Thursday, August 29, 2013

The Cursing Mommy's Book of Days by Ian Frazier

If you read The New Yorker, you're familiar with Frazier -- he's been writing short comic pieces (collected in books like Coyote V. Acme and Dating Your Mom) and longer reportage (which grew into books like Travels in Siberia and Great Plains) for them for several decades now. And if you still read it, you've probably encountered the Cursing Mommy, a conceit that Frazier's spun out into four or five of those short comic pieces over the past couple of years. (Despite the fact that it certainly seems like a one-note premise -- young mother, attempting to be Martha Stewart-esque and do something domestic, gets more and more frustrated as things fail to work and erupts in swearing as the whole project falls to pieces.)

It didn't look like the best material to stretch into a novel, honestly -- the more so because Frazier hasn't written a novel in his career so far. But The Cursing Mommy's Book of Days is a better and more interesting work than those individual pieces were -- even though it integrates them (or pieces of them) along the way.

The Cursing Mommy still doesn't get a name here, though -- she tells us this story, and everything comes through her voice, which is surprisingly strong and varied. This is a comic novel, so all sorts of things go wrong for her over the course of one year -- the book is structured as a daybook, or diary, in which she's specially telling the story in her own writing to an audience -- and she deals with it all as best she can, erupting in anger and cursing more than she wants to. The rhythms of those calamities start out funny, but get more nuanced as the year goes on and things get worse (as they always must in a comic novel). In the end, the repeated line "oh, what a fucking horrible day this is going to be" turns from a laugh line into a scream against the universe and finally into something like a philosophy: they are all fucking horrible days, if you let them be, and sometimes declaring them to be fucking horrible days is all that can get you through them.

Don't get me wrong -- the Book of Days is really funny, with subplots about husband Larry's job troubles, general cluelessness, and love of rare capacitors; about older son Trevor's teenage acting-out; about the budgetary troubles of Trevor and younger son Kyle's schools; about Cursing Mommy's book club, and their love for books about how horrible the Bush administration was; about the family's problems with the rapacious Sphagnum Health; and about Larry's Client/Boss, who pursues the Cursing Mommy with far too much zeal throughout the year. But there's some heart underneath the humor, and Frazier isn't afraid to bury some political points in there as well. (You can probably guess what those are, and judge for yourselves how much they would annoy you.)

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