Perfect Little World
I don’t know why–because I’m certainly not good at remembering and acknowledging where I’ve read about a book–but sometimes when I’ve posted an enthusiastic review of some author’s first book, I’m a little surprised to find a second book by that author out in the bookstore, with no advance word or offer of a review copy from the publisher. I feel like I’ve done some of the work for that publisher (in this case, HarperCollins), so the least they could do is keep me informed.
Anyway. I walked into a bookstore the other day and found a copy of Kevin Wilson’s new novel Perfect Little World. (His previous novel is The Family Fang.) And boy is this new one right up my alley! The other day, I heard some twenty-somethings talking about how inaccessible the “American dream” of owning their own house seems, and wondered why more of them don’t at least consider doing what Ron and I did in our early twenties, which was share a house with a friend. Now that our kids are grown, we’re considering doing it again, eventually. It’s not a new idea even in our lifetime.
The idea of the novel Perfect Little World is to raise children communally, by arranging for ten sets of parents with new babies sharing a (custom-built) housing complex and trying to make it feel like a family, with rules to encourage each set of parents to become as attached to and responsible for the other children as for their own.
The character who comes up with this idea, in the novel, is a child psychologist raised by two child psychologists. His name is Preston Grind, and he was “the initial subject of what became known as the Constant Friction Method of Child Rearing….they sought to create a world where baby Preston would exist in what they called ‘a state of constant friction’ in order to make him more adaptable, more capable of handling whatever challenge might present itself.” For example, “instead of being swaddled and kept warm in a crib, Preston would randomly be removed from his bed at various times during the night and placed on the floor, the temperature adjusted to make sleep uncomfortable.”
Wilson’s characteristic ironic tone is created by juxtaposing the description of Preston’s upbringing with the information that his parents were frequently asked to serve as witnesses in the child abuse trials of those who had used their method of child rearing, “defending the actions of the parents as the truest expression of parental love, to prepare the child for a world that was not a ‘fairy tale’ and might not always produce a happy ending.” I think the author’s point of view is probably a little closer to that of the child psychologist L. R. Knost, who says “It’s not our job to toughen our children up to face a cruel and heartless world. It’s our job to raise children who will make the world a little less cruel and heartless.”
The action of the novel follows the story of Izzy, a single mother, and her son Cap, who is being brought up communally in an experiment that Preston—Dr. Grimes–got funding to try out. Cap is one of ten babies born at about the same time, so Izzy has nine other parents to help her raise him.
The experiment is called The Infinite Family Project, and the rules are designed by Dr. Grind, with the input of the participants and several postdocs who are helping out. For instance:
“There had been discussion about how the babies would be fed from the moment the families had gathered at the complex. When they first arrived, mothers breast-fed their own baby or pumped so that the father or another parent or caregiver could handle the duty. After two months of this system, Dr. Grind offered the suggestions of a milk-banking scenario, where all then mothers banked milk, which could be used for any of the babies, to create an even more communal style of parenting….Finally, after careful consideration, everyone having their own vote, including Dr. Grind and the postdocs, they decided that they would keep using the current system, that if they were not available to feed their child, they would pump and store that milk in the bank and it would be reserved for their own child.”
This scenario seems quite utopian to me, with its assumption that each mother has no trouble breastfeeding and pumping enough milk to store for any eventuality.
The novel’s primary assumption is that it’s hard for parents to give up the idea that they should be the “whole world” to their babies. I should think that, like Izzy, many people would be relieved to have others to share in things like night feedings and terrors, especially during the first few years. The descriptions of Izzy, though, indicate that “her past life, all those years of living without, of removing emotion from her makeup, had prepared her for this new situation. She tried so hard to dismiss her desire to be Cap’s entire world, telling herself again and again, with increasing forcefulness, that it would not change anything. Instead, she would open her heart to the world and hope that good came from it, even if there was the recurring stab of regret.”
Communal cooking is one of the best things about the complex. Izzy enjoys cooking, and the descriptions of the food she makes for the babies and other adults is wonderful, like the deviled eggs which “were to be pickled in beet juice so each egg turned the brightest shade of purple and was flavored with that vegetal tang, then topped with candied bacon.”
Communal parenting gets harder when the parents have to agree on things like whether the children can have pets, and how to explain the death of a pet fish. Part of the difficulty, of course, is that since these children are all about the same age, a couple of them are necessarily developmentally ahead in terms of understanding the finality and universality of death. The parents are not told which ones understand and which don’t, so they have to treat the children alike, in terms of age group, rather than in terms of their individual emerging understandings.
The parents go farther with the communal living idea than Dr. Grind intends, acting on the sexual tension they feel at the complex. “Everything here is so calculated…” one of them says. “Emotions don’t matter. It’s what’s best for the kids, for the family. Everything is an experiment; whether Dr. Grind admits it or not, he’s kind of making it up as he goes along, right? So why can’t we experiment, too?”
As the children get older, the parents’ shifting allegiances and emotions affect the way they live together. When Dr. Grind says to Izzy “we think that any deviating from what we’re supposed to feel makes us a bad person,” it’s clear that life can never be so clear-cut, no matter how well-laid the plan. As the Infinite Family grows, Dr. Grind wonders, “as the project continued, how many other people would come on board, how else the world he had created would start to slowly transform into something beyond his control. It was, he knew from experience, not unlike a real family, the ways you accepted the uncertainty and kept your heart open for whatever might follow.”
By the time the children are seven years old, they have begun to demand a voice in their unconventional family, further widening some of the existing fractures between the adults, and at that point, Dr. Grind’s funding runs out. He and Izzy decide to form a nuclear family with her son. Izzy thinks that “when the world fell apart around you….you held on to the person you loved, the one who would be there in the aftermath, and you built a new home.”
So the novel starts with an interesting and somewhat unconventional idea, and ends conventionally, which I found something of a disappointment. The working-out of the communal-living arrangement was interesting though, and kept me turning the pages, even as it became increasingly obvious that these characters could not change their thinking to match their circumstances, that their collective imagination about what a family can be remains limited to picking the best parts from how they were, themselves, raised.
What do you think? Are you now, or have you ever considered, sharing a house with people who aren’t related to you? Do you have experience sharing a house with extended family?