Book Review: “Cataclysm Baby” by Matt Bell

3D-Cataclysm Baby-cropped

Cataclysm Baby
Matt Bell
118 pages
Mud Luscious Press

For me, thoughts of fatherhood are never far from thoughts of cataclysm. However, most people do not hold this particular view. I understand that my odd reluctance regarding fatherhood is probably the result of immaturity that still lingers (if not dominates) my brain at the age of thirty-five. Either way, examining aspects of fatherhood within the context of a strange and vaguely defined cataclysm did not seem a completely insane idea to me when I picked up the apparently baby-name-book-formatted Cataclysm Baby by Matt Bell. In fact, it seemed rather interesting.

Just take a look at this haunting opening portion from the section titled “Hali, Halle, Hamako”:

The day came when we could no longer hide the glistening sight of our daughter’s flippers, nor the secret of her skin, its oils and fur.

Like the other parents afflicted before us, we took her to the lonely end of the island, to the cliffs hung high above the breaking surg. There my wife kissed our daughter’s wet nose, after which I bound tight her swaddling, stilling her wide limbs to her sleek middle, and then together we let our baby tumble from our hands, through the tall air, into the swallowing sea.

If this isn’t the perfect picture of fatherhood in the apocalypse, then I have no idea what such would be.

I literally, without exaggeration, love this book. As seems pretty self-explanatory from the section above, this book impressed me on a sentence-language level, paragraph-flow level, larger-scope concept level, and more. The tales inside Cataclysm Baby are dark, yet tender at the same time.

Frankly, analyzing facets of parenthood in an apocalyptic setting is interesting enough simply in its imagining. Beyond that, though, it also seems to be a reflection (definitely projected through a warping lens) of how all parents raise their children in a world that is constantly changing. I mean, the parents in Cataclysm Baby are torn between ideas of the parental roles they were taught before the cataclysm and the reality of the world they now live in. At the same time, that seems (to me) to be a magnified version of how all parents formed ideas by watching their own parents and then have to try to apply those in a world where it doesn’t always make sense anymore.

For example, consider this queasily unsettling bit from “Justina, Justine, Justise”:

For the first crime my daughters took only my thumb. They refused to apologize for their aggression, even after I confronted them, after I tossed their bedroom and confiscated the hatchet hidden in their toy box, beneath their miniature gavel. When lined up and accused beside her sisters, all the oldest would say was that my trial had been fair, their court complete even without my presence: One daughter for a judge, one for the prosecution, one for the defense.

My middle daughter, she spit onto what was left of our thread-worn carpet, said my defense had been particularly difficult, considering my obvious guilt.

She said, Perhaps you should tell our mother you cut your thumb at work, so that she will not have to know why we took it.

Whatever this unnamed man did against his wife, though we can certainly speculate, I’m sure this sort of child-dispensed parental punishment was not a routine feature of his childhood household.

Or, in the additional or alternative, consider this downright disturbing section from “Beatrice, Bella, Blaise”:

The older was the first to show us the scars, the archeology of her sister-scribed history, hard-written by their cutting, their stabbing, their sawing. The younger better hid her sister’s handiwork, bore well the bands of reddened flesh and puckered scars beneath shirt, beneath sleeve, beneath shorts and underwear.

Even in the bath we barely noticed.

Even when the younger found trouble standing, even then we refused to believe.

Always the younger had limped, we argued. Always she had struggled to balance. Always her ears had been notched, her fingers a crooked nine.

What trust we had in the older then! What light touch she had, what blinding perfect smile made to answer out questions!

It had taken the younger’s retribution to reveal the older’s now-avenged crime, took the continuing destruction of that first body for us to discover the slower attrition of the second, and so afterward what right to anger did we have toward the younger, even t the shocking sight of the diminished older, our beloved eldest?

After all, what parent could have had a childhood that would prepare them to even conceive of, much less detect and prevent, this kind of sibling mutilation?

I’m certain I am rambling, but I’m sure that the idea of what I am trying to say is pretty evident. Really, Bell is the only one who can speak to all of this this, and the way that he speaks to it is through the words, sentences, and paragraphs of Cataclysm Baby.

Just read it and you’ll get what I mean.



David Atkinson David Atkinson

David S. Atkinson is the author of "Bones Buried in the Dirt" (2014 Next Generation Indie Book Awards finalist, First Novel <80K) and "The Garden of Good and Evil Pancakes" (EAB Publishing). His writing appears in "Bartleby Snopes," "Grey Sparrow Journal," "Interrobang?! Magazine," "Atticus Review," and others. His website is and he spends his non-literary time working as a patent attorney in Denver.

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