There's a canny pageant of revelations on parade in Paula Bomer's wry, butch, and persistently despairing debut collection, Baby & Other Stories. Not the kind of classic revelations that come at the end of most short stories, like the sun cracking open a rainy sky. Rather, these are more like broken umbrellas in a storm. The everyman misanthropes at the center of Bomer's stories are subject to frequent, blunt epiphanies that uncover an axis of disappointment—with life, love, and procreation. Here is the dawning of truth: "In reality . . . the only real limit to one's collection of behaviors was death." Of understanding: "He knew, like never before, that he would die, Laura too would die, and that even his children were temporary beasts of the earth themselves. His job, their house, basketball, preschool, and shopping—it was all just waiting, killing time." And of self-knowledge: "It was the gentle stupidity of 'nice' men that robbed her of any feelings of mercy." There is lots and lots of derangement and deceit in Bomer's world. Delusion is the choice coping mechanism of the functionally miserable.
The resentments and regrets of middle-class East Coast adulthood are cast into naked relief in Baby. Even at the height of their intermittent psychoses, Bomer's characters are all dealing with crises of permanence: Now the baby is here, real, not a dream and not going away. The wife is dead. The birth of the second child destroys the magic of the first. The infidelity is consummated. These are matters that don't get reversed or fixed; rather, they determine the fabric of absolute change, the certitude of what's been lost. This population is so vulnerable in its cumulative ambivalence that empathy is the only logical response. Though the self-recognition that comes with that empathy isn't a comforting, we're-all-in-this-together kind of feeling. It's rather more like watching yourself cry in the mirror. Is it exquisite or terrible? Narcissism or disgust?
In the opening story, "The Mother of His Children," Brooklyn dad Ted is off to California on a business trip, and as he sits in coach, getting obliterated on Bloody Marys, he reflects on whether he loves his wife, with her romance-murdering postnatal sprawl: "Did he want to divorce Laura? Hmm." Still traumatized from the gory spectacle of watching his son being born; bored by his wife's primary occupations of picking things up, putting them away, and buying more things; and slightly resentful about the fact that he's gotten used to the neat, well-stocked house and evenings on the couch with ice cream and TV, Ted's not sure what he wants out of life. He's perfectly ambivalent about what he got. "She was just fine in every respect," he confesses, and continues:
Did he love her? This was a subject matter both Ted and Laura found embarrassing. It was something they had in common, this squeamishness about love. Once, after a particularly gymnastic and satisfying lovemaking session, he had blurted out, "I love you." She answered him, her face muffled into the pillow, something that sounded like "ditto."
By the time Ted arrives in San Francisco, he's drunk himself into begrudging, Boy Scout complacency.
In "A Galloping Infection," another befuddled man finds himself calculating, in the immediate aftermath of his wife's sudden death, that "he no longer would have to disappoint her. He, who'd never committed adultery in the eight years of his marriage, could fuck new women." The anger apparently built up over those eight years is so deeply set that it's hard to know whether his explosive relief is shock or genuine delight. Elsewhere, Dan, the hapless husband in "The Shitty Handshake," inspires "crazy, murderous fantasies" in his alcoholic wife. Jon, the husband in "She Was Everything to Him," is flatly devastated by the experience of losing his wife to their son: "Does that make you wet? Jon had wanted to say, to spit at her, when he got home from work the night before at eight o'clock. There she was, still round belly, cradling their son at her breast. No music playing, no TV on, just the soft slurping noise of their three-year-old son nursing from his wife's breast." In the title story, Lara, a socially ambitious, emotionally crippled rich girl who "always wanted a baby," realizes that the sudden anxiety accompanying her pregnancy is because she's begun "the ultimate contest, her most important competition." And with the baby's birth, she comes to understand how tragically she's underestimated both the stakes and the rules: "The baby writhing and screaming and screaming and SCREAMING in her arms, there was no hiding that all she felt for him was hate. Pure, liquid hate."
If Bomer's harsh portrayal of modern parenting and marriage were water, it would be transparent, unflecked, jagged ice—maybe with a maraschino cherry on top, to remind you that candor this broad must be received with a sense of humor, however grim. In this artistic cast, she lands firmly between Mary Gaitskill's articulate, unflinching anhedonia and Kathy Acker's aggressive, uninhibitedly joyful dystopia. Amy Hempel with a twist of Grace Paley. Baby is punk rock for the roundly domesticated. Rage, love, and incomprehension, narrated by people who can only approximate sanity based on the vaguest memories: "The woman watched her watch her son. Then she said, quietly, 'Have you heard the saying? Children are like pancakes, you should throw the first one out?'"
Minna Proctor is the author of Do You Hear What I Hear? Religious Calling, the Priesthood, and My Father (Viking, 2005).