Apocalypse Now

by Treehouse Editors

Laura Casteel

Review of Cataclysm Baby by Matt Bell
Mud Luscious Press
April 2012

With the date of the Mayan prophecy fast approaching, apocalyptic literature is all the rage, but Matt Bell defies the typical with bared teeth in his novella Cataclysm Baby, a fresh, soul-splitting addition to the discussions of parenting and the last days of the human race.

Cataclysm Baby is tightly written, consisting of twenty-six 2-4 page chapters, one for each letter of the alphabet. Each chapter is titled with the names of three children, emphasizing the focus on parent-child relationships. Instead of creating a single, linear story, the chapters function as individual flash fiction pieces told from the perspectives of twenty-six different fathers, all struggling to fulfill their duties in the same post-apocalyptic world. Bell never wastes an opportunity to add disturbing details to this world, a “waste of weather and wild” where “fists of black hail” fall from the sky, homes are buried in ashes or swept away by floods, and massive jungles grow “where our concrete once strangled the earth,” an earth whose renewed savagery gradually swallows the way of life these parents cling to.

Their children, however, are the ultimate examples of the changing planet. They adapt to their ruined environment by evolving in eerily beautiful, darkly humorous, and often gut-wrenching ways. One father awaits the day his cocoon-wrapped daughter will spread her “fresh wings… her span of translucent amber,” and join other flying children in “a sky clouded shut,” while another discovers the tunnels in his floor left by his burrowing offspring. Together, their stories ingeniously tackle the classic theme of children growing up and abandoning the ways of their parents, who struggle to hang on or let go. Except, these girls and boys are leaving behind a world that no longer welcomes human beings, or their traditional family roles. In the particularly poignant chapter “Walker, Wallace, Warren,” a father who surrounds himself with woodcarvings of his lost wife and children laments, “how I wish I could be the father and she the mother and all these our children, so that none of us would be lonely again.”

The fathers of Cataclysm Baby have a complex assortment of feelings toward their families, ranging from anger and guilt to hope and defeat, and each is explored through their unique circumstances and the traits of their children. But even among these broken men in a broken world, there are still sparks of love and redemption. In “Virgil, Virotte, Vitalis,” a chapter that brings to mind Cormac McCarthy’s The Road and the film Children of Men, a man travels a thousand miles and becomes a killer to give his daughter a chance at a better future, away from the men “who would only want what she is, never who.

For all of its depth and detail, perhaps the most striking aspect of this novella is the simplicity of its language. Bell’s accessible sentences, built on strong, tangible verbs and nouns, ground the reader in a reality they can see, hear, and feel, rather than a lofty philosophical discourse. If you crave raw, honest writing that begs to be questioned, Cataclysm Baby won’t disappoint.