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.”
In the first chapter, Abbott takes his daughter to the pet store (although “one should always be wary of a pet store that is also a soft-drink outlet”). Inside, they find an aquarium filled with hermit crabs whose shells have been decorated, “whereupon Abbott suffers an elaborate reaction” and we get our first glimpse into his psyche. He begins to think about “assembly lines” and “improper ventilation,” and he “speculates that crab painting does not fulfill what he considers the fundamental human need to create beauty.” He thinks about evolutionary history: “Homo sapiens…emerged approximately two hundred thousand years ago, at which point they immediately, relatively speaking, began decorating other species.” Later in the summer, in a chapter called “Abbott the Activist,” he is the 299th person to sign an Internet petition to prohibit the painting of hermit crabs. This is Abbott: a person who can and will extrapolate a problem of world-historical significance from the sight of a hermit crab with a painted shell. And can we blame him? His curse is familiar, and funny. He is a liberal in the age of the Internet, and he is morbidly and obsessively well informed.
Despite Abbott’s fears and anxieties, or because of them, beautiful moments rise above the clutter of his domestic life. These moments are as much a product of style as of scene. Bachelder is sensitive to pace; he varies his sentence structure to slow down or speed up the prose, and his preference for elision over transitional phrases means that discordant elements run up against one another and produce unsettling associations. On the summer solstice, Abbott and his wife are surprised by their daughter’s “battery-operated light-sensitive jungle-animal-sounds-puzzle”:
Tonight, like all the nights, Abbott says he will just take the batteries out of that motherfucker. Outside, the sun is setting, and the sky has turned that color that is both lovely and frightening. “Yeah, yeah, yeah,” says Abbott’s wife, vanishing down the dark hallway. This day, like all the days, endless and gone.
There is humor and heartbreak and wonder in this voice, and Bachelder is able to balance those elements without committing to any of them. It turns out that the coexistence of incompatible ideas is one of the book’s central themes. How is it, for example, that “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”?
Paradox is Bachelder’s preferred narrative mode, the vehicle of his humor, but also—and this seems perfect and true—the medium of his character’s thought. Abbott is constantly tormented by irreconcilable ideas. We get something approaching a summary of the problem in a chapter about Internet porn: Abbott “just wonders if the consumption of pornography can legitimately be considered a component of human flourishing.” He thinks about Stephen Jay Gould’s description of the accident of human consciousness (“Replay the tape a million times…and I doubt whether anything like Homo sapiens would ever evolve again”), but when he “tries, in his mind, to add the proliferation of Internet pornography to Gould’s thesis on historical contingency, the strain becomes too much and he nearly blacks out in titillation and despondency.”
[He] knows from Keats that the fancy thing to do is to reside in Paradox without any irritable reaching. But he also knows that he is, above all else, an irritable reacher, and about as capable of reform as a trembling dog. (There is rain on the roof, song on the monitor. He could just type in wild sluts, get it over with).
Abbott’s thoughts about marriage, too—that great balancing act—occupy a large part of the book and are again described in the same terms. In “On the Very Possibility of Kindness,” for example, Abbott makes banana bread. He has never done this before, and he’s doing it now because he wants to surprise his wife. But he becomes alarmed by the realization that he’s less interested in helping out than in appearing to be a “remarkable spouse.” Now he has “spoiled the experience, and when she comes home he is gloomy with the certainty that he has never been and will never be genuinely nice, a quality he admires.”
Even though Abbott knows that baking bread in order to exhibit his limitless depth is solipsistic and spiritually deficient—the very opposite of generous, in fact, and the cause of his current despondency—yes, even though he knows it, he still wants his wife to notice his limitless depth.
Abbott is a good father and a good husband, at least on balance, and there are scenes with his wife and daughter that bring tears to the eyes. But even if a large part of the novel is devoted to a description of family life, Abbott Awaits strikes me as a book about being, or feeling, alone. Maybe this is the greatest paradox. Abbott lives in the company of his family, but he leads a solitary life. The suggestion is that this is true of others as well: Abbott knows that “his wife is a separate person, large on the inside.” And Bachelder’s ability to capture the feeling of companionable solitude is what makes the book sing.
* * *
Despite its preoccupation with the minutiae of everyday life, or because of it, Abbott Awaits is a book about the present moment in American history. Abbott is a man afflicted by his time, and his struggle to retain a sense of intellectual freedom in the face of an overwhelming abundance of information should be familiar to all of us.
For Abbott, who is drawn to suffering, the Internet is spiritually destructive. In a short prologue, we see him exploring a site about a Chernobyl orphanage. “There is a warning about disturbing images. He cannot very well turn away now, lest he be someone who turns away from the disturbing.” This is one of his central preoccupations and the source of much unhappiness. He is too well informed, too full of the world’s vast hurt. And what good is all this guilt and worry? “Preoccupation with suffering does not alleviate suffering,” he thinks. “Preoccupation with suffering actually causes suffering. Therefore, it is both practical and ethical to ignore suffering…” But he can’t convince himself, and he can’t turn away. Images of suffering hunker down behind his computer screen, and he can view them at the click of a button. Certainly these moments are funny, and the Internet is central to the humor of the book, but that humor is also a way of illustrating and contextualizing his pain. This is the Beckett paradox: Abbott is helpless and lost, and the only thing funny about it is that it’s funny.
The Internet is a structural principle as well as a thematic element in Abbott Awaits, and although it causes Abbott a lot of grief, it does Bachelder a great deal of good. It’s woven into the fabric of the writing, and it enriches the style of the book. Into each present moment Bachelder incorporates things that Abbott will learn “much later” on the Internet. The writing therefore includes, whenever events in the present inspire Internet searches in the future, specialized vocabulary and the dispassionate language of encyclopedia entries. The hermit crab scene is one example. Later, Abbott wonders where his daughter has learned a folk song about “Charles Edward Stuart (‘Bonnie Prince Charlie’) who, in 1745, after two decades of exile in Italy, returned to his homeland to regain the English throne for his family, only to be routed by the Redcoats and forced to flee the country disguised as a servant girl.” Only after we read the informative sentence do we learn that Abbott has “a spotty grasp” of this history and that he has learned these things twenty minutes later.
Sometimes, the narrator does not distinguish acts of memory from Internet research. So what does Abbott really know, and what does that verb—“know”—really mean? The Internet seems to function here as an external hard drive for the human mind: infinitely capacious; a Pandora’s box of paradox; flawed, as memory is flawed; and also, like memory, a source of pain.