Books

The Novel That Turns Fatherhood Into Art

Once, when my daughter was six months old, my mind started wandering while washing dishes. The chore had become a soothing break from the ceaselessness of the baby’s need. I’d lose myself in thought as the warm water rushed over my hands, and this particular time, I was attempting to construct a theory of my dish-doing, how edifying and rewarding the rote task could be. My tentative title for the exercise was The Dish of Sisyphus, of which I was extremely proud, before a yell came from the next room and dispelled my crock philosophy.

As with most things that new parents don’t commit to paper, I quickly forgot this episode. A few months later, a friend—a childless writer friend—recommended Chris Bachelder’s 2011 novel, Abbott Awaitsto me. Best known for his National Book Award–nominated The Throwback Special, which follows a group of friends who get together each year to reenact the football play that ended Joe Theismann’s career, Bachelder is acerbic and often achingly funny, employing humor to strike at the heart. My friend said that I’d like Abbott Awaits as much for its literary merits as for its perspective on fatherhood.

Being recommended books is a typical rite of postpartum passage, and the market brims with parenting literature. Motherhood, as a subject, is covered from most conceivable angles: One can read Danzy Senna, Sheila Heti, Emily Oster, and Dani McClain and gain a deep understanding of mothering—through race, economics, and feminism. For fathers, the pool of options is a bit shallower (Keith Gessen’s new memoir, Raising Raffiis a promising addition to the dad-book canon).

Many dad books are presented as guides, memoirs, or clever manuals; and though most have useful advice, they rarely succeed in rising above their function. Early fatherhood, when portrayed in literature, is often similarly practical: serving to color the characters, plot, and themes, but rarely warranting a sustained look. Take John Updike’s Rabbit Run, which charts the struggle of a restless young father who abandons his family. By the time Rabbit returns home, later in the novel, the chances of him proving himself as a father are tragically lost. All of which is to say: Fathering, as depicted in these books, is usually not artful, subtle, or consoling. Abbott Awaits is the antidote.

Bachelder’s short but indelible novel spills forth with kitchen-sink wisdom; It was exactly what I’d been missing as a young father, struggling to make sense of my irrevocably changed existence. For all the profundity that one experiences when becoming a parent—the primordial love; the humbling wonder—there’s also a lot of dullness and mundanity. Child-rearing is an immense task consisting of many mind-numbing moments. Among the reasons Abbott Awaits is remarkable is because it collects these moments and pulls them to a center stage. It makes the everyday aspects of middle-class parenting objects of study, of tender observation.

Abbott Awaits takes place over the course of a summer and is divided into three sections: June, July, and August. The titular Abbott is a professor on break, his days spent looking after his 2-year-old daughter. He is filled with multipronged dread—of his growing family (his wife is pregnant with their second child), his job, and the imperiled planet—all exacerbated by the fact that he regularly searches out horrific news online in his home office: an exploded Steamboat starving zoo animals photographs of Chernobyl orphans.

The days are long, and sometimes the moments can seem to stretch on infinitely. Once, when taking his daughter out for a walk, Abbott spends an undue amount of mental energy willing the time to pass so that he can trade shifts with his wife, only to end up back at home to realize that barely any time has passed. Though the book is set roughly 15 years ago, it finds a special resonance with our current pandemic moment. Many of us have found ourselves parenting a lot more than we’d ever expected to, struggling to fill the hours with nurture and entertainment, all while maintaining our sanity.

So then what happens in this book? Everything and nothing; which is to say there is barely any plot to speak of. Which is to say it’s very much like parenting. The chapters are extremely brief (none stretches beyond four pages), written from a third-person remove above Abbott’s shoulder. Most of the chapter titles, ie, “In Which Abbott Sits in a Parked Car for Quite a While,” are wry. The tone is lightly academic and philosophical at times, sprinkled with Thuses, moreovers, and furthermores; Abbott’s analytic attention to his life’s bland moments adds an irony to the nonaction as it unfolds.

Late in June, in a typically tedious scene, Abbott and family are out running errands when his daughter pukes up a compote of raspberries in the car. As Abbott cleans the mess, he invokes three mythical heroes—Hercules, Sisyphus, and Prometheus—to help deal with the mess. Ultimately he is led to a paradox, which might serve as the novel’s central thesis. “The following propositions are both true: (A) Abbott would not, given the opportunity, change one significant element of his life, but (B) Abbott cannot stand his life.”

Bachelder examines Abbott’s internal dilemma with an attention typically reserved for fictional men with grander 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 parenting. In a passage from his novel The Information, Martin Amis describes the scene at a playground where the protagonist, Richard, is suffering through a monotonous gray morning with his kid: “The fathers on the edges of benches, or strolling, or bending and peering: This is their watch. They exchange slow nods of resignation and hear the wall of childish sound from which no sense is detachable: its twangs and pops and whipcracks.” When I’d first read this passage I was excited enough by it to read it again aloud, yelling “Shit!” after finishing (it was also the first time I ever heard my daughter curse, as she was in close enough range to parrot). This penetrating look at the bleakness of fatherhood resonated, but as soon as the paragraph was over, the novel and its protagonist quickly moved on to more pressing concerns.

But Abbott has nowhere else to go. We’re given a catalog of his boredoms and struggles, learning how many times, in a row, he’s read a book to his daughter; or how difficult it is to hose raisin remains from the creases of a high chair. We catch glimps of a father sipping an evening cocktail amid the ruins of his toy-covered living room, in a brief moment of respite. Bachelder renders a scene. Many beleaguered parents will recognize: how, sometimes, something as simple as a vacant seat on the couch can feel like a throne.

Parenting can be isolating and bizarre. Should you find yourself the first among your peers with a child, you might mourn the loss of a lingua franca. As Bachelder writes: “Parenthood is a distant and peculiar country with its own customs and language.”

For those who parent with a partner, navigating this country becomes part and parcel of the relationship, too. One of the great pleasures of this novel is the way Bachelder renders the fragility of Abbott’s marriage as it bears the weight of new life. It is taxing and often thankless work. There are fights, disagreements, and a ton of psychological transference. A chapter called “Abbott Hogs the Mood” will ring with poignancy for anyone in a relationship where parenting is involved. Marriage is “a battle—clinically, a negotiation—over the possession of the Bad Mood.” Two parents cannot both be in a Bad Mood because parenting cannot withstand it, and both parents are keenly aware of this. It’s a matter of give and take. And of love.

In the end, Abbott prepares for the arrival of his second child. He paces the hospital room as the nurses ready his wife for a Cesarean section. He reassures his wife that everything will be okay as their life gets set to change all over again.

Before starting Abbott Awaits, I was struck by its title, which reminded me of Samuel Beckett. Much like waiting for, awaiting suggests anticipation—perhaps the return of something. As parents, we are all awaiting: the reconstitution of our independent selves; the former glory of our romances. But we have no choice but to remain here, in this strange country, ensuring that its new denizens are safe and protected. Bachelder is a canny surveyor of this place, and he understands something more about Beckett’s famously pained plea: I can’t go on; I’ll go on. It’s often the kids that make it so.

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