Choosing Motherhood in the Face of the Apocalypse

Image: Riverhead/HMH Books
Shelf LifeShelf LifeA monthly books column that considers works of fiction and nonfiction that speak past their publication dates—because good books don’t go bad.

Giving birth is an apocalypse: one world ends, another becomes. In Samantha Hunt’s Mr. Splitfoot, Cora sits alone in an office stairwell, hands on her stomach. “This baby,” she thinks, “even though it’s barely here—some half-dead, half-alive thing—I feel it, and it’s something big. To me at least, in all my smallness, this baby is really something very big.”

Topics often rendered in miniature—pregnancy, motherhood—are made massive in Hunt’s third novel, while themes usually writ large—religion, the cosmos, cultish fervor, and violence—become granular, details of the everyday. Mr. Splitfoot is a ghost story and a road-trip travelogue, set in the once-industrial semi-wasteland of upstate New York, a place that “fell off the map of the modern world.” When Cora’s long-lost aunt Ruth appears, unspeaking, and beckons for Cora to leave her bad job, her dull days, and follow Ruth through this barren landscape, their journey takes on the cinematic tenor of survivors trudging through blasted earth. Apocalypse has already happened here, it seems, so slowly no one noticed. “We walk through places no one ever walks,” Cora says.

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The father of Cora’s baby is a married boyfriend who doesn’t want her to keep it; the father hardly matters. The considerable action of Mr. Splitfoot is driven by women: Cora and a silent, adult Ruth in one strand of the book’s narrative, a teenage Ruth in the other. The younger Ruth lives at a foster home and farm called Love of Christ! (exclamation point included—to speak the name is to swear). Cora’s mother lived at Love of Christ!, too, until she turned 18; Ruth was five years old and left behind. When a boy named Nat arrives from another foster home to fill the vacancy, she tells him, “You can be my sister now.” He obliges.

Ruth and Nat grow up together, intertwined—sisters, children, two sides of the same self—filling in like understudies for the absent players in each other’s lives. Nat’s mother left him; Ruth doesn’t know what happened to hers. “Her idea of a mother is like a non-dead person’s idea of heaven,” Hunt writes of Ruth. “It must be great. It must be huge. It must be better than what she’s got now.” As they approach 18 and the prospect of leaving the Love of Christ! for the world beyond—another small apocalypse—Nat and Ruth try on different roles. “All we need is a room somewhere,” Nat says, playing “the part of the man.” Ruth, “playing the part of the woman,” agrees.

They’re hard parts to play. “Being a man is scary,” Nat thinks, in his sisterly wisdom, and being a woman—well, you know. When Ruth and Nat depart Love of Christ!, Ruth is buffeted with guilt over leaving the younger children to the home’s dubious care, “as if being born a girl makes her responsible for everyone alive.” In prose that billows and snaps like a flag in a strong wind, Mr. Splitfoot unravels this question of responsibility: what it means to mother someone, what it means to opt against. What do we owe—as mothers, sisters, daughters—and to whom?

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“Motherhood, despite being immensely common, remains the greatest mystery,” an older woman tells the visibly pregnant Cora, “and all the language people use to describe it, kitschy words like ‘comfort,’ and ‘loving arms,’ and ‘nursing,’ is to convince women to stay put.” The giver of this advice admits she was once so fearful of harm coming to her own child—“machetes, pedophiles, high staircases, electrical sockets”—that she couldn’t care for her; she left. She is a nun when Cora and Ruth encounter her, motherhood abandoned and sisterhood reclaimed.

“I don’t say it, but I think she’s forgetting half,” Cora muses. “There’s a lot about mothering that’s good. I had a really good mom.” But Cora isn’t one, yet: a mom. What does she know about it? There’s a lot about daughtering that’s good, perhaps, if you’re lucky. (Ruth wasn’t.) “She never tells me that I am alive because of her,” Cora says, of her own mother, “but I know I am and I’m grateful, since it turns out that getting born is the best thing that can happen for your life.” One person’s apocalypse is another’s genesis. One person’s choice is another’s inevitability.

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But—asks Hunt, in her slippery, glittering, funhouse-mirror of a novel—can’t that person be one and the same? Motherhood doesn’t only bestow a new life on the child. “There are things I still want to be, want to see,” Cora realizes, trekking with her swollen belly along abandoned, un-mothered roads to the cratered heart of the Adirondacks. “There’s a courageous way of living I want my own baby to know about.”

Of course, you don’t have to give birth to be a mother. In the drought-ravaged near-future of Claire Vaye Watkins’s Gold Fame Citrus, Luz and her boyfriend Ray encounter a toddler, Ig, on the lawless outskirts of what used to be Los Angeles. “Where’s your mommy?” Luz asks the girl, but Ig doesn’t seem to have one, seems uncared for—or worse—by the dead-eyed adults around her. “Where’s your mommy and daddy?” Luz asks, but only she and Ray stand there, an answer.

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As in Mr. Splitfoot, the promise of parenting spurs a journey: Luz and Ray had been determined to stay in the near-deserted world between Mojave and Pacific, but they need to leave, now, for Ig’s sake. A dystopia is no place to raise a child. The makeshift family travels inland, toward what remains of American civilization, reversing the route that brought Luz’s ancestors to the golden west. All the promises made by the place—lushness, riches, ease—have been broken, the excesses of humanity met and overwhelmed by the excesses of a wrecked climate. A massive and still-expanding stretch of desert, dubbed the Amargosa Dune Sea, threatens to swallow everything west of the Rockies. This situation had, somehow, been tenable until now.

The larger, ongoing apocalypse around Luz and Ray is altered by the small apocalypse of Ig. (The moment of their meeting, Luz thinks, “was ever-seared into her memory as a tiny explosion.”) Suddenly, everything matters. Suddenly, nothing does—nothing but the little creature in their arms, the nonsense words she whispers in their ears, the way she pinches their starstruck faces with tiny, curious hands. “It had been such a long time since she believed in anything,” Luz realizes, but she believes now; she is the foremost acolyte at the altar of Ig. Purpose swarms, flooding the vacant spaces in Luz’s life, sharpening the dusty blur of her world. “This was, she realized, probably not a good place to be a woman,” Luz had thought, just before meeting Ig—and where is?—but it didn’t occur to her to leave, not then. She does for her child what she cannot do for herself.

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This isn’t a given. In Cormac McCarthy’s The Road—another post-apocalyptic novel by a writer known for dissecting the West—father and child trudge through a bleak America alone. The mother is absent; the mother killed herself rather than live in fear of the violence coming for her, her husband, and her son. “I’d take him with me if it werent for you,” she tells the father in a flashback. “You know I would. It’s the right thing to do.”

An absent woman haunts the pages of Gold Fame Citrus, too: Luz’s mother drowned herself when Luz was little. Pregnancy might be the only medical condition that decreases a patient’s risk of suicide, but what comes after—motherhood—makes no guarantee. Nothing does, in fiction as in life. Alongside a phantasmagoric portrait of climate change and the wrenching love story of Luz and Ray, Watkins’s novel offers an urgent inquiry into the ways choosing to raise a child in the face of apocalypse, in the face of danger or fear or the private violence of depression, might mean opting for life, choosing to strive for beautiful, ridiculous ideals like fortitude and hope.

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But—in fiction, as in life—things are not so simple. Luz and Ray take Ig and journey inland; Cora and Ruth walk north with the something big growing inside of Cora. They might be heading toward something, it’s true, but it also looks a hell of a lot like running away. A child, too, can be a kind of escape, severing the ties of inertia and offering purpose to the purposeless. What a relief, in the thorny forest of adult longing, to find the plain path of a child’s needs: food, drink, shelter, comfort.

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In Watkins’s electric metaphors, the child in need is a small god, a “coin-eyed” ghost, a “translucent” alien, an intoxication. Ig’s presence upends and galvanizes Luz’s life—but then that life continues. Caring for someone else can sustain the self as much as the other, but as with any sustenance—any substance, I almost wrote—the strength of such inducement threatens to wane as the initial fervor fades. Viscous despair runs in Luz’s blood, and Ig can’t always thin it. “You chose her; she didn’t choose you,” a character reminds Luz as she struggles to care for the girl. “She came into this world unawares and not knowing better than to love full-blast. You seem to be doing your best to teach her what a mistake that is.”

Is it? “We’re going to have little ones and they’re going to be hurt,” Luz says to Ray, near the book’s beginning, a fear or a fact. As the world crumbles, the pressing question no longer seems quite so callous, nor rhetorical: what is the point of another person? Why bind ourselves willingly to one another, when we know—we know—that such entanglement will end in pain?

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“The one thing I can tell you is that you wont survive for yourself,” the mother says to the father in The Road. “A person who had no one would be well advised to cobble together some passable ghost.” But she didn’t, in the end—survive—though she had no need for a ghost. There are limits to what a mother can endure. At Love of Christ!, the teenage Nat acts as a medium, speaking to the spirits of the other children’s absent mothers. “I’d be with you if I could,” they say, unfailingly. But the truth, all too often, is that they wouldn’t; they aren’t. Nat knows this. Luz knows this. Many do.

“In response to a 1912 definition of biological individuality as the quality of being ‘rendered non-functional if cut in half,’” writes Eula Biss in On Immunity, “Donna Haraway observes that this requirement of indivisibility is problematic for both worms and women.” Or, as the mother says in The Road: “My heart was ripped out of me the night he was born.” The ideal of individuality—that biological state, that American ethos—is troubled and ramified by the unfathomable act of one body emerging from another: both whole, both functional. “Nothing stranger than pregnancy could happen to a body,” Cora thinks in Mr. Splitfoot. “Not drugs, not sex. An unknown that gets bigger every day. An unknown I feel stirring, growing, making me do things my body doesn’t normally do. A program set to play. One day it will talk to me. It will die. How’s that possible?”

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Your body is not your own; another’s body is: this is the magic trick of motherhood. Parenthood, I should say—fathers, too, can be split like worms. “He found he was no longer afraid of losing Luz, or of loving Ig,” Ray realizes in Gold Fame Citrus, “he was content to have those two throbbing slabs of his heart outside his body, walking around.” In the golden west of the American dream and the stubborn northeast that birthed that fantasy, the novels of Watkins and Hunt grapple with the contradicting instincts at work in parenting: to reproduce and to save yourself, to remain and to become, to protect a child from danger when that danger might be you. “There’s sacrifice, antagonism, rebellion, obsession, and adoration,” Cora says, “but no properly complex word for what’s between a mother and a daughter, roots so twisted, a relationship so deep, people suffocated it in kitsch and comfort words to pretend it’s easy.”

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It isn’t, even when the threats of ill-meaning men and the climate’s destruction are confined to the back of the mind. Foregrounded, they remind the reader of the stakes raised by any given day. It will die. How’s that possible? Birth foreshadows death, without fail. Our children will pass from this earth as surely as the world as we know it will end—and what are we supposed to do, as those inevitabilities grow intertwined? Are they a fool’s errand, these children, these hearts tugged from our bodies, or are they the best argument we can make? What does it mean, to choose motherhood in the face of the apocalypse?

“It’s easy to be scared,” another woman tells Cora. “Once that baby’s born, you’re going to have a million more reasons to be terrified.” Fear is doubled and embodied by the beloved creature in Cora’s womb, in Luz’s arms, it’s true—but so is desire, so is wonder. The self, too, is an unknown that gets bigger every day. We might become mothers after nine months of metamorphosis or at the edge of a ravenous desert, in an instant. We might become anything at all. Whatever life we choose, we choose not once but every day, every hour. Mothering, daughtering, art-making, activism—like the destruction that threatens everyone we love, each is a matter of accrual. Individuality, whether of people or of days, is just an old American myth: we can live, it turns out, with our hearts wandering outside our bodies. We can’t live any other way.

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