Not surprisingly, this first chapter has become very familiar to me over the past few decades: I get through this one okay and it’s later on that I stumble. The birth of a child is described from the unnamed mother experiencing the event, focusing on the pain and exertion but also on the presence of her husband Shay (whose chosen name becomes its own brief tangent) as he pays witness to the event.
That said, there remains a startling shift in time midway through the chapter, where we go from the birth experience to a casual discussion of that experience some unspecified time later as our unnamed mother drinks daiquiris with friends. It’s achieved smoothly but is still a jolt, as if to create a distance that muffles the painfulness of the moment. We return to the actual birth but the later cocktail party is where the chapter ends. Another surprising moment is a brief description of the sex that led to the conception of the child, with talk of hard-ons and cunts making it feel very crude and mechanical and even bestial. He had a hard-on and it had to go somewhere and he chose her but it could have been anyone.
Finally, there is the chapter title, where we go back to the daiquiris and the party and how couples are sharing their birthing stories with each other. I can vouch that such story swapping is common, Barb and I were in such a conversation last week. It’s a mythologizing of one of life’s most significant and wonderful events, a time to bond over a shared moment that will always remain sacred. Scary and harrowing, but also sacred.
Unfortunately, when an unknown man makes a stupid joke about “division of labor”, the unnamed mother’s sacred moment is ruined. It seems to me that the crudeness was not the issue as much as the notion that the hard work the woman puts into the birth is being divvied up, credit s being taken when she was the one doing the heavy pushing. This is reinforced by the description of both Shay and the obstetrician, two men who pay witness but will likely be thanked for their role. But as the chapter shows, the mother has reduced Shay’s role to a hard-on looking for a cunt.
At the chapter’s close, we not only find out that Shay was the one who made the insulting joke, but also that the unnamed mother has forgiven him for it. Perhaps because he was present and he did make an effort, even if he’s thoughtless about what happened afterwards. Such slights and forgiveness is a great encapsulation of marriage as well as parenthood, of being wronged by the ones you love because the love exists.
In closing, the notion of starting this novel with the birth of a main character – I think it is Grace (the mother thinks the baby is a girl but we are not told for sure here) – initially feels very classic, a nod to the traditions of the bildungsroman. But by going beyond the simple statement of “I was born in yadda yadda to yadda yadda parents”, this chapter takes the simple trope and blows it up to new (perhaps even maximalist?) proportions, we not only look at the trope in a new way, we also realize how difficult it is to bring a new life into this world. As a standalone chapter as well as a grand opening gambit, this is a hell of an accomplishment.