by Paul Charles Griffin
A Double Life
(Soho Press, 2012)
Let us now praise Paula Bomer. Nine Months, her debut novel and follow-up to her celebrated story collection Baby, is a masterful portrait of the brilliant and frustrated artist/mother figure living in contemporary Park Slope, Brooklyn. In her stories, Bomer depicted the often unspoken-about dark side of being a parent: a mother’s playgroup anxiety, a father’s revulsion at remembering his wife giving birth, a woman’s deep longing for freedom both within and outside of the family. In this captivating, brutally honest novel, Bomer investigates the compelling freshman Feminism 101 questions that prove so horrifyingly real and mystifying in actual life: How can one be both a good mother and a successful artist in a single lifetime? Is it even possible? Are these ideals that sound so good in theory really attainable?
Any writer, I am convinced, can be summed up by her diction. The particular words a novelist chooses say as much about the author—her identity, experience, and point-of-view—as do her plots, characters or resolutions. Bomer sets the tone on page one with this gem: “unfuckingbelieveably.” As in, Sonia, the mother-hero, now holds in her arms her tiny new baby who “unfuckingbelievably” grew inside of her for the past nine months. Another writer might have called the process a “miracle,” but that would have been boring. And Bomer’s writing in its tell-all, deep-probing, say-anything intensity is not boring.
Bomer’s style, like that of, say, Philip Roth, is soaked in a fiercely personal voice that wants to grab you by the collar, shake you, and say, “This is the way things are!” In her unflinching, truth-telling approach, she proves an equal opportunity offender. She savagely satirizes and scrutinizes not only neurotic Park Slope parenting (which, come on, is an easy target) but also the rehab lifestyle, Colorado-style back-to-nature-ism, the Midwestern trailer-park world, the lofty hermetic artist, and pretty much everything in between, including herself—the bitchy, unbalanced Mom with a sorely uncultivated talent.
After delivering the birth scene, Bomer jumps back to the beginning of Sonia’s unexpected third pregnancy. Though she already has two boys, a husband she alternately loathes and screws, and a stinted painting career, she resolutely decides to keep the third kid. After a hot and harrowing first two trimesters in Brooklyn, she abruptly abandons her family for a self-searching westward road trip through her past. In other words, Nine Months reads like an On The Road for pregnant, restless, high-on-hormones women.
Bomer’s strengths are her narrative drive, her witty voice, and her uncompromising insights. In explaining why Sonia doesn’t have a book for the subway, Bomer defines Mommy-mind: “When she’s pregnant, she can’t read. When she’s pregnant, she can’t think, concentrate, or do anything, really, except sit there and let the fucking thing inside her suck the life out of her.” And when Sonia’s Mom friends insist that having a girl is better for practical reasons, Sonia laments, “Even now, women still want girls to help them around the house!”
In Nine Months, Bomer capitalizes on the great strength of psychological social realism, namely, how well it depicts the divided soul, how well it articulates our capacity to contradict ourselves and to contain multitudes. Simply put, Sonia “wants it all.” These three words deftly capture the legacy of 20th-century feminism. But can a woman really have three kids and a successful painting career? Sonia’s cross-country journey builds towards her climatic reunion with her former painting professor, Philbert Rush, with whom of course she once carried out a passionate affair. The heated and contentious conversation these two engage in at the novel’s end is a most satisfying pay-off. Rush hits Sonia where it hurts: “Every child you choose to have… is just you avoiding taking a long hard look at the failure you are.” But Sonia defends herself to the end, saying, “I will live a double life. I do already. And that is the real truth. It is. It really is. Bothness. The love and the hate. The mucous fuck and the tender innocent cheek of the baby.”
Bomer’s feisty prose style and fluid storytelling are very, very good. They have the marks of truth: pith and passion. Nine Months is so good that by the end, as I read, I longed for more. I needed the sequel, immediately. Sonia makes a lot of beautiful, grand statements in her argument with her old instructor. After she reunites with her family, one wonders just how well she’ll be able to follow through. Indeed, she wants it all, and she seems smart and loving and powerful enough to get it. But then the baby starts crying, the novel ends, and reality sets in.
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