarian characteristics — she’s inexperienced at love and lives in a small town, in this case on Cape Cod — McCracken actually was a librarian, and her depiction of librarians is more sympathetic, more nuanced, and more like a job than like a long way of saying “shrew.” McCracken’s book, set in the 1950s and published in 1996, doesn’t so much turn a librarian stereotype inside out as bring us inside to inhabit it. Her librarian, Peggy, starts as a “perfect public servant: deferential, dogged, oblivious to insults…I conformed myself always to the needs of the patrons.” Peggy is serviceable, “a piece of civic furniture, like a polling machine at town hall.” She wears dreary skirts and patched underwear. Although she’s an incisive observer of library patrons — and for a librarian, one of the joys of this book is its sharp critique of the patrons — the library is also her refuge, from relationships and even growing up: “In eighth grade it seemed that puberty was a campaign whose soldiers could not find me — I was…already in a nook in the library, while puberty, like polio, struck the kids who hung around in crowds by the swimming pool or punch bowl.”
The Giant’s House embraces every librarian stereotype, from clunky shoes to coiled bun: There’s a scene where a man pulls off Peggy’s little hat, bobby pins clatter to the ground, and her hair falls loose around her shoulders. “Much better,” he says. But there’s a difference, a subversion. Peggy is complicit in living the stereotype, and it is her own perspective that is for once central and her pleasure in her work that comes through. The satisfaction of giving a patron the right book — one the patron hadn’t imagined existed — that, she says knowingly, is “a reference librarian’s fantasy.”
Inevitably, Peggy falls in love with a patron (the giant of the title, who is just a teenager), gets pregnant, is cagey about the father, and is fired from her job for violating public decency. And yet, however much you love libraries, this is a happy ending. Peggy wears lightly her new status as a scandalous woman, a giant’s lover, a legend in town. After all, who better to know how a story like this must end?
Image Credit: pexels/Anastasia Mya.
It’s difficult to think of many writers who manage to be both as distinctive and as resistant to definition as Nicholson Baker. There’s something attractively paradoxical about his writing, in that the more it changes from one book to the next, the more insistently Bakeresque it becomes. Doing things that are out of character has, in other words, become one of the defining characteristics of Baker’s career.
He made his name in the late 80s and early 90s with The Mezzanine and Room Temperature, two brilliantly essayistic — and rivetingly plotless — novels about the supposedly trivial odds and ends that clutter our everyday lives; he then solidified his reputation as an entertaining innovator with U and I, a hybrid work of autobiographical criticism (or critical autobiography) on his lifelong relationship with John Updike’s writing. He has written a passionate and intensely researched polemic about how the introduction of microfilm led libraries to destroy countless books and periodicals (Double Fold), a work of history attacking the notion that the Allies had no choice but to engage the Nazis in Europe (Human Smoke), and three exercises in balls-out erotic high jinks (The Fermata, Vox, and House of Holes).
His new book, Traveling Sprinkler, is a sequel of sorts to 2009’s The Anthologist, revisiting that novel’s narrator, Paul Chowder, as he attempts to reinvent himself as a songwriter, win back his longtime girlfriend Roz as she prepares for a hysterectomy, and negotiate his own rage at the Obama administration’s drone warfare policies. Alongside his writing of the book, Baker pursued a parallel songwriting project — some of the results of which can be heard here and here.
The Millions: You’re known for writing fiction that largely does away with the business of plot. I’m wondering at what point you realized that this would be the kind of writing you would do. Did this evolve out of necessity, in that you found you had no affinity for highly plotted narratives, or no ability to write them, or was it a more calculated choice?
Nicholson Baker: I like the beginnings of things. The beginnings of a story, of a poem; I like that moment when the white space on the page gives way to actual type. The early paragraphs of a book have a kind of joyful feeling of setting out, like the sunny moment of merging into morning traffic from the onramp of a highway. And then comes the troubling question, where are we going?
In Traveling Sprinkler, though, some fairly big things eventually happen: it’s a love story involving a hysterectomy, which is a bit unusual. And the barn floor collapses, squashing a canoe. Not “minutiae,” whatever that means.
TM: I was intrigued by Paul Chowder’s attendance at Quaker meetings in Traveling Sprinkler. As someone who’s more or less an atheist, I find there’s something very appealing about the way Quakers practice their faith. Where did your interest in this come from?
NB: I’m an atheist, too, I guess, but the word sounds kind of harsh and aggressive, so I generally just say I’m a non-theist. Quaker meeting is a place where people are trying to figure out how to live better lives. There are no rules. There’s an etiquette, that you should wait a while after someone has said something, to give it a buffer of stillness, when everybody thinks about it. That becomes a sort of a white space. The silence is a powerful force that’s working on everyone. When somebody stands and says something, it’s often incomplete, it’s unprepared. It’s provisional — and yet it’s full of love or hope or grief or sympathy — and then other people think about what’s been said, and then someone else stands and adds something more. This goes on for an hour. It’s like hearing the rough draft of a really heartfelt essay collection.
And there are several hundred years of history to Quakerism, with much suffering and martyrdom; the Friends were people who were willing to stand up to, say, slavery, early on, when it was unpopular, dangerous to do so. And of course there’s the antiwar “testimony,” as it’s called, which always gets me. “All bloody principles and practices we do utterly deny, with all outward wars, and strife, and fightings with outward weapons, for any end, or under any pretense whatsoever, and this is our testimony to the whole world.” Utterly deny. Wow. It turns out to be a testimony you can live by. Not that I go every Sunday. I just love the idea that people are agreeing to be quiet together.
TM: So this is something that has taken a significant place in your life over recent years?
NB: I’ve been going to meeting on and off for about 12 years. Actually I come from a Quaker family, a little bit. My grandfather was raised as a Quaker, but he lapsed. He was interested in Renaissance art, and Quakers were a little suspicious of art and music in the past — or Philadelphia Quakers were, at least. He was a drinker, and they didn’t go for that either. My mother grew up in an unreligious household — so that’s how I grew up. I went to a Quaker college, Haverford College, but never went to meeting there except on graduation day.
I’ve learned a lot from the Quakers about incompleteness, about waiting for things to be sayable, about the possibility of reconciliation — and also about discarding certain trappings of eloquence. It’s certainly had an effect on me. As a person, but also on my writing.
TM: Well, now that you bring it up, there’s been a noticeable progression from your early books — The Mezzanine and Room Temperature and U and I — where there’s a luxurious intricacy to the prose. Whereas your last few books have been characterised by a kind of straightforwardness of address.
NB: In U and I, which is a very baroque book full of sentences that twirl around, I said something about how the metaphorically dense style usually has its big moment early in a writer’s life. After a while, if you’re lucky, the complexity of the semicoloned involutions gives way to something else — maybe to a social attunedness. So I was waiting for it to happen back then, and I think it has happened — although in my non-fiction writing, my magazine pieces, sometimes I’m in the middle of a paragraph and I get that old excited feeling of sliding an unexpected word into place or making a clause swerve to the left in a prosily tricky way.
But the real reason that the recent books, The Anthologist and Traveling Sprinkler, read so differently is because I wrote them by talking them. Both these books are about the audible human voice, about what comes out of silence. They’re all about meter, and melody, and vocal chords, and intonation, and stereo microphones — and I wrote the books by recording myself in various ways — sometimes with a video camera, sometimes speaking into a mini handheld recorder, sometimes typing as I talked. Most of the first draft of the books came out of my mouth, as opposed to out of my fingers, and that’s really the reason why the prose has a different sound.
TM: Maybe this is something you hear from people frequently, but I have these moments that I think of as “Nicholson Baker moments” that are interspersed throughout my everyday life. There are certain objects, for instance, that when I come across them, I find it very difficult not to think of your books. Things like shoelaces, say, and peanut butter jars and bendable straws. And every time I have to dry my hands on a hot air dryer in a public toilet, I inevitably think of The Mezzanine.
NB: I’m so glad. I’m still thinking about the hot air dryer myself. I feel there’s more to say and yet, damn, I’ve kind of done it.
Many of the things I wrote about in the past were things that fascinated me as a kid. I wanted to be an inventor, and I had long talks with my father about new forms of lift and aerodynamic shapes and how refrigerators worked. I guess I didn’t have enough to do in school, which can be a good thing. When I wasn’t on a bike trip or practicing the bassoon or plinking on the piano I spent a lot of time looking at things around the house — at water flowing from the tap, at the spinning washing machine, at the way the molded numbers in a glass peanut butter jar cast their shadows on the peanut butter inside. In the garage there was a beautiful rusty traveling sprinkler that my father had bought at Sears. I made a route with the hose for it to follow and watched it twirl and chuff away, despite the fact that we lived in Rochester, which is a very cloudy city — the lawn was doing fine on its own.
After The Fermata came out I sometimes took on bigger topics — for instance a destructive episode in library history, or the early years of the Second World War. But I still love the sensation of slowing down a moment of observable time with the help of sentences.
TM: There’s quite a lot of political anger in Traveling Sprinkler. Was this anger part of your motivation in writing the novel, or was it something that seeped in from the outside as you were in the process?
NB: The book began as a non-fiction book about trying to write protest songs — songs that objected to things going on under the Obama administration. And then my character Paul Chowder intruded and everything changed. He reads the paper and he also tries to stay sane, and the news is sometimes so overwhelming and awful, especially when it involves some horrific civilian fatality. How do you keep going if you really open yourself up to a terrible piece of news? And we do; obviously, we keep going. We read something, and we think it’s horrible, and then later that afternoon we’re sitting in a coffee shop and there’s noodly jazz playing and we’re sipping a latté, for God’s sakes. It’s a mixed life. It’s got grief in it, it’s got indignation, and demonic laughter and jealousy, and the desire to find someone to love. Debussy’s sunken cathedral is in this world, too. I wanted to include political grief in something that was recognizably a love story.
Obama’s administration has been a devastating disappointment, in so many different ways. Fanatical secrecy, the persecution of whistleblowers, foreign interventions and arms shipments that make things worse, the quintupling of drone killings — it just has to be said. And it has to be thought about in a way that does justice to the complexity of daily life. How does an emotion of political dissent thread through one’s days? That’s one of the real problems that the novel is trying to address.
TM: In the book, Paul’s creative energies are invested in learning how to use music making software and in writing songs, which is something that you yourself did in the writing of the book. Did you write these songs “in character” as Paul Chowder, or as Nicholson Baker?
NB: There are 12 songs altogether, some love songs and some protest songs, and one that uses a stanza from Gerard Manley Hopkins, and one about a street sweeper. There’s a so-called deluxe e-book version of the book where you can hear them, and I’m also putting them up on Bandcamp — what the hell. I’d posted some earlier attempts under my own name on YouTube, protest songs, but what was interesting was that as soon as I started writing the book in the voice of Paul Chowder I also felt more freedom with my songwriting. I could write the music I wanted to write because it wasn’t exactly me. I became more able to sing with more freedom, I guess, than when I was writing it as Nick Baker the writer.
TM: Have you been nervous about sending the songs out into the world?
NB: Yes, there’s nothing more vulnerable than singing, especially if you’re not a terribly good singer. I can’t describe to you how much more sensitive I am to criticism about these musical attempts than I am about the writing. It’s important to me that the songs are not an embarrassment, that they have qualities that make them song-like. I want them to have a certain level of success. It feels like a new beginning, and I have all the anxiety of being an apprentice. Which is really part of the fun of it. One of the things that’s useful to do, I think, is to cut the legs out from under yourself periodically.
TM: That’s something that you’ve done on various occasions throughout your career — you’ve written books that have caused people to throw up their hands and walk away from you. The Fermata would have been the first time that happened in any kind of significant way, right?
NB: It was really Vox where certain people said “Oh, well the first three books, yes indeed, but Vox is just a tiresome little chirp.” Hey, no, it’s a courtship, it’s a love story. The Fermata, though, yes — that one was received very badly, especially in England. “Whatever you do, don’t shake his hand,” said one reviewer. And the odd thing is how people’s feelings for certain books change over time. I now realize that sometimes critics react at first in a kind of affronted way, and then the book establishes its own position, and people say, “The other books are okay, but The Fermata [is] the one I really like.” It’s been a little confusing, actually, over the years, but also reassuring to discover that a book in the end finds its particular sub-group of readers, regardless of whether or not it was universally shunned at the time.
I always think when I’m starting a new project, “I want to do everything in this book; I want it to cover every single thing.” And it doesn’t ever turn out that way. It can’t happen. But that’s always the emotion I have pulling at me. I try to pour in every charged particle, and say all that must be said, and of course I can’t. Which means that the next book has to be about everything. So I give it another shot, and that one also falls short. Each book is in some way trying to correct the state of imbalance and incompletion left by its predecessors — chugging around the garden, watering new tomatoes.
Since my daughter was born, almost a year ago, I’ve been wary of books about motherhood, whether fiction or non-fiction, tender tale or battle hymn. In the precious few hours I’ve had to read, I haven’t wanted to think about what kind of mother I am. It still feels strange—both wonderfully strange and alarmingly strange—to say that I have a child. I hardly ever refer to myself in the third person, as mom, mommy, or mama. My daughter knows who I am. She’ll put some sort of name to my face soon enough.
I do, however, say “dad” all the time, as in: “Your dad will change you now.” “Your dad will put you to bed.” “When will your dad be home?” “Here’s your dad!” The other day at the park, my daughter was sitting in the baby swing, pronouncing her “da-da-da’s,” as she does, with insistent delight. A woman pushing her grandson asked if “mama” was also part of the repertoire, and I told her it wasn’t. “That’s how it is,” the grandmother said. “The mother does all the work. The dad gets all the glory.”
The truth is, dad does plenty. But, as I suspect is the case in most two-parent households, I can’t help noting the amount of time my partner spends changing diapers, managing feedings, and keeping at least one eye on the kid, in comparison with my own lot. Freud’s concept of penis envy seems as ridiculous now as it did when I first learned of it, who knows how long ago. Dad envy, on the other hand, feels as real as the cries in the middle of the night that mean, “I want milk, and you’re the milk lady.” Though fathers are increasingly involved in taking care of their children, they still can’t give birth, or breastfeed, or feel the same kind of cultural—and perhaps biological—pressures that a mother does to attend to her child’s needs. And though it’s amazing to be able to practice these womanly arts, the physical and emotional challenges can wipe a new mother out. (Which is why womb envy, the most prominent feminist psychoanalytic response to Freud, also strikes me as rather dubious.)
But I want to talk about literature—comic, romantic, escapist literature: that is, dad literature. While I’ve avoided reading books about motherhood since my daughter joined the world, I have read three fantastic books about fathers taking care of small children. Chris Bachelder’s Abbott Awaits is the latest novel by a young writer whose previous two books satirize American culture on a grand scale: one features a Las Vegas fight between a bear and a shark, the other a series of assassinations and resurrections of Upton Sinclair. Nicholson Baker’s Room Temperature is an early novel by a writer The New York Times recently deemed “The Mad Scientist of Smut.” And Nathaniel Hawthorne’s Twenty Days with Julian and Little Bunny by Papa is a slim volume of diary entries by one of the patriarchs of American literature, whose most famous novel, The Scarlet Letter, gives us a tormented father unable to publicly acknowledge his child. These three writers, then, are not exactly known for tender portraits of domesticity. But their chronicles of fathers tending to little ones are the loveliest I’ve read detailing that relationship. With honesty and great charm, they depict a daily experience that’s alternately surprising, boring, exhausting, enchanting, dismaying, and heartwarming—all within the short (and long) space of a morning or afternoon.
In his introduction to Twenty Days with Julian and Little Bunny, Paul Auster calls this endearing little book, culled from sections of Hawthorne’s American Notebooks, the first “meticulous, blow-by-blow account of a man taking care of a young child by himself.” Twenty diary excerpts relate Hawthorne’s time with his five-year-old son, Julian, in the summer of 1851, while his wife and two daughters are out of town. Stationed at their “Red Shanty” in the Berkshires, father and son gather beans from the garden, whittle with a jackknife, venture out for milk and mail, wage war on thistles, fling stones in the lake, visit (and defile) a Shaker village, and bump into Herman Melville and invite him over for tea. A close observer of Julian’s developing personality, Hawthorne both admires his pep: “the little man kept jumping over the high weeds, and the tufts of everlasting flowers;—while I compared his overflowing sprightliness with my own reluctant footsteps, and was content that he should be young instead of I,” and despairs of it: “He does put me almost beside my propriety; never quitting me, and continually thrusting in his word between the clauses of every sentence of all my reading, and smashing every attempt at reflection into a thousand fragments.”
Set 150 years later in another Massachusetts town, Bachelder’s Abbott Awaits, just published last year, features the father of a two year old with another child on the way. A humanities professor, Abbott has the summer off, which means he’s on serious dad duty. The novel is structured as a three-month-long record of daily experiences and observations, with titles like “Abbott Takes the Garbage Out,” “Abbott Stumbles Toward a Theory of Use,” and “On the Very Possibility of Kindness,” spanning the range of banalities and profundities inspired by childcare and domestic minutiae. In “Abbott and the Paradox of Personal Growth,” hours of acorn collecting, juice spilling, bead sorting, and other toddler-prompted activities lead Abbott to wonder how he spent his summer mornings, pre-kid. “He cannot even remember, cannot contemplate the freedom, the terrible enormity of Self.” In “Father’s Day,” he proposes, “There is something beyond tedium. You can pass all the way through tedium and come out the other side, and this is Abbott’s gift today.”
If Hawthorne and Abbott are pensive grumps by nature, whose children occasionally inspire moments of fatherly bliss and awe, my third favorite father is a gleeful kook on a fatherhood high. Nicholson Baker’s Room Temperature, in which a guy feeds his six-month-old daughter a bottle, appeared before Vox (guy calls phone sex line and chats with equally horny and hyper-articulate gal), The Fermata (guy with the power to stop time removes women’s clothes without their knowledge), and this year’s House of Holes (lots of guys and lots of gals cavort at a fantasy sex palace). The earlier book is, wonderfully, in the same spirit as the racy romps. Baker’s narrators are fascinated by things related to both sex and childcare: basic bodily functions, the usefulness and/or kinkiness of ordinary household objects, and the oddness of intimacy with another human being. These preoccupations inspire both terrific narrative foreplay and wild tangents prompted by the simple act of rocking a baby to sleep. Room Temperature’s Mike even relishes the more tedious aspects of tending to an infant. I don’t have much patience for my daughter’s protestations when I’m trying to pull a shirt over her head. Mike, on the other hand, happily stretches out the neck holes of his daughter’s tops before sending her through them, thinking fondly of the elaborate ritual he used to perform with his underpants after a shower. “Thirty years of such little masteries could now find new twists and applications in fatherhood,” he rejoices. “I held nothing back for her! I loved her!”
The pleasure I take in these books stems partly from their spot-on depictions of an experience common to many, and partly from the precise characterizations of particular parents and children. Another part of the pleasure surely comes from the position of the mother in the narrative. The object of longing, curiosity, frustration, and admiration, she is usually (or always) offstage. As the date of Hawthorne’s wife’s projected return draws closer—it isn’t certain, the postal service and horse-drawn carriages being less dependable than cell phones and minivans—he becomes increasingly anxious for her: “Phoebe cannot fail to shine upon us. It seems absolutely an age since she departed.” When she fails to arrive for several days, her “disconsolate” husband overflows with feeling for her: “God bless her as the best wife and mother in the world! . . . No other man has so good a wife; nobody has better children. Would I were worthier of her and them!”
During Mike’s afternoon of bottle-feeding and ruminating, his wife Patty is at work. Mike’s own mother, “a colorist for Greff Fabrics,” taught him that “women were the only route out of the brown world.” As a pre-adolescent, he masturbated to an Edward Steichen photograph of a woman giving birth, inspired by “the lust-transfiguring generousness of allowing a life to pass hurtfully through her widening bones.” Still turned on by the things women do without men, Mike tells us about listening to Patty writing in a diary before bed. He tries to detect words “from the complicated sequences of felt-tipped sniffing sounds her pen made,” her recorded thoughts like a tantalizing code he can’t divine.
Even Abbott’s somewhat vexed relationship with his wife is satisfying to me, in an admittedly uncharitable way, in that it casts the dad in the more harried and put-upon role. While Abbott wrangles their daughter and collects “acute and contradictory feelings” for his wife, she is often catching up on sleep, completing her own set of domestic chores, or simply existing elsewhere. I found myself cheering these elusive mothers: Let her work! Let her sleep! Let her leave town! Some of my fondest feelings toward my daughter, I must admit, rise up in me when I imagine her at home with her dad, while I’m walking across campus to teach a class, or sitting in a cafe with my laptop and a latte.
Very young children follow the Buddhist path to enlightenment in at least one respect: they exist fully in the present moment. For the attending parent, the present moment is usually a scramble. Occasionally, like Mike, we may rock a sleeping child in our laps, while our imaginations wander across a great terrain of comical reminiscences, curious obsessions, and loving insights. Often, like, Abbott and Hawthorne, we muddle through the daily cycle of feeding, dressing, entertaining, and cleaning up, our physical and emotional resources rigorously tested. Only later, after the kid has, we pray, retired for the night, will we contemplate what a wonderful thing it is to watch a child (our own child!) grow and learn and become her own person. Sometimes in the evening, amidst the miraculous peace that has descended since our daughter’s been sleeping through the night in her own crib, my partner and I will realize that we miss her. Sometimes I’ll scan through my photo library, admiring pictures of her, when there are so many other things to do, things that I was desperate to do during the day, while she was demanding all of my attention.
The most wonderful moments in these books gesture toward the future consciousnesses and emotional lives of children now dependent on their parents for companionship, as well as round-the-clock care. Watching Julian “riding on his rocking-horse, and talking to me as fast as his tongue can go,” Hawthorne concludes that his son’s “desire of sympathy . . . lies at the bottom of the great heap of his babblement. He wants to enrich all his enjoyments by steeping them in the heart of some friend. I do not think him in danger of living so solitary a life as much of mine has been.” To envision your child free from some personal failing or unhappiness of your own is, of course, one of the fondest dreams of parenthood. More selfishly, you hope that the child, grown to a contemplative adulthood, will think of you as a good parent.
After reading my marked-up copy of Abbott Awaits, my partner chided me for not putting a check mark next to a particular passage. Reading the section over again, I saw that he was right: it’s one of the most affecting parts. After Abbott tries, and fails, to teach his daughter a lesson about delayed gratification by preventing her from immediately opening a package of stickers, he imagines her, 25 years later, bringing home a lover. In the comfort of their shared bed (Abbott and his wife, progressive parents that they are, permit the young couple to sleep together), the boyfriend reflects: “‘Your parents are great. Especially your dad. He’s really great.’” Abbott’s daughter responds: “‘When I was a kid, he was the kind of dad who wouldn’t let me put stickers on my face. And he’d correct my grammar in a way that he thought was fun and loving. And he’d tell me to be careful all the time. God, he’d tell me to be careful when I was making toast.’” The fantasy concludes, “And then they will lie together in that old bed, most likely naked, and for a long time talk about fathers, the failures of fathers.” Abbott is a wise enough dad to know that fathers inevitably fail. But the mistakes he hopes to make are of the best kind, motivated by protectiveness and care.
The ever-vigilant Mike (in matters, that is, of his own idiosyncratic fascinations) contemplates the “many mouth sounds the Bug was going to notice and master in time,” including “woodblock tock[s],” “ducklike squirts,” and “the little kissy noise you could make by sucking the air from the blue cap of a Bic pen.” At the very end of Room Temperature, Mike proposes, “if in ten years Bic pens were still around, and the Bug, inconceivably long-limbed, were to chew on one as she sat in class . . . she might taste the same quizzical six-sided plastic taste and wonder why it tasted so good and so awful at the same time . . . and why the sound of her saliva fizzing through the tiny airhole in the side of the pen’s barrel was such a peculiarly satisfying, calming, thought-provoking sound.” When she brings the chewed pen home, it allows her dad to explain this odd attachment to the Bic, that it “might have something to do with the hint of plastic in the warm evaporated milk that Patty and I had fed her from a six-sided bottle on magnificent fall afternoons when she was a tiny baby, only six months old.” And so, he confesses, “Everything in my life was beginning to route itself through the Bug.”
It’s hard to say, without reinforcing the obvious gender stereotypes, what makes these characters distinctly dad-like. There’s a certain sense of humor, a certain playfulness, a certain grumpiness, a fixation on some things and not on others. I don’t want to suggest that a father cares for and feels toward his children in a way that fundamentally differs from the care and emotional involvement of a mother. I’d rather read literature about parenthood than advice manuals because I want the story, not the tip; the particular impression, not the general rule. But I suspect that I’ve taken to these dad stories, as opposed to stories from a mother’s perspective, as a way of identifying with a narrative about the experience of a parent, while keeping myself a little apart from that identity. Dad envy, I think, ultimately stands less for the actual role an individual father plays in taking care of his child, than for the idea of a dad at his best: funny and easygoing most of the time, fiercely loving and tender when it counts. For a mother, for me, it comes with the opportunity to see how the man with whom my life is routed discovers for himself, day by day, what it means to be a dad.
Image Credit: Pexels/Jordan Benton.