Happy Baby by Stephen Elliott

Has anyone ever seriously questioned the use of “baby” as a term of endearment? “Baby” connotes cuteness, sensitivity, fragility. If you think long enough about it, you realize it really isn’t a very appropriate pet name. Babies are spared in ways lovers aren’t. Babies don’t understand hurt right out the gate. The newborn, Kyle, who appears in Happy Baby’s first chapter doesn’t yet know the dangers of the world, its unfixability and, as one of the book’s characters remarks, the unfixability of its people.

Using one of the most exciting narrative structures I’ve read in some time, in his novel Happy Baby Stephen Elliott weaves the story of Theo, a sensitive and fragile person, in reverse chronological order, from rough adult present to even rougher adolescent past. Theo spent much of his youth under the care of state-run group homes, where a sense of fearfulness for the world was developed and deepened. His adult life consists of dominatrix dungeons, odd jobs, living hand to fist. The more you read, the more you understand how Theo-the-boy evolved, if you think there’s an emotional evolution at all, into Theo-the-man, though that understanding is, appropriately and honestly, not nearly complete. The book is about how much pain a person can take in life, and where that pain goes, what that pain does.

To me, the book’s structure was what worked best in Happy Baby. That and Elliott’s sentences, Carveresque in their precision. (Like Raymond Carver, Elliott worked with a big-name editor on this book: Dave Eggers.) Elliott writes lines that wouldn’t feel out of place in a sonnet’s couplet. Lines like:

I have new dust every day.

The quality of his taut sentences are matched, as I’ve said, by his backward structure. The reader collapses into Theo’s past, always written in the present tense, and it’s in the past that we see the formation of his broken person. What this amounts to are eleven short segments of Theo’s story, each of which could be separate from one another. In this respect, Happy Baby shares something with Denis Johnson’s collection Jesus’ Son, though I find Elliott’s writing more polished. When read as a whole, the novel is slightly disorientating. When a self-reflexive reference clicks, though, when a motif reoccurs or a secondary character makes a reappearance (later in the book, and so earlier in the chronology of Theo’s life), it is incredibly satisfying.

Elliott has said that he aligns himself with the current stylistic movement of “hipster literature,” (Tao Lin, Zachary German, Josh Mohr). Happy Baby’s structure somewhat mirrors a tenet of hipsterdom. Members of hipster culture are known for their tendency to regress, their stuntedness. Choosing to tell a story backwards, then, seems of a piece with hipster ideology, expressive of an inability or simply a lack of desire to advance forward, grow up. The belief that the farther you go back into someone’s past, the more sense you’ll be able to (maybe) make of their present.

What’s interesting with Happy Baby is that Theo’s disquietude, his struggles, are very adult from a young age. They’re not Lin’s petty 21st-century Gchat-anxieties; they’re hard, unfair realities that need to be worked around. This is why, when young Theo says on the novel’s second to last page that “nobody gives [him] a hard time,” you want to shake him, and tell him that everybody is going to give him a hard time, that that’s just how it’s going to be.

There’s a beautiful and wordless moment thirty minutes into Darren Aronofsky’s Black Swan, in which Natalie Portman gazes upon a marble statue of what appears to be a centaur, wings arched on the back-shoulders of a hulking human figure. It’s a sexless creature, frozen in triumphant pose. It has the capacity for perfection, something Portman’s character, Nina, spends the entire film trying impossibly to achieve. She takes in the statue and the soundtrack’s strings swell. I think Nina for a moment wishes she could turn to stone, could stop her self-destructive drive for faultlessness.

In Black Swan, Nina experiences intense pleasure and intense pain. The pleasure off-stage comes from hard drugs and sexual activity, both of which make appearances and serve similar functions in Happy Baby. Those pleasures are perennially short-term, though. Pain wins out; it most always will. Happy Baby, a self-described autobiographical novel, proves that out of pain something beautiful, like a book, like a baby, can be brought into the world and can make life less painful. With tenderness toward its characters, especially the complex, morally ambiguous ones, of whom there are thankfully plenty, Elliott crafted a perfect entry-point to his work, and his heart.

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