A brilliant novel from 2021 that is mostly about life lived in “the portal,” that is, on social media, makes, mid-course, a dramatic turn and engages the world of the flesh. The sister of the unnamed female narrator conceives a child who is prenatally diagnosed with a terrible disease that has scrambled her brain cells. Because of oppressive laws imposed by an authoritarian regime, not only is abortion unavailable, but even early inducement of labor is a felony.
In the end, labor is induced at 35 weeks. No one expects the child to live through birth. She does. No one expects her to be able to go home. She does. The narrator, now an aunt, falls in love with her niece; from here the book presents a realistic and honest and compassionate picture of what it is like to love a disabled child—who is never called disabled; the aunt sees everything about her as revealing a “normalness” that we don’t often perceive.
We read: “All the worries about what a mind was fell away as soon as the baby was placed in her arms. A mind was merely something trying to make it in the world.” Although the baby’s brain was a mess, her family still told her stories. “What did a story mean to the baby?” the narrator wonders. “It meant a soft voice, reassurance that everything outside her still went on, still would go on. That the blood of continuity still pumped, that the day ran in its riverbed.” When a doctor told the aunt that the baby was having seizures, “she stared at him over her nose like a seagull, because if he wanted her to name a hundred saints and desert mystics who were epileptic, she could do it, starting with the letter A.”
Indeed, “Looking at the baby she sometimes believed that nothing was wrong or could ever go wrong, that they were on a planet together where this is simply what a baby was.” When, in an early meeting, the neurologist had said that maybe, with luck and perseverance, someday the baby might be able to count to three, “she almost turned the table over on her, because who needed to count to three? Look what counting to three had gotten us.”
The book is No One Is Talking About This by Patricia Lockwood, and if you can handle the raunch and bracket out the politics, you will find wonderfully thoughtful sentences like the ones I have quoted here. I give you one more. When a nurse says of the baby, “Everything’s wrong with her,” the aunt wants to shout: “With us! . . . Everything wrong with us!”
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I think baby Jesus would have been taken as an imperfect, defective child. There was nothing wrong with Jesus’ body. But being sinless, he lived entirely by love. And such a person is an affront to the world, a contradiction to everything we live by. Of Jesus, the world says, “Everything’s wrong with him!”
But the problem is not in the babies. This is the unsentimental meaning of Christmas.