I am as guilty as any other reader I know of opening or hijacking conversations with some derivation of, “You know what you should read?” I can’t help myself; I read something I loved, and I want to share. There is also an unfortunate correlation between how transformative the reading experience was and how vigorously I talk about it, meaning that I am at my most obnoxious when I have read something I love. Fortunately, most readers have developed a defense mechanism wherein they mentally file the book recommendation in the same folder as the vague notion that something should be done about the bottom of the refrigerator’s crisper, which is getting a little gross. This is why, when I finished c, I felt compelled to skip the typical recommendation process and employ certain guerilla tactics. I bought several copies, placed each in a manila envelope, and sent them to fellow readers. I included neither explanatory note nor inside-cover inscription. I may have told my cousin just before I hung up, “By the way, I mailed you something.”
Another reason to skip verbally recommending Abbott Awaits is that my descriptions always run delinquent of the acceptable two-to-three sentence time-slot most people find acceptable; briefly describing Abbott Awaits is like trying to explain fire by rapidly rubbing your palms together. I might say it’s a panoramic of middle class life that discovers tragedy and heroism in marriage and fatherhood, and does so earnestly and with a tremendous sense of humor. But this sounds suspiciously like what many other earnest, funny writers of the past generation or two—Wallace, Hempel, Franzen, Moody, Cheever, Updike—have done, which is misleading. I haven’t read anything quite like Abbott Awaits.
The novel spans one summer in the lives of Abbott, his pregnant wife, and their daughter. It unfolds in a series of vignettes; some read like short stories, some like meditations, some like essays, and some like a combination of all three. The book’s structure allows Bachelder to map dynamically Abbott’s relationship to himself, his family, the small western Massachusetts town in which he lives, and the rest of the world. The lattermost of these is usually informed by Abbott’s dialup Internet connection, through which he anxiously monitors the latest news. The book opens with Abbott clicking on the headline, “Child tied in hot car as couple dines.” He discovers that the article “fails to answer the questions raised by the headline. For instance, Why do people do things?” Abbot reads that the “functioning and malfunctioning of military equipment has killed many, many people,” about a man who throws his three young children off a bridge to get back at his wife. And, from his desk chair in his house in a small western Massachusetts’ town, he observes that while it feels wrong to be grateful for one’s life when one is aware of suffering, “preoccupation with suffering does not alleviate suffering.” The question of how we respond to human suffering without devaluing our own existence seems crucial, as never before have we so constantly compared our experience with that of others. News today has a relentless quality: “Abbott dials up with a premonition…the odds of mayhem are pretty good. And sure enough: the steamboat has exploded; the gorillas in the zoo have stopped eating; and now these missing girls.” It’s not just that this is the world into which his second child will soon be born; it’s also that, as a father, he is expected to function as guide and protector. 21st century awareness, Bachelder shows us, has also bestowed relentlessness upon fatherhood.
Not that fatherhood hasn’t always been relentless, even quietly so, in small, anonymous western Massachusetts towns. While they’re on a walk, Abbott and his daughter see a “flatbed tractor-trailer carrying a small white house…‘Pretty Amazing,’ Abbott says to her, before noticing that she’s crying. She’s not making a sound. Tears are filling her eyes and running down her cheeks and neck.” Abbott knows that when he tells his wife, “[o]ne of them will say it’s troubling. The other will say it’s nothing to worry about. Abbott doesn’t know yet which he’ll be.” Uncertainty and surprise is everywhere in Abbott Awaits. After a severe thunderstorm, Abbott arrives at a four-way stop with an inoperative traffic light at which drivers are “taking turns” and “using appropriate signals.” Abbott reflects that he’s “witnessed this kind of egalitarian post-storm automotive sub-community two or three other times in his life,” and the “rip in the social order neatly mended by a group of morally imaginative and mutually supporting human drivers” “nearly [brings] him to tears.”
It’s perhaps because most of what we do seems so intensely normal to us that Bachelder’s charting of Abbott’s relationship to his wife, daughter, and unborn child is so extraordinary; what Abbott Awaits discovers in routine is simultaneously terrible and ecstatic. On the way home “from a spectacularly unsuccessful quest to buy a couch,” Abbott pulls over to clean “vomited raspberries out of his daughter’s car seat with antibacterial moist wipes” and is “reminded of the exceptionally strong mythical hero who had to clean out the dirty stables.” He looks up “to see his daughter running across the searing lot wearing yellow socks and a sagging diaper, looking very much like a child whose parents do not file federal income taxes.” His wife “chases the girl listlessly, pregnantly…in one hand she holds the ruined clothes, in the other the clean clothes. In her uterus, she carries another uncivilized human child. She appears to have no hope of catching the girl, much less of clothing her.” It is impossible to read about Abbott cleaning the car seat’s crevices, “which are coated in sweet-smelling gastric compote,” without acknowledging that, though this scene is of neither epic battle nor desperate love, it’s equally intense.
It’s no surprise that Abbott is most happy when he is “not thinking much of anything.” As his wife says, “It is difficult to have a relationship with the entire world.” And while this seems to be the commission that increased awareness has assigned us, it’s hard to deny that the world seems no less uncertain. Whatever I might want to say here about what it’s like to be alive in the 21st century, Bachelder’s “Parable of the Giraffe” says it more eloquently:
Abbott’s daughter is having a hard time of it indeed. She is trying to lift the stuffed giraffe from the floor, and she cannot do it. She has been at it for some time—nearly a minute, perhaps…the toy is not large…her faint eyebrows are squeezed in concentration and purpose…she is leaning over, using both hands…and the world is simply not working as it is supposed to, as it has up to this point. The reason Abbott’s daughter can’t lift the giraffe is that she is standing on it. Once she steps off the animal, she has a much easier time lifting it, which she does…[and] moves forth to the next thing.