[This review originally appeared in the Sept. 2013 issue of 15 Bytes, Utah's Online Arts Magazine]
The phrase “taking care of your genetic material” first appears in Kirsten Scott’s smart debut novel Motherlunge through a father talking warningly to his son as the son begins to date seriously. But in the gynecological world of this novel where the female body is relentlessly inscribed with the bio-/medical terminology of a textbook, the “material” is a baby, the possibility of a baby and all that that means to the modern woman, in particular to the twenty-six-year-old narrator Thea.
Motherlunge is a full-frontal assault on every dappled, dimpled and doily-enhanced image we’ve had of both women and mothers. Think Sandy or Orem, Utah—scrubbed clean with culturally-defined markers of motherhood, riven with Victorian charms that are neither really Victorian or charming. Then think the opposite. That is Scott’s literary world. That the story is also hysterically funny even as it makes you squirm, is a tribute to the writing—an exquisite mix of the scalpel scraping along the physical curves of the female form and the cumulative, and ultimately sublime effects of pushing out another human onto a steel table: scrape and plop.
Thea is the second daughter in a family of four from Montana. Mother Dorothy could never quite manage being a mom, taking to her bed soon after the birth of both her girls. Early on she’s headed towards psychiatric care. Husband Walter is helpless on the scene, eventually booted out to his own place next to the local library where he works and finds refuge. So far American Gothic all around, it would seem. Then there are the girls. First Pavia, seemingly confident, definitely likable and also driven. After marrying, she’s moved six or seven states away to a “big city” that sounds a lot like Boston where, upon getting pregnant, she immediately separates from her husband Jack. This is where Thea comes in. She makes the trip east, settles into the town house with her sister and the now half-orbiting, very confused brother-in-law and a Great Dane pup the size of the original Honda to await the arrival of Xavier or “X” as he is often referred to in the book.
This is telling. Is “X” for Xavier or for some unknown variable in an equation whose sum is simply “catalyst”?
The story is Thea’s. The voice alternating between short chapters—sort of expanded epigraphs, really of present-day, older Thea—and the other, casing the narrative arc exploding from the catalyst babe. If Pavia is typical oldest child, Thea is definitely typical youngest: undisciplined, promiscuous, one who takes pot shots at everyone, archly clarifying her antecedents and wryly adding in the text “(italics mine).”
Thea has a running commentary on everything and everyone: Jack, whom she might sleep with; her sometimes photographer boyfriend; the “big city”; long-distance trucking couples; her hometown of Supernal, Montana…you name it. Even her uterus, bafflingly empty considering that she lies all the time about being on birth control, gets called out. And this is where much of the humor and irony plays out in Motherlunge. Even though she’s a smartass, you can’t help but find Thea compelling in her fragrant (and flagrant) observations that seem to characterize and carry along the whole of her tribe—suburban, white, western. She is a product of coming of age in the ‘90s when the entire country was just entering its late-stage narcissism, captivated as it was by a semen-stained blue dress in the Oval Office. Clearly her sister Pavia is bee-lining for something more respectable than a dysfunctional family in a small, Big Sky town out west. She’s vaguely aware of some kind of desire, but without ever any clear object that she might locate by going east.
“As I’ve mentioned,” says Thea early in the book, “my sister had always had the calmness characteristic of certain beautiful people. This population is characterized by the unfurrowed brow, the unhurried gait, the modulated and pleasant tone of voice. As a group, they probably sleep well. They are not nail biters; they do not pick their scabs. Their shirts maintain all original buttons. They make excellent corporate trainers, supermodels, and (I’m thinking) ambassadors and ambassadors’ wives. As sisters, they are reliable if inscrutable.”
Thea, on the other hand, is self-described as being pretty much the opposite if not simply a reaction to what her sister is—unable to say the right thing to her unraveling sister with the new baby and the estranged husband “co-parent,” as Pavia refers to him:
“Why couldn’t I be a comfort?” Thea asks. “Why did I always feel like something tipped over, poured out? I was like the cardboard canister held by the unsuspecting Morton Salt girl; my contents stung the ground in a granular line behind me.”
And yet our heroine has a strange strength to her that Scott deftly threads throughout the story and which rings true throughout. Yes, Thea, who articulates life as a kind of mold-infested petri dish, or the viscera at an autopsy—clinically delineated—somehow manages to figure out what she really wants. As with Pavia, she’s terrified that the DNA of mom will re-emerge as it seems to be doing for Pavia in Boston in her own lunge toward motherhood. But more to the point, she’s terrified that to get to know her is to discover that she is ultimately unlovable.
When Pavia pulls a Dorothy near the end of the book, Thea has her catharsis, a kind of ecstatic connection to not only her nephew, who is left to her care, but herself. “Only later,” she says, “did I realize what I did want, namely, to be that baby myself. I was jealous of X. I was jealous of his fat satisfaction, his trust, the way he gazed—unblinkingly, full of tolerance—at the blurred ovoids of his parents’ faces above him. And even if I did love X, he certainly didn’t need me to. And so for the most part, I didn’t show it.”
A mother is there for her child, but only through the “disfiguring crust of motherhood.” This is what every mother, including the expecting Thea at book’s end, must eventually know cannot be avoided.
What does Thea want as she lunges toward the vortex that will claim her and probably not redeem her in the end, or at least not as she imagines redemption should look like? Motherlunge is Thea’s irreverent love story, as it were, for her unborn child. And what she does want has something to do with “the weird joy of overwhelming responsibility” underscored—or “backlit,” as she says—by sadness. And that is the fulcrum upon which Scott’s brilliant and ultimately deeply satisfying treatment of motherhood rests. In the end the book is a gestation, culminating in the birth of a new world, a new heroine but without the cloying Hallmark-styling of mothers we routinely gaze upon when we should have, perhaps, been rooted in the smell of it, the terrifying biology and material of it.