The birth of a first child is a seminal moment. Parents prepare as best they can, but the challenges of newborn can destabilize even the most committed partners. Even in the best conditions, maintaining a relationship doesn’t always work, and nothing will prepare a new parent for the death of their infant.
In calamity, people seek solace in identifying some tiny error they’ve made as though by acknowledging it, they can correct the damage wrought. Correcting the mistake doesn’t always work, but small decisions can have a huge impact on outcomes. Such is the case in Randall Klein’s novel Little Disasters. Two couples, Michael and Rebecca and Paul and Jenny, find their lives intertwined and then disrupted by the seemingly minor choices they make following the birth of their children.
Michael, a furniture maker, meets Paul, an actor, in the hospital waiting room. Their lives might never have crossed again except for the death of Paul and Jenny’s baby. Paul hopes to help Jenny grieve by converting their nursery back into a home office and asks Michael to take on the project of building her a set of bookcases. Over the course of his time working on the home office, Michael finds himself enchanted by Jenny who ameliorates the loss of her child by seducing him. Michael is selfish enough to believe he can love both Rebecca, the mother of his child, and Jenny simultaneously. And then he has to choose between them.
The novel unfolds across two times—a present, set in 2010, and a past, beginning one year prior. During the course of the novel, the 2010 timeline occurs in a single summer day when New York City is brought to a standstill—brownouts, suspended subway service, and a mysterious smoke plume rising over midtown. The timeline set a year earlier begins with the birth of the couples’ children, and the affair between Michael and Jenny unfolds over the course of the year as the narrative races towards that summer day in 2010.
The narrative set in 2010 adds momentum to the text. Interspersed between segments of the 2009 timeline, the present day story arc helps infuse energy into the story. Neither Paul nor Michael know what has brought New York City to a halt. This mystery component in the 2010 sections creates a desire to keep reading. Michael considers the possibility of a terror attack or a subway accident. His day grows more strange as the narrative progresses—cabs refusing a fare, ATMs refusing to operate. Paul is equally in the dark, quite literally. He is forced to evacuate a subway car through the underground tunnels. Klein teases the reader with bits of information in the present and then returns to the 2009 timeline. The effect increases the reader’s interest in both times by offering crumbs of information. The reader knows Jenny and Michael end up in a relationship outside their marriages. The tension of whether they will or won’t is diffused, but that allows for the pleasure from watching the train wreck transpire. At each step in the process they make a small choices that ultimately will derail their lives.
The narrative point of view switches back and forth between Michael and Paul. The technique allows the reader to see the interiority of both men, however Michael comes to dominate the reader’s sympathies. In some instances, Michael’s point of view dissolves the fourth wall with asides meant for the reader. The result undermines Paul as a protagonist. For instance, when Paul confesses to Michael he feels some anxiety that his acting job requires him to kiss another woman, Michael rolls his eyes suggesting Paul is overreacting, and then later says only to the reader: “I wave his nonsense off. Shut up, Paul” (178). The aside subverts empathy for Paul who is more often spoken of by Michael in a diminishing way.
The narrative is built on layers of many smaller choices leading to the climax rather than a singular, all important decision, and Klein relies on these relatively minor moments to infuse energy into the narrative. The whole novel is set into motion by Paul’s decision to ask Michael to construct the shelving, but from there the characters’ opportunities to derail or right themselves come rapidly: Jenny leaves the door open so Michael can watch her shower; Michael chooses to cheat on his wife; Michael chooses to leave Rebecca. This theme is mirrored too in Jenny’s anxiety about her dead child. The child died of a heart condition, but that doesn’t prevent Jenny from worrying choices she made while pregnant or even before she had a child lead to the condition. These characters seem to be confronting the problem of fate versus free will, and Klein is clearly on the side of free will.
The women in the novel are not treated well and remain secondary characters to the emotional struggles of Paul and Michael. The reader is never privy to Jenny’s interiority so the only way to judge her actions are through the perspectives of the two men she is sleeping with. Whether she truly loves Michael or simply saw him as a convenient way to grieve remains ambiguous. Rebecca’s position in the novel is reduced even further. While she does eventually force Michael to choose between herself and Jenny, she isn’t particularly present and serves more as an obstacle.
Also resulting from the male characters’ point of view, as the affair progresses, Jenny is slut-shamed. She reveals to Michael that she has previously cheated on Paul with several men. These men she has left on a whim because she didn’t love them, a difference with the way she feels about Michael, she assures him. However, and perhaps this is simply because we learn of this through Michael’s point of view, her other extramarital relationships feel like they are diminishing Jenny. Michael doesn’t help this by acting as though Jenny is unjustifiably imposing on his time. She texts him while Michael is grocery shopping with Rebecca, and Michael blows her off. She responds with a curt “It’s not anybody’s fault. Bye,” in a way that opens her up to Michael’s internalized criticism: “And this bye, like a high school poet’s suicide threat, the sign-off of jaded youth.” Michael trivializes her and her emotional needs. When Jenny wants him, according to Michael, she’s acting childishly and immature.
The novel tries very hard to be a “New York Novel,” although not in the way Bright Lights, Big City strives for, but more like Bright Lines. These characters exist in the mundane, domestic version of the city rather than a romanticized, glamorous one. There is no glitz here, only broken subways and the Fairway grocery store. Klein is successful at capturing that true-to-life experience. There is that omnipresent fear that all New Yorkers have of the subway inevitably failing while under the East River. Paul literally evacuates through the subway tunnel, surrounded by rats, worried about the third rail. The novel is also filled with those specific details listing off neighborhoods, streets, and bars. Klein practically is a tour guide for Red Hook.
There are moments of sadness too. Klein teases the reader by setting up what at first appears will be a typical domestic, Brooklyn-centric, rich white people behaving badly narrative and then blows it all apart by killing off Jenny’s baby. And because Michael ultimately is the primary character the reader comes to empathize with, his forced choice between Jenny and his family with Rebecca and baby does have emotional significance. There are moments where Michael comes off as unlikeable. He seems surprised by his sudden fatherhood and endures a macho, new father emotional struggle that feels as if his missing a few late nights at the local bar is somehow akin to his lactating wife having just birthed a baby. But for the most part Michael carries the emotional struggle valiantly and the reader wants him to succeed.
Klein has deftly crafted a domestic drama twisted around an intriguing mystery and the resulting novel is fun to read while emotionally impactful. Little Disasters delivers a highly readable literary novel that confronts infidelity, the loss of a child, and the risk of bad decisions.
By Randall Klein
Published May 22, 2018
Randall Klein is a writer and book editor living in Charlottesville, Virginia. Little Disasters is his first novel.
Ian MacAllen's fiction has appeared in The Offing, 45th Parallel, Little Fiction, Vol 1. Brooklyn, Joyland, and elsewhere and nonfiction has appeared in Chicago Review of Books, trampset, The Negatives, Electric Literature, and Fiction Advocate. He is the Deputy Editor of The Rumpus, holds an MA in English from Rutgers University, tweets @IanMacAllen and is online at IanMacAllen.com.