Saturday, July 26, 2014

Crowd-Sourced Parenting: Everybody's Baby by Lydia Netzer

Since starting this review, I have been distracted by the siren song of the Internet.  By that, I mean in the time it took me to type "S-i-n-c-e" and so on, I've:
  • checked my Twitter feed
  • looked at my Blogger stats for visitor traffic to The Quivering Pen
  • answered two emails
  • "Liked" a couple of my friends' Facebook posts (and added "Awww, sweet!" to the one with the video of the kitten riding atop a bottle-nosed dolphin at some Florida park)
I think I resemble Billy Bream too much.  A tall, curly-haired Scot, Billy is the expectant father in Everybody's Baby who just can't stay off his laptop and tablet--even as his wife, Jenna, is screaming through her labor pains in the delivery room.  That's one of the uncomfortably-familiar aspects of this smart, funny, moving novella by Lydia Netzer: we all have a touch of the Billy in us.  However, obsessively checking our social media feeds is where most of us stop.  Billy and Jenna take it two or three steps further by engaging a little too much with the online community.

Before I get into that, let me pause and give a little background to the story.  Jenna, the book's narrator, is pretty screwed-up in the Department of Parental Nurture.  She was abandoned by her mother at an early age and then raised by her grandmother after her father "fell into whiskey like it was his religion."  Whether she'll admit it or not, she's spent most of her life looking for stability and love.  Ultimately, she finds that within herself and the zen quiet of her yoga.  Billy, on the other hand, comes from a loud, boisterous Scottish family, heavy on the clannish aspect.  How loud and how boisterous?  Billy's father, nicknamed The Major, likes to TALK IN ALL CAPS, that's how loud.  The couple have a "meet cute" moment when Billy, an app developer, shows up at a yoga class taught by Jenna.  Billy is "stuffed into a leotard and yoga pants that are entirely too small and striped in pink."  Women's yoga pants, in other words.
      "No, no, these are unigendered yoga clothes. Okay for both genders."
      "Nope," I tell him. "Those are definitely women's."
      "WHAT?" he says.  "Oh, for fuck's sake."
      "You didn't know?"
      Billy looks down at himself in horror like he still can't quite believe it. "It's my sister, Gretchen. She's quite the prankster. Sent me to check out the hot yoga teacher and then dressed me up like a poof."
Readers of Netzer's full-length novels, Shine Shine Shine and How to Tell Toledo From the Night Sky, will smile in recognition of this typical painful-sweet romantic moment which characterizes her work.  Men and women fumble toward each other, nerves a-jangle and insecurities flapping naked in the breeze, but somehow it all falls together with a sweet sigh.

Which is not to say Netzer's fiction is all sugar-sprinkled cupcakes.  Death, despair and depression are all bit players hanging out in the wings waiting for their cue to take the stage.  In the case of Everybody's Baby, you just know things are going to fall apart after Billy conceives of his Big Brilliant Idea.

You see, after a couple years of marriage, the couple comes to the shattering realization that Jenna has "malformed fallopian tubes," making it impossible for them to conceive their own child.  In vitro fertilization costs $40,000--money they just don't have.  Billy may be a brilliant software designer, but he gives away most of his apps for free.  They seem to be facing a childless future...but then they have this discussion:
      “There has to be another way to raise funds.”
      “Well, no one we know has forty thousand dollars to give us. Should we borrow it?”
      “With what for collateral? The baby?”
      “Yes, we’re going to borrow on the baby for the baby, by the baby, with the baby. And the winner gets: a baby!”
      Silence. The fan on Billy’s computer whirrs, the clock ticks, my heart beats. Billy takes a long breath in. I can hear it rasping in his throat.
      “Oh, holy shut the fuck up.” He breathes out.
      “Oh no. What?” I curl over to stand up and go across to look over his shoulder.
      “Shhhhhh,” he says, waving his hand around like he’s fighting off bees.
      “What? Tell me!”
      Sometimes the Major comes through in Billy. I like it when that happens. He’s searching something. He’s clicking through … Kickstarter?
      “Billy, you’re not—”
      “Oh, I am,” he says. “I bloody am. It’s so great, I can’t believe no one’s done it already.”
      “You’re not going to fund our IVF with Kickstarter?”
Indeed, that's exactly what happens.  Jenna and Billy decide to raise the in vitro funds by crowd-sourcing bits of their baby to strangers on the internet.  Every Kickstarters comes with perks, but in the case of "everybody's baby," those benefits turn into something that is, at heart, rather terrifying--especially if you're one of those remaining few people on Planet Earth who believe we're all going to Hell with every Tweet and Tumbl.
      $10: You receive an invitation to appear waving in a crowd, captured on film for a segment in the baby’s first birthday video.
      $20: Your face or logo appears for 1 second during the baby’s first birthday video.
      $30: You can rub the pregnant belly, at a designated belly-rubbing station, on a designated rubbing day, to be determined.
      $200: 200 ounces of breast milk harvested from the mother after delivery (if there is any).
      $300: Take home the placenta to do with as you will.
      $500: The only copy of the ultrasound photo goes to you. What you do with it is your business.
And it goes on from there.  Outlandish as the setup may sound, I think Lydia Netzer has written a book that is not science-fiction, and not even really fiction.  This is a novel of Today and Right Now.  Somewhere out there, someone is probably already figuring out a way to Kickstart their way through the rest of their life by crowd-funding a job-free, pain-free, obligation-free life.

But oversharing their lives rather quickly leads to problems in the marriage.  Jenna's not so keen on divvying up her baby as if it was on a poster at a butcher's shop "that shows a cow or pig divided like a map into neighborhoods of meat.  Here's the flank, the tenderloin, the chop.  Here's the baby, divided up for auction."  Billy, on the other hand, dismisses Jenna's fear by saying it will eventually be no big deal and that people probably won't be so foolish as to pay $20,000 to cut the umbilical cord.

Uh, Billy, have you been paying any attention to the 21st century?

Everybody's Baby turns into a cautionary tale for our times--a clever morality play where God is not just some deus ex machina flying in on pulleys and wires in the Third Act, but is really in the machine.  With every click of the mouse, Netzer is saying, we lose a little crumb of our soul.

The problems Billy and Jenna face aren't the typical challenges of first-time parents, but they are fears which most of us have faced at one point or another: How much is too much?  How do we retain our identity in an increasingly-homogenized, flat-lined electronic world?  Where do we draw the boundaries of privacy?  This extends far beyond the screens on our electronic devices.  Even if you're not sharing kitten-and-dolphin videos on Facebook, chances are that someone in the grocery line has stood too close to you, poked you with a personal question, asked to rub your pregnant belly.

At one point, Jenna wonders if she should ask to see the ultrasound photo which Billy has sold to a stranger for $500.  Netzer nicely wraps the book's theme into this metaphor:
Pregnancy is the ultimate privacy. A baby inside its mother’s womb should be the ultimate secret. Good news, bad news—it’s all hidden. Certainly a hundred years ago it was. But the goal of technology seems to be to shatter this barrier, to peel back the secrets of the uterus one by one.
Everybody's Baby raises some troubling questions about the octopus tentacles of a wired-in society.  Where do we stop, where does the internet begin, and can we live straddled between "real" and electronic worlds?

Hey, I like that.  "Octopus tentacles of a wired-in society."  I think I'll go share it on Twitter....

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