“They fuck you up, your mum and dad.” So opens Philip Larkin’s “This Be the Verse,” which I’ll quote in full below because it’s short and marvelous:
They fuck you up, your mum and dad.
They may not mean to, but they do.
They fill you with the faults they had
And add some extra, just for you.
But they were fucked up in their turn
By fools in old-style hats and coats,
Who half the time were soppy-stern
And half at one another’s throats.
Man hands on misery to man.
It deepens like a coastal shelf.
Get out as early as you can,
And don’t have any kids yourself.
It’s a favorite of mine, and I thought about it a lot in this week’s reading, particularly with parents like Clyde Magnet and his mother and Stevie Strumm’s father and grandfather in mind.
Clyde sometimes shows a faint veneer of consideration for Belt, but it generally rings pretty hollow to me. Sure he intended to overload on that cure with Belt as a treat. He didn’t even remember to leave Belt money while off fishing during Belt’s birthday week. At times, he gave off what I took to be a sort of abusive vibe with his comments about “taking it on the chin” and the bullying vibe he directs at Belt about the water glass on pages 86 – 87, where Belt says that with “my father behind me, especially in a hallway, I always felt as though I were about to flinch, and I knew that if I flinched or even seemed to him to be on the verge of flinching, he’d enjoy my flinching… and he’d attempt to make me flinch again and again…” This does not feel like a healthy dynamic. And generally, Clyde’s advice in the book is pretty old-fashioned (though less so when it’s set in the late ’80s) and tending toward being brutish.
(A quick coda regarding Clyde, added after I originally wrote this piece a few days ago and added just prior to publication: At the book club Zoom call last night, the host proposed that Clyde shows love through aggression, and this does sort of hold water for me. I show affection for friends by teasing them, and sometimes that teasing, without full context, could be construed as a little cruel. Maybe Clyde is just sort of old-fashioned, of the toxic masculinity school of parenting, and is unsure how to express positive emotion in a way that doesn’t seem kind of aggressive and off. I still sort of think, based on what we’ve read through this week’s milestone, that this flinchy type behavior is pretty awful, but I think the book club host is probably right and that Clyde isn’t actually as bad as he so far seems. Still, that kind of thing can fuck you up (they may not mean to, but they do), so I’m keeping Clyde on my shit list in spite of my initial over-simplistic read of his behavior.)
Clyde’s mother wasn’t so nice either (but they were fucked up in their turn), sort of bragging to her 12-year-old grandson when he’s just learned that his mother has had a seizure about how she (Grandmother Magnet) brooked no nonsense from a young Clyde of the sort Belt has demonstrated. And then there’s the fact that she took her young grandson to a mobster’s house for an overnighter. This is all very funny, but none of it’s going to win her Grandmother of the Year.
Stevie Strumm’s family tree is composed of at best negligent parents and at least of a purportedly murderous Nazi grandfather.
One can imagine that Jonboat isn’t the greatest of fathers either, though it’s early yet to say, so I may be projecting some of his cruddy youthful behavior onto the adult.
I think most novels deal with parenthood and childhood in some way or another — most of us have at least been the child of a parent — so it’s hard to escape as an essential part of the human experience when writing a book. And I don’t have any profound insights about parenthood or childhood in the book. But I do think there’s more here than just a few displays of crummy parenting.
On page 236, Dr. Manx explains to Belt and his mother that the Botimal will need to be cuddled for a couple of hours per day, which sounds to Belt’s mother like a big commitment. Just a moment before, Belt has asked if he can swap the Botimal for a sugar glider in a month. His next line after Manx explains what’s required to nurture this tiny cuddly creature, which must imprint much as birds do on their parents, is “I want it.” That’s a pretty sudden turnaround.
On the next page, Belt relates a story about a visit with his mother when he was younger to the natural history museum. He had learned that dinosaur models were made sometimes of plastic. This was disillusioning for him, and yet he felt that he must protect his mother from being disappointed in his disillusionment. He compares this phenomenon to another:
I was six or maybe seven years old, and for as long as I was able to remember, I’d pretended that when she blew air on a flesh wound — a bee-stung knee, say, or rugburned elbow — the pain went away. It was important she believe I believed in her magic.
It’s such a tender thing, this protective instinct the child has for the parent. Belt goes on to overcompensate for his disillusionment when they visit the aquarium on that same disappointing day, but it’s clear that his mother doesn’t fall for it; he has failed to make her believe. This is a sad memory for him, his saddest still at the age of 12, in fact, and so ill-equipped is he as a child to separate his own sadness from his mother’s that he thinks it must be her saddest memory too.
After leaving Manx (years after those other museum trips), Belt and his mother go to the Science and Industry museum, where they see chicks hatching from eggs and a wall of fetuses at different stages of development, and this prompts Belt to tell his mother he can’t wait to have a kid:
I said it again in front of week 38, and I saw she was crying. I assumed that she figured I was hamming it up; assumed she’d remembered that time at the Shedd, and that all the authentic enthusiasm I’d shown since we’d arrived a the museum — maybe even since Manx had assigned me the Botimal — now appeared false to her.
Of course I was wrong. The problem was she did buy my excitement for fatherhood. The degree to which I misunderstood was almost comical.
He carries on trying to convince her. The misunderstanding of course (unless I am once again being a doofus and reading simplistically) is that she has just brought her psychotic son from an appointment where they’ve learned that good outcomes for similar patients include maybe being able to do a little for themselves as they head toward middle-age. Being a father is not likely in Belt’s future, she knows, and his clear enthusiasm for doing so no doubt makes her sadder with each of his cheerful reassurances.
In the pages that follow, Belt and his mother watch the Botimal ovum’s progress very carefully, and it looks very much like the anxiety and wonder with which parents-to-be track the progress of their children-to-be.
How many limbs would it have? How many fingers? What color velvet? Would it think it was a person? Would it think I was a Botimal? What was it like to be something’s best friend? Was reciprocity a foregone conclusion? And what if somebody tried to steal it? Wouldn’t somebody try to steal it? What if somebody tried to hurt it? How could I protect it? And when — when exactly — would it hatch?
Although different in some (but not all) of their particulars, these are the obsessions of parents-to-be. And then on page 245, Belt looks for changes in the ovum’s squiggles and finds “three roughly parallel slashes, two green and one blue, across the horn of each anvil.” This sounds an awfully lot like the sorts of signs you look for when reading a pregnancy test.
Belt’s anticipation and hope stand in stark contrast to the pretty lackluster parenting we’ve seen so far in the book, and I wonder if this contrast will begin deeper into the novel to resonate more directly with threads pertaining to sentience and suffering, and with yearning for connection for beings not yourself. At any rate, there seems to be a lot happening early in the book that positions Belt as a nurturer with pretty parental instincts and associations, and I’m curious to see what if anything will come of that.
Always loved Larkin, and this poem in particular. I used to teach it in freshman comp, and I’d ask for volunteers to read it aloud. Some bold kid would always have a blast intoning it, given license to swear–and swear boldly–in class. But, beyond that it’s a poem most anyone can relate to.
I haven’t been reading along with this novel. But I’m glad to see you are. And it’s glad to see the Infinite Zombies up and running again.
Thanks, James. It’s good to see you pop in. I’m on the fence about whether to do another book after this one or not; if we do another, maybe you’ll join us.
What a rich theme to pick out in this chunk of reading, Daryl. Thank you for it. This part of the book is the first time we get to see any actual positive parenting, I think, because it’s the first time we get to spend with Belt’s mom. That tender protectiveness that Belt has for her is part of it too, because they actually care for each other. (And not for nothing, it looks like Mom is where Belt gets his empathic bent from. Her instinctive knowledge of how to get Blank to spit out the spicy onion was really touching.) There were some really lovely emotional tones in here, even if some of them were really sad.
I’m gonna have to think some about your Clyde Coda. I suppose I can see it, but I have such a kneejerk revulsion to toxic masculinity that it’s hard for me to make space for it with “he’s doing the best he can in a bad paradigm” kind of mitigation. Like, maybe it’s true that this is the only way he knows to show that he has deep feelings—but he’s old enough to know, by my lights, that he should at least be trying to do better. I know I have a personal tendency toward rigidity about that kind of thing, though (my first construction of “woefully incomplete or unsuccessful escape from the strictures of toxic masculinity” is usually “laziness,” which I know isn’t always fair), so I’m grateful for your model of keeping a place for him on your shit list even if there’s more to his behavior than meets the eye.
I’m really glad this one landed for you, Jeff. I think it’s the book that’s rich, really, just making stuff like this really jump out at me. This kind of discursive, roaming, weird book is a lot more fun for me to write about than more conventional stuff precisely because this sort of thing does emerge; I think that more conventional literature tempts me to write more conventionally about more conventional themes, and it’s neat to just kind of throw stuff out there and see what sticks.
Jeff, toxic masculinity is so repellent to me that I instinctively hated Clyde. I feel like I need to be more understanding of it because it comes from somewhere and yet, yes, why can’t men see what they are doing? Of course, in mid-June 2020, that question is answered almost daily that they don’t even seem to think what they are doing is wrong. Ugh.
I recall that poem. In fact as soon as I read it, it came back to me, but i had forgotten the whole thing. What a gem. I didn’t know it was Larkin and will have to remind myself to read more from him.
I have disliked Clyde. Although there are some mitigating factors. His dead wife has to be one of the biggest. Having a child with a “problem” must be challenging for a traditional (don’t hit girls, but hit guys if they big you) kind of guy. The part later [minor spoiler for this week, but I’m writing it later] where they hug was something of a breakthrough for their dynamic though. Did something happen on that fishing trip that suddenly made him more conscientious about Belt?
The grandmother sequence was very funny, bit in a very very Levin way: dark comedy amid something that realistically would be horrifying to hear about (kind of like all of The Instructions).
i hadn’t really thought about the cuddling aspect of the Botimals–how people in desperate need of cuddling or personal warmth would really want these creatures. Is the potential parallel that too much cuddling makes your head explode?
Yeah, the hug is something else, and I read that whole section through a lens of sort of… Belt’s having a V8 or a Mentos sort of day. Everything’s coming up roses, etc.