Abbott Awaits by Chris Bachelder
[Louisiana State University Press]
Ask almost anyone what a book is about and you’ll get a plot summary. This makes sense, given that pure plot makes up most novels or at least what most people consider a novel.
Meanwhile, back in the real world, large parts of life take place outside our ‘plots’ – our overarching stories. We spend moments just sitting in the bathroom. We clean up after the party, after a day’s work. We spend a lot of time doing nothing that seems consequential. Such moments, in fact, make up most of our lifetimes.
So what is Abbott Awaits, Chris Bachelder’s fourth book, about? It’s a novel of these moments between events. There’s one real story line—the chronicle of Abbott, the main character, and his wife during her pregnancy with their second daughter. As that story unfolds, Abbott paints a room. Abbott cleans out the gutters. Abbott takes his daughter on walks and buys groceries. Above all, Abbott wonders if he’s happy with life. If he’s not, then what exactly is the problem?
So Abbott Awaits is about adjusting to life with children, the way parenthood changes your perception of pretty much everything, all the way down to those little uneventful moments. “Abbott approaches sleep with an ineffable sense of relief that he did not know, before having a child, what it was like to have a child—did not really know what it was really like—because if he had known before having a child how profoundly strenuous and self-obliterating it is to have a child, he never would have had a child, and then, or now, he would not have this remarkable child.” Abbott Awaits is about truthfully describing the child-rearing. It’s about really addressing the full joy and difficulty of parenthood while refusing any simple answers to the experience.
Plotlessness isn’t unique to modern fiction—look at Murakami’s dreamlike short works. Still, storytelling without story has never been hugely popular with most readers. It’s difficult to ask readers to care without a vicarious stake in the story—the larger the better—whether it’s the chronicle of a love affair, a beloved pet, or international espionage. Even when James Joyce wrote his great work, Ulysses, with a thousand pages of detailed day-to-day Dublin life, he melded into it a typical adultery plot.
Abbott Awaits rejects all that. Absent underlying intrigue, this novel relies on its particularly well-developed protagonist and his profound observations. And with no need to race to the next plot point, the book can spend lavish time unpacking tiny events. In one beautiful chapter, just two things happen. Abbott comes up behind his wife and puts his arms around her. Then, later in the day, Abbott’s wife tries to kiss him while he reads. The small, seemingly unconnected, events take place largely devoid of context. We don’t know what happened to the couple that day, what difficulties great or small they confronted. What we do witness is the effects of external events, and we see the way these events serve as synecdoche for their relationship. Abbott Awaits will work best for readers who enjoy the same things as Abbott himself, the puzzling together of little moments, the search for ways to learn their meaning.
In a deep reading, we become intimately involved with Abbott’s well-developed thought processes. The immersion feels so powerful, in fact, that one is strongly tempted to assume Abbott is really the author, Bachelder, speaking directly through the pages. But Abbott is, of course, a construction, if one with such a fully-formed psychology that he makes the book seem real, honestly voiced. That’s just what good writing does. For all that’s read into them, Rabbit Angstrom isn’t John Updike. Alex Portnoy isn’t Phillip Roth. Humbert Humbert isn’t Vladimir Nabokov. Abbott isn’t Bachelder, but their surface similarities are obvious, both new fathers who work in academia. Abbott Awaits is deeply personal, but as an artistic representation of fatherhood, not (to my knowledge) a documentation of Chris Bachelder’s actual life.
With no plot to follow, the book unfolds chronologically, every chapter covering one day. True to its own ground rules, what we read of the day is generally not the most interesting thing that happened, just something unique – almost always some occurrence or act or situation that’s been irrevocably changed by having a child, that would hardly be worth noting otherwise. The tightly crafted vignettes function as short stories in and of themselves, and patterns and themes grow naturally from these piecemeal descriptions of life. At one point, Bachelder analogizes the tasks of parenthood as Herculean in nature, like cleaning out the Augean Stables. Then he points out that a more accurate myth would be Sisyphus, endlessly rolling his rock. It’s not the difficult nature of Abbott’s tasks that drive him toward despair, but rather their endlessness.
Classical narratives give us external events mirrored by internal changes. Here, though, Abbott begins the novel as an extremely self-aware person and ends it the same. He goes in knowing intellectually, at least, that life with his family is a constant joy and a constant struggle. While he notes in the epilogue that the summer was “fine,” we know it’s a retrospective observation of a time he often found grueling. “Fine” seems to mean Abbott is simply aware that the struggle was worth it. Even so, life after summer looks to be largely the same as life during the summer—more moments of tedium cloud the way. Does Abbott accept this difficulty? Will he ever be able to? There’s the novel’s conflict. Whatever the case, Abbott isn’t on a physical or a spiritual journey. He’s just living.
Sean Gandert is a regular contributor to Paste and has written for The Columbia Journalism Review, New Mexico Magazine, Gamespite Quarterly, and elsewhere. His least favorite question is, “What’s your favorite book/movie/album/etc.?”