shining the spotlight on short story collections
Mud Luscious Press, 2012
“Know there is a finite amount of everything remaining.
Know this future is almost over, know we will live to see it end.
And afterward: Whatever cataclysm follows, at last a surprise.”
Matt Bell’s collection of vignettes, Cataclysm Baby, comes out two decades after the 1992 World Scientists’ Warning to Humanity declared, “A great change in our stewardship of the earth and the life on it is required if vast human misery is to be avoided […]” Cataclysm Baby seems an appropriate addendum to that plea. In this apocalyptic baby name book, each letter’s entry imagines a different mutation of our species, grotesqueries born from a ravaged planet, unfit for the new world or the old. The children’s fathers, shell-shocked and tongued in biblical verse, narrate the tales of their “short-lived children”: babies born with so much fur inside they never breathe, siren-daughters so angry over the flooded world they lure their parents to their deaths, worm-girls who try to tunnel their way to salvation, and newborns who come out of the womb as breath that only a mother can hear . If we are deaf to the truths of science, perhaps these horrors will shake us awake to ourselves.
To that end, Bell’s book could not be more finely crafted. Like the strange children contained therein, this book is a marvel, a species unto itself. Bell juxtaposes a delicious darkness with prose that is startlingly poetic. The full reality of each premise gradually takes shape out of the hypnotic cadences of biblical language. That doom should crystalize from such beauty seems both a betrayal and a truth. You cannot read these verses too many times.You cannot resist speaking them aloud to hear the way they vibrate in your ears.
Take the story Domina, Doreen, Dorma about children who spin cocoons in their parents’ beds and then transform into a different species as their fathers cradle and rock them. Bell writes:
I open the nursery window and let the room fill with locusts and flies, those other black wings, other black legs, other black mouths bent on devouring all they can catch: Only me, only what flaking skin I have left. Only my daughter’s fresh wings, her span of translucent amber flapping free the scent of molt dust, of moth smoke
Such linguistic turns seem impossibly transfigured. That words never before existed in this exact configuration seems absurd, that Bell stumbled upon this perfect ordering a wonder. But it is not only his language that echoes. Each fable’s meaning clings to you too. The butterfly daughters metamorphose from human babies into larva in order to save the world from a plague of insects, but also because insects are all the food that is left. The insatiability of human appetites is a theme Bell hits on again and again.
Sacrifice is another resounding theme. The story Meshach, Meshach, Meshach tells of a set of parents who send their toddler up the chimney to clear out the soot that seeps from the furnace below. When the first child falls to his death, they send up the next son, bred for this purpose. When the son resists, his father forces him up and reveals this truth: “I can make more of him, but there is only one of me, only one of his mother”. Does Bell mean that these parents see themselves as more valuable than their offspring? Does he mean to say parenthood is always at root about saving one’s self? Have we sacrificed our world and our offspring because we are each only one mortal creature with a furnace burning below us? Bell has penned a Messiah story for the age of carbon emissions. That this tale recalls William Blake’s poem Chimney Sweeper is apt. The allusion reminds us that our impending disaster stems from the technological revolution of his era. The story’s last lines, like so many in Cataclysm Baby, hint at the Holocaust too: “I know only this: Myself, the father. Her, the mother. Them, the son. And between us all, this hot hell to be shared, and the crematorium chimney above to be kept clean no matter what the cost, lest all below choke on the ashes of our ashes”.
Bell never says specifically what catastrophe led to the circumstances in these stories, but in suggesting blame is certainly hard on his own gender. While many of the book’s narrating fathers scramble to save their strange offspring, the greater male population continues maniacally spreading their seed. In Isaac, Isaiah, Ishmael, there is only one “last-caught woman” left and a band of brothers trying to breed her, but every baby born is too brittle and splintered to survive. Still, they stand above this one woman and try repeatedly to remake the world.
Similarly, in Greyson, Griffin, Guillermo, three red-headed sons impregnate every woman in town, “their strong genes wiping out the faces of their children’s mothers in deference to their own perfect jawlines”. And in a retelling of Noah’s Ark, Virgil, Virotte, Vitalis, a father shoots at a pack of men standing on a dock, so his daughter might get to the water and swim to the tanker off in the distance, which holds the female population. Bell writes:
I pull my daughter close, wrap her tight in the leather of my duster, and in the distance the tanker taunts us with its purpose, its promise to stay afloat until all us men are gone, until at least the worst of us has passed, leaving the world for those more deserving of its inheritance—.
Such a sentence guts you, holding a history of patriarchal violence up for judgement, yet allowing the possibility that mankind could make a more perfect world if we could only clear the planet and start over again.
In penning this slim collection, Matt Bell adds his unique and powerful voice to a new era of apocalypse fiction. Along with writers like Kevin Brockmeier, Blake Butler, and Cormac McCarthy, Bell paints the portrait of a forbidding future. Though his destruction is beautifully poetic, his images of our apocalyptic progeny are chilling. But maybe that’s just the kind of wakeup call we need.
Read a story from this collection in Alice Blue
About the reviewer: Tessa Mellas is a PhD candidate at the University of Cincinnati and a senior lecturer at the Ohio State University. Her fiction has been published in journals such as Crazyhorse, Gulf Coast, Hayden’s Ferry Review, Pank, StoryQuarterly, and Washington Square Review and is forthcoming in the anthologies Girls on Fire and Apocalypse Now: Poems and Prose from the End of Days.