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Making sense of a world turned upside down by parenthood

Creatures of Love

THE TRUTH ABOUT BABIES, By Ian Sansom, Granta Books: 338 pp., $19.95

September 01, 2002|ROBERT FAGGEN | Robert Faggen is the editor of "The Cambridge Companion to Robert Frost." He is a professor of literature at Claremont McKenna College.

"The Truth About Babies" does not, fortunately, deliver what its title threatens: a polemical tell-all or, worse, a cute self-help book for new parents. Ian Sansom, who lives in Northern Ireland, is the father of three young children, and he presents himself, in the best sense of the word, as an amateur, trying to grasp the phantom of babyhood and parenthood.

For those who have waded through shelves of works by psychologists and pediatricians and would like a profoundly funny and wise book on the subject, "The Truth About Babies" is one of the most interesting and literate meditations available. Sansom has arranged his reflections alphabetically, and the ABC format, apposite for its subject, works well as a diary and as something of a parody of advice books. Its first entry is "Advice," the last is "Zero," and, indeed, there is none of the former in its more than 300 pages.

Sansom isn't providing the truth about babies, if what is to be expected by that phrase is the posture of setting the record straight against the blather of cliches and rhetoric. If there is any truth, it is often between Sansom's fine-hammered observations, and he hides well what he advertises. In the entry on "Lies," for example, he begins, "No one tells the truth about babies." Through contradiction and paradox, Sansom does not so much tell the truth as he circles it.

"There are only two kinds of useful books about babies," Sansom declares, "textbooks and [books of] poems." Far from a textbook, all of Sansom's own meditations are really poems, often addressed to his own baby, in which witty and thoughtfully focused observations become wonderful feats of association. Sansom often reflects on the suitability of the book's somewhat unpredictable drift to its subject: "With babies, there's no time for fooling around with narratives, with niceties like beginnings and middles and end. You have no plot. You're pure story. You defy the stylistic conventions." He speaks here to his audience as well as to and about himself and his baby.

Despite protestations of melancholic disarray, Sansom reveals that a careful disorderliness may be the truest method for such a book. Each entry is usually a well-crafted combination of aphorism, quotation and counter-aphorism. No topic is ever quite resolved, and his thinking about each takes us in quirky and pleasantly surprising directions. Sansom avoids for-sale emotions with sophistication and irony. The entry on "Irony" concludes: "I find myself becoming increasingly sincere. I find myself becoming the victim of my own genuine feelings." Though each entry stands on its own, it does not complete thought but spurs further thinking. Sansom's silences invite the reader to laugh, to argue and to comment. Though Sansom apologizes at the beginning for not being able to write a grand, coherent narrative, his style and form work wonders on the bewildered mind.

Each entry, however, does form part of a whole and resonates with many others. Though far from contrived, the book nevertheless benefits from being read as a poetic narrative. The themes of shock, memory and mortality coruscate throughout. The entries "Meconium," "Memory," "Milestones" and "Milk" follow each other and, in mysterious ways, reveal the fascinating regions and associations of a parent's mind as he confronts an infant whom he regards with wonder, confusion and love.

Sansom intersperses his observations with quotations from his vast and eclectic reading, ranging from Mary Douglas, Benjamin Spock and the Police to Ludwig Wittgenstein, Theodor Adorno, Hubbie Ledbetter, Sigmund Freud and Ginger Rogers. His reading isn't for show, and you won't find the quotations in an anthology, including erudite histories of swaddling and medical books. We can imagine Sansom in the wee hours of the morning frantically absorbing everything he can get his hands on to help him make sense of a world turned upside down. The book has a rich and compact texture and becomes a carnival of baby literature.

In the entry "Fathers," he offers a typically clear and elegantly written passage on fatherhood from Bertrand Russell's "Autobiography," which concludes: "All this I experienced, and for some years it filled my life with happiness and peace." Sansom follows this quotation with one from Katherine Tait's "My Father Bertrand Russell": "He played at being a father ... and he acted the part to perfection, but his heart was elsewhere and his combination of inner detachment and outer affection caused me much muddled suffering." Sansom does not leave the irony there, and more and interesting observations follow. Each observation, dark saying or bit of wisdom is poised precariously, to be undermined by what follows or to contradict something said before. Yet each entry has a focus of concerns making multiple readings fresh and rewarding.

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