The problem with most funny stories is that they’re funny. How can we take them seriously? If a funny story is to be meaningful in itself rather than an example of an already familiar genre—one-of-a-kind rather than one-of-a-type—it needs another dimension or a larger resonance. The novels of P.G. Wodehouse, exceedingly wonderful as they are, are written according to an endlessly reproducible formula, with the result that we are more likely to say we like P.G. Wodehouse himself than any one of his books. The greatest comic novels—books like Saul Bellow’s The Adventures of Augie March, Samuel Beckett’s Molloy and Malone Dies, Italo Svevo’s Confessions of Zeno—are the kind we might hesitate to call “comic” in the first place, because humor is not what makes them linger in the mind and quicken the heart.
Beckett is an extreme example. The single fixation throughout his vast output is the absurdity of our continuing existence in the context of the pain our existence will cause us. His characters are subjected to absurd levels of degradation and misery—blind, deaf, aphasic, immobilized—and the anguish of their conditions is the only subject of the stories. But they can be pushed to such an extremity only because they’re comic characters. We don’t expect them to think clearly about their circumstances, and they aren’t real enough or relatable enough to inspire sympathy of the kind that would make their humiliation too much to bear. Beckett is funny, and only because he’s funny are we willing to follow him down his appalling rabbit hole. Comedy is a means to an end, like any other literary device. “What must wacky modes do?” asked Donald Barthelme. “Break their hearts.”
Like any young writer with an inclination toward wackiness, Chris Bachelder has been trying to figure out how his wackiness might be employed to greatest effect. Bachelder has many talents, but his obvious talent for comic writing has tended to eclipse his other gifts. His first book appeared in 2001 with Bear v. Shark, a variety show of a novel about the media frenzy associated with a computer-animated pay-per-view fight between a bear and a shark. In 2006 he published his second novel, U.S.!, in which a very elderly but resolutely optimistic Upton Sinclair is assassinated and reanimated again and again in a kind of alternate history of American progressive politics.
I have a lot of affection for both of these books, and there is a great deal of nasty truth in Bachelder’s characterization of American culture. The persistent theme in U.S.!, for instance, is that killing Sinclair is considered part of an admirable tradition of political dialogue. But neither book is as compact, balanced and lucid as Bachelder’s new novel, Abbott Awaits. Here, Bachelder has discovered how to balance his instinct for wackiness with his immense intelligence and sincerity. Abbott Awaits is as inventive as its predecessors, but its inventions are less noisy and they produce less smoke. The conceit is not overabundance and excess but an absence of plot elements: Abbott is a university professor—an “untenured humanist”—on summer break. He has a 2-year-old daughter, and when the novel begins, his wife is about six months pregnant. The book ends with the birth of their second child. That’s all we get in the way of story, and if Bachelder’s wit is still on display, it’s never an end in itself. It’s an enticement that keeps the novel brisk and readable and gives Bachelder space to explore his real subject, which is the bewildering and painful complexity of domestic life.
* * *
Abbott is the only character with a name, and the novel is entirely focused on the rhythms of his psyche. I think he’s a good man, but the inside of anyone’s head is going to be upsetting if its contents are examined closely enough, and Bachelder renders the agony of conscience so minutely that the novel can be unsettling. There is little action because the book is about the moments before action: the nervous waiting, the mood swings, the slow drift of the summer days. Each chapter is a vignette that corresponds to a calendar date, and each one is self-contained. They have titles like “Abbott Discovers an Idiom in His Yard” and “On the Very Possibility of Kindness.”