The difference between a moralist and cynic is that the moralist puts forward some alternative to what he is criticizing, while the cynic puts forward nothing. Separating the two may be an uncertain frontier. It is from this place that Mark Strand appears to be writing in his collection of 14 stories, "Mr. and Mrs. Baby."
At first glance, the stories seem to have nothing to do with either morality or cynicism. Written with a lightness and a use of the absurd at times reminiscent of Julio Cortazar, the stories combine humor and a sense of the ethereal with an absolutely brilliant use of language. All are wonderfully written and this becomes part of the point -- they seem not stories of substance, but of manner.
In one, "True Loves," a man describes the six women he has loved: women he has never touched and hardly spoken to. In another, "Dog Life," a man confesses to his wife that some years earlier he had been a collie.
"The people who owned me lived in Connecticut in a big house with lots of lawn, and there were woods out back. All the neighbors had dogs, too. It was a happy time."
In a third story, "The Killer Poet," the National Literature Board of a small South American country executes a poet not because he stabbed his mother and drowned his father in the birdbath, but because he is the country's greatest writer.
Strand is a reasonably well-known poet and this is his first work of fiction. At times I was reminded of Baudelaire, who late in his life turned from poetry to write short prose pieces patterned on the work of the newspaper illustrator Constantin Guys. Baudelaire wanted to produce rapid sketches of contemporary life like Guys' drawings -- sometimes cynical or mocking, sometimes tender.
Given the passage of 120 years, the coming and going of Modernism and our current sense of the hip and the unflappable, Strand's stories resemble Baudelaire's except for the fact of the beautiful language. But Strand's wonderful writing is part of the joke. Constantly, he uses lush and extravagant language to describe the trivial and petty occurrences of foolish people.
The title story opens with Mr. and Mrs. Baby in bed. "How peaceful they seem. How lucky they are that the difference between sleep and wakefulness can be blurred, diminished, and finally erased without pain. Their waking is a slow rising from crumpled linen and its odors of cologne into lazy, tentative gestures of lovemaking. Yet in an hour's time how close to sadness they will be in the world of light, its ordeals of fixity, of ornament, of responsibility: Baby Hades."
Mr. and Mrs. Baby are described in terms of movie actors and actresses: the blue eyes of Bing Crosby, the nose of Gloria Grahame. They are Everyman and Everywoman. "Everyone was a Baby and the Babys were everyone." They get up, eat breakfast and have significant experiences. "With a knowledge almost too deep for tears, he saw all things ablaze with the glory of their own mortality . . . He wondered why he was here and not there, why he had chosen the life he had instead of the life he hadn't, why he felt as he did and, sometimes, as he didn't. Thus it was that Bob Baby wrote his first poem."
We follow the Babys through their day. In order to experience "the glory of self-abnegation," they go without lunch. When the "exertion of denial" proves too much, they have a good cry. Then they discuss whether to have a snack, then they go to a party where nothing happens, then they go to bed: ". . . what does it mean that you are asleep, adrift in the spectral silt of the unknown? What has the relentless fury of particles to do with you? Pull your covers up to your chins. Sleep tight; another Baby day is on its way."
What emerges from this story and many others is a statement about the superficiality of our lives. The result of the overblown language and baroque manner is to say that our daily concerns as human beings to see ourselves as significant, to see our aspirations as important, to see our feelings as valuable -- that all this is sham, an illusion to keep us from recognizing the absolute triviality of our existence.
It is odd to find a book that seems so light to be in fact so black, where the gentle touch of the humor is actually mockery and the contemporary world is celebrated only to be condemned. Not all the stories have that mockery. "The Tiny Baby," a short sketch describing a mother's relationship with her child, and "Under Water," in which a man looks back at his childhood and the deaths of his parents, are both quite moving despite their peculiarity. Mostly, however, the stories are an indictment of the way we live: people who fritter away their time on inessentials.