On the Uselessness of Men: Chris Bachelder vs Tim Dowling

One of my book pleasures of the year has been Chris Bachelder’s Abbott Awaits (as recommended by Just William’s Luck). As he says, this is a book for all parents, and especially fathers – although perhaps let’s not get carried away. It’s mostly for literate, intelligent, liberal-minded fathers. But there’s a fair few of them in the world. It’s a plotless novel in which Abbott, an American university lecturer and part-time stay-at-home dad reflects on his strange life, as illuminated by the twin suns of his two-year-old daughter and pregnant-with-a-second-child wife.

Abbott Awaits, held by a happy, useless man

The book is about the small wonders of domesticity, and the strange elation that comes from seeing life develop and blossom, intimately, but at one remove, but it is also a comedy of manners, that focuses on Abbott’s very male, middle-class uselessness, and his unstoppable over-intellectualisation of that uselessness. Here’s one very short example:

‘Wait,’ his wife says. ‘Did you put sunblock on her?’ Abbott nods his head in the manner of someone who could later deny having nodded.

It’s that kind of self-deprecation, shot through with a terrible self-awareness, that is the book’s dominant mode. Or there’s the section in which Abbott tries to do a somersault to amuse his daughter, or the one in which he tries not to get annoyed when his daughter uses improper syntax (“Daddy throwed the ball!”) and his wife not only fails to correct her, but actually coerces him into colluding in the error. (“Abbott has never told his wife this – he’s never told anyone – but he has a vision of himself as a father who, in the most gentle and loving and supportive way, corrects his children’s grammar.”)

Now this useless dad shtick is very funny, and hits home time after time after time, and Bachelder does give Abbott moments of pure goodness and transcendence to make up for it – but somehow even then he ends up neurotically, uselessly, useless-dadly worrying  about just that, as in the chapter when he finishes making a batch of banana bread that his wife had to abandon to run an errand, and then worries that he doesn’t deserve the approbation this will earn him.

Abbott is beginning to understand that he baked only because he believed his wife had absolutely no expectation that he would bake. Consequently, in making banana bread he could also make himself, at least temporarily, into a remarkable spouse. He may have thought he was helping life partner, but he was not. Not in an authentic way. He was never baking for her. Now he has gone and spoiled the experience, and when she comes home he is gloomy with the certainty that he has never been and will never be genuinely nice, a quality admires. He wishes he had not baked the bread. That would have been the nice thing to do.

That reminds me a lot of the kind of fractally recursive thinking laid out page after page by David Foster Wallace at his best (think of ‘Good Old Neon’ from Oblivion – and also makes me think: Christ, what would Wallace on parenthood have been like?) But at a more general level, the useless dad shtick does start to pall on occasion. After all, Nicholson Baker manages to avoid it altogether in his equally wonderful Room Temperature.

Then something happened halfway through the book. I realised it was reminding me of something, and that something was Tim Dowling’s page in the front of the Guardian‘s Saturday magazine, which details his adventures as a useless dad in the same way that Nick Lezard’s rather better Slack Dad column did in the 90s.

They are different, Bachelder and Dowling. I’m not saying they’re the same. Dowling’s pieces, always the same length, tend towards the formulaic, springloading their little epiphanies of uselessness in the same particular way, to emerge at the same particular moment in the final paragraphs. And Dowling could never reach the gem-like philosophical insights that Bachelder does. But they are in the same ballpark, that ballpark being ‘Aren’t men useless! And aren’t I, a man, clever and even loveable for pointing that out!’

Now, my wife likes reading Dowling’s page. She sits at the table on a Saturday morning, reading it and drinking her coffee and snickering. And I say, ‘What? What’s so funny?’ And she smiles and says, ‘Nothing.’ I say, ‘Read it out to me,’ and she says, ‘Read it yourself, in a minute.’ And I get annoyed, because I think she’s laughing at me-in-Dowling, which she usually is.

And here’s the thing. I read my wife some choice passages from Abbott Awaits, and she enjoyed them, but not as much as I did. Last night I read her the passage about Abbott and his daughter’s syntax, which is one that hit particularly close to home, and she laughed, but she was probably laughing not so much at the prose, as at my desire to read it to her – and the catch in my throat as I came to the bit at the end of it that seems to absolve Abbott of his uselessness, and raise him up, not through it, but in it. She was laughing at the very particular and contorted (but loveable) male uselessness of me insisting on reading her a bit of a book detailing a male character’s wrestling with his own uselessness, and somehow transcending it.

As I said, spiralling into a thought like fractals spiral out. But: she prefers Dowling. I prefer Bachelder. Why?

Well, I think it’s because she prefers her aren’t-I-useless man-prose to be delivered in short, magazine-column doses, so that she can enjoy them over coffee, while the kids are at football training, and, essentially, get her laughing-at-how-useless-I-and-all-men-are over in one go, once a week. Whereas I prefer my laughing-at-how-useless-I-and-all-men-are in book form, with the uselessness delicately elevated, every so often, to the level of general principles and philosophical truth, rather than mere psychological insight. Bachelder absolves me of my uselessness by giving Abbott’s epic proportions and lyrical construction.

It is a book, after all, which includes the line “The cat dashes across the yard, reminding Abbott that he has a cat.” Which is my line of the year, so far. I defy anyone to provide a better line, written by man or woman, useless or otherwise, found this year. Let me repeat it:

The cat dashes across the yard, reminding Abbott that he has a cat.

How good is that?

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3 comments

  1. Will

    Great piece Jonathan and I’m immediately fascinated by this thing about you and your wife reacting differently to the two writers. I say this because my wife is a big fan of Andrew Clover’s Dad Rules pieces from the Sunday Times Style magazine (later collated into a book) which follow a similar formula to Dowling’s or Lezard’s in the Guardian. I enjoyed them too but I thought Bachelder’s book to be far superior for just the reasons you mention here: insights raised up to the lever of philosophical or universal truths and Abbott as epic a hero (in the domestic sphere) as anything in Greek mythology! When I read out extracts, just as you did, they were met with exactly the same laugh. Exactly the same! Sometimes in fact they were met with suspicion. When I read out the extract quoted on my blog about possession of the Bad Mood I was asked if I was having a dig!

    Intriguing.

    I think you’ve hit the nail on the head here though. Not so useless after all.

    • Jonathan Gibbs

      Thanks for the comment. I’m reminded also that I did once read – and review – Tim Dowling’s novel, The Giles Waring Haters’ Club, which was just as self-deprecating as you could possibly imagine. I remember very little of it, except that it a lovely description of opening a just-finished dishwasher and being buffeted in the face by the warm air wafting out.

      • Will

        I never seem to be there for that bit. I’m far more likely to open it impatiently, mid-cycle, for a fork, and get scalded by the boiling steam billowing forth.

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