Arts and Culture

It’s the end of the world as they know it, but the dogged yet hapless fathers in Matt Bell’s novella “Cataclysm Baby” are determined to do right by their monstrous children.

The fictional babies in Bell’s 26 families are mutants, covered in fur or segmented like worms. They’ve eaten their twins in utero. They can see the future and won’t stop talking about it. They grow into teenagers and fill with a gas that floats them away from solid ground. They’re born into floods, fires, plagues, polluted worlds their parents can’t navigate. As one father cautions his offspring, “The end isn’t short, it’s long.”

Call it the “What to Expect When You’re Expecting” for the apocalypse. But in its own strange and mythical way, “Cataclysm Baby” attempts to answer the question many an expectant parent has asked: “How do we bring children into such a world as this?”

“Most of these fathers are trying very hard to be good fathers. Despite the horrific situations, they’re usually trying to make it work, to understand it, to keep their families close in a way that’s incredibly difficult in the best of circumstances,” says Bell.

“It’s easy to be good to the people we love in good circumstances,” he adds. “The harder the circumstances, the more goodness matters, the more intent matters.”

Bell is also the author of a short story collection, “How They Were Found.” He will read from “Catclysm Baby” in the Sarabande Books Reading Series tonight at 21C Museum Hotel. He’ll be joined by poet Wayne Miller, author of “The City, Our City.” The event is free and starts at 7:30 p.m.

Bell and his wife don’t have kids, but at 31, he says he’s at an age where everyone he knows is talking about starting a family. As much as educated, middle-class Americans like to believe procreation is a conscious, deliberate act that can be controlled and even fashioned into an ideal, there’s still much that can go wrong on the birth and parenthood journey. “Cataclysm Baby” takes that idea to the extreme.

“At one point I thought the book was going to be funnier than it was, which clearly didn’t pan out,” he says. “There was a time early on when I thought it was going to be a jaunty apocalypse.”

“A jaunty apocalypse” might offer a serviceable metaphor for new parents as their world turns upside-down with sleepless nights and the terror of trying to keep a small person alive. But “Cataclysm Baby” upends the typical new-father narrative. Bell’s fathers aren’t all thumbs when it comes to diaper changes, they’re losing fingers to blind, vengeful daughters or sacrificing their wooly sheep-children to capricious gods.

“Parenting is a particularly fraught set of circumstances that’s really interesting. There’s so much anxiety and fear and so much stuff that’s out of your control even in the best circumstances. And families are a great place to set stories. You’re stuck with your family for the most part. Any time you can put people into a room they can’t leave, story happens,” says Bell, who will join the creative writing faculty at Northern Michigan University this fall.

Each chapter begins with the names of children, beginning with “Abelard, Abraham, Absalom” (“Hair on cheeks, on forehead, on lips and tongue.”) and ending with “Zachary, Zahir, Zedekiah,” with the slow rebirth of an utterly destroyed world. From deep inside the mythic trappings, a redemption arc appears, leaf by leaf. A future emerges out of a wrecked world. 

“There’s something about making the situations so fraught that reveals character and creates emotion that I think is really valuable,” says Bell. “As weird as the book is and as dark as it can be, I hope there’s some emotional truth to it.”