Eric Goodman's thought–provoking new novel, Womb, is more a novel of ideas than characters. The characters, indeed, often seem purposely to represent types, almost like the characters in Bunyan's Pilgrim's Progress, though the story is more realistic and less allegorical. There's the unborn fetus, who narrates the story but does not have a name (until the very end), Mom, Dad, Brother. Mom and Dad do have distinct lives and personal issues, to which we can relate, but to the unborn embryo narrator (and thus to us, the readers) they represent the archetypal parents; they have personalities, yes, but it is their relationship to the narrator that matters.
The premise of the novel is that the unnamed consciousness, at first neither female nor male though gradually identifying as male, is connected to the Oversoul, cosmic consciousness, the oneness of being, and already partakes of absolute wisdom. Without getting into tricky metaphysical arguments about karma or metempsychosis, the narrator simply states the case, and the reader accepts it. A clever and seasoned storyteller, Goodman is careful not to plead a case, to make an argument, and by and large we simply accept the premise — though how the narrator has access to book knowledge continues to perplex this reviewer!
But the premise is also backed up with references to Plato and other thinkers, so that while we "know" this is a work of fiction, we accept the plausibility.
The child's conception is the ultimate source of the complications of the plot — an unplanned pregnancy, first of all, and while the option of abortion comes up over and over again, this is not a pro–life versus pro–choice polemic. In fact, there's implicit humor in the narrator's reactions to his mother's (and father's) indecisiveness about ending the pregnancy, as in a drama where somebody who is concealed overhears his fate being discussed. It's as if he uses body English to persuade her otherwise — indeed, the narrator sees his mission as influencing his parents, to improve their lives.
When she consults her doctor, Penny asks about a morning–after pill, but the doctor tells her it's too late for that. "The pregnancy is too far along. It's an abortion or birth. Something you need to consider seriously." And when Penny says she'll "think it over," the baby urges, But don't overthink it, Mom. Feel your decision. Feel me. You can hear the urgency! In another context this might be comic.
Next, it turns out that the biological father is not Penny's husband (though the narrator continues to think of Jack as his Dad, even after the revelation). This storyline involves us in Penny's dreary career as a sales rep. for a drug company. Sartre's famous dictum, Hell is other people, comes to mind as we watch her interact with the boss and the other workers. ("She feels trapped in her deadend job," the narrator inside her observes.) Pure demoralizing hell. The mystery of the biological father is part of this.
Later, even further complications occur, but I don't want to give away too many of the surprises. Suffice it to say that the unexpected challenges are just like real life, a mixture of tragedy and optimism. Through it all, the character the narrator refers to as Dad, Jack, a career counselor by profession, demonstrates over and over again how to respond to life's curveballs with dignity and aplomb.
Like Goodman's earlier novel, Trains, Womb is a Baltimore story, though, given the point–of–view of the unborn narrator, this is not quite as crucial. Still, scenes from Federal Hill, Towson and elsewhere give a flavor to events. Penny's and Jack's struggles could happen in no other place to feel at once so homey and so anonymous. Penny's mother died in childbirth, and her father was never there when it counted. Jack, indeed, is her bedrock, his heroism of the quiet kind.
The narrator meanwhile desperately wants to hold on to his connection with the cosmic overview, knowing that life is fleeting and the best one can do is try to enjoy it. This is something he knows. But by novel's end, when the baby is born, he begins to lose the purity of his understanding as life's compromises become real, and he begins to get lost in the particularity of the decisions we have to make, in time, decisions which in turn provoke more decisions, and life just goes on.
So, as a novel of ideas, what exactly is the overarching idea here? The answer lies in the epigraphs Goodman has chosen. From Billy Collins: "All babies are born with a knowledge of poetry, because the lub-dub of the mother's heart is in iambic pentameter. Life slowly starts to choke the poetry out of us." From Henry David Thoreau: "I have always been regretting that I was not as wise as the day I was born." Or, as we learn from the Tao te ching, the farther you go, the less you know.
Womb is an entertaining, provocative read that stays with the reader after he puts the book down.
An excerpt from Goodman's work–in–progress appeared in a previous form in The Potomac in 2008 — here.