“Raising Raffi”, the lucid book of a father on a chaotic scene

RAFFI BREEDING
The first five years
By Keith Gessen
244 pages. Viking. $27.

Diaper upside down, Marshall McLuhan remarked, “refunded” spells.

When writers Keith Gessen and Emily Gould had their first child, a son named Raffi, seven years ago, they expected a sweetheart. Instead, they had a destructive, infuriating, petty wizard constantly testing his powers.

Raffi’s list of behaviors could spark a race for condoms among young readers. He scratches Gessen, head butts him, kicks him hard between the legs, punches him in the nose. Raffi does not sleep, shouts constantly and is expelled from daycare.

He rips flowers from community gardens, puts a giant dead cockroach in his mouth, rams into other kids, throws his meals on the floor, rushes in and won’t get caught. All children do these things from time to time. Raffi seems to do them all the time.

Gessen’s reactions are often comical. (“I hated being punched in the nose!”) But Raffi scares her a little too. Raffi almost seems to know what he’s doing. His laugh can be annoying. Is he behaving worse, Gessen wonders, than the other children? Is he a bad seed? And if so, more importantly, “to what extent was it our fault?”

Unable to work on anything else, Gessen decided to write a parenting memoir, “Raising Raffi: The First Five Years.” It is a wise, gentle and enviably lucid book about a chaotic scene. If I was Raffi, I’d fear the subtitle: It implies dad has updates in mind.

Is it OK to take your child out like this? Art Buchwald used to joke that if his family couldn’t provide him with material for at least two columns a week, he would throw them out of the house. “Everything,” Nora Ephron said, “is copy.”

This book is hardly an entirely gloomy portrait. Raffi is, according to Gessen, sometimes cuddly and lovable, as well as handsome and bright and loved. Still, this memoir will seem like a better idea if, in a few decades, Raffi is happy and healthy and can read it aloud to his own children while laughing that he was a bit of a miscreant, so wild as it deserved its own National Geographic special.

If you don’t know who Gessen and Gould are, you probably don’t work in journalism or publishing. He was one of the founders of n+1, the literary magazine, has published two novels and collaborates with the New Yorker. She was an editor at Gawker, ran a feminist publishing house, wrote two novels and doles out spirited, sardonic, momma-bear comments on Twitter.

If they’re not famous, they are at a minimum, to borrow words from Joshua Cohen’s novel “Book of Numbers,” “anti-nonfamous writing.”

Like all parent memoirs, “Raising Raffi” is about ideals and expectations turning into reality. Gessen was born in Russia; he hopes that Raffi will be bilingual. Alas, Gessen finds, “I turned out to be more of a howler in Russian than in English.”

Attempts to interest Raffi in ice hockey, which Gessen plays enthusiastically, fail. Gessen is a cunning analyzer of children’s literature. “When you read a book once, you develop opinions,” he writes. “When you read a book a hundred times, you develop very strong reviews.” He’s just as good on parenting manuals.

Credit…Emilie Gould

Gessen and Gould live in Brooklyn. Like the uniquely enlightened and self-sufficient parents of this borough, they plan to raise their son as if they were laying the foundations for a new and better society. They often get stuck here too.

When it comes to choosing a school in a segregated town, for example, the options for doing the right thing are slimmer than they had hoped. They use the disposable diapers they have sworn not to use; they keep the ugly plastic swing because it puts Raffi to sleep.

“Raising Raffi” offers a glimpse into what it’s like to live a literary life at the intersection of the Trump and Biden administrations. Gessen and Gould, at home, two against the world, recall Kenneth Tynan’s description of a literary feast: “overfurnished minds in an underfurnished room”.

They have Ikea furniture and live above a bar and have money problems. Gessen describes arguments between the bride and groom Perfectly“Our fights are ambient, the product of a certain level of humidity. The humidity rises for a while, then it rains.

Gessen’s family moved to the United States when he was 6 years old. (Her brother is the writer Masha Gessen.) Her family lived in Newton, Mass.; his mother was a literary critic who worked at Harvard’s Russian Research Center. Gould grew up in Maryland.

They met in New York. Gessen had been married, briefly, before. They dated and broke up – “she dumped me at a Starbucks in Cobble Hill” – before getting married. Gould gave birth to Raffi at home, as the couple feared having a child in a taxi. It was scary and there was a lot of blood.

Raffi was a difficult child to have at home during a pandemic. He challenged, child-like, Gessen’s ideas of himself, especially when it came to money. Gessen writes:

Before Raffi, there was nothing people with more money had that I actually wanted. Now there were. Our friends with money could hire and hired infinite babysitting, including overnight. Some sent their children to private school. They never worried about their owner complaining about the noise they made, as they lived in their own homes. Our lack of money, which had been if not one of our virtues at least had not been detrimental to anyone, now deprived our child of things that other children had. It was unfair to him. But he was stuck with us.

The need for money for one’s children, throughout history, has driven parents to do desperate things – even to write revealing memoirs of parenthood.

Gessen’s little book is absorbing not because it provides answers, beyond bland comments like “time is the only solution.” It’s absorbing because Gessen is a quiet, observant writer—if he were a singer, he’d always arrive a bit behind the beat—who raises and grapples with the right questions about himself and the world.

In the end, this book made me think of Joy Williams, who remained impassive in one of her short stories: “Kids. They are on a different path.

About Elizabeth Smith

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