All theories aside, ten years ago, when Tag and I walked toward each other in a dark bar off the side of a highway in Montana, this is what we had no idea we were walking toward: the one-in-four chance of creating a child permanently unwell. Because we both carry a CF mutation, there is a 50 percent chance any child of ours will be born a healthy carrier, like we are. There’s a 25 percent chance of a baby with no mutations at all. And there’s a 25 percent chance of a baby with two disease-causing mutations, like Dudley.
But if you had known, what then? a woman asked me earlier this year, shaking her head, her smile soft with pity. If I responded at all, and I’m not sure I did, I can’t remember what I said. But I know I did not use the word abortion, or bring up our legal situation, or explain the concept of “wrongful birth.” In a roomful of people I barely knew, with Dudley pushing a plastic car back and forth over the carpet nearby, I did not tell her that I do know exactly what it is I would have done.
The knee-jerk response to observations like these is, “If life is so bad, why don’t you just kill yourself?” Benatar devotes a forty-three-page chapter to proving that death only exacerbates our problems. “Life is bad, but so is death,” he concludes. “Of course, life is not bad in every way. Neither is death bad in every way. However, both life and death are, in crucial respects, awful. Together, they constitute an existential vise—the wretched grip that enforces our predicament.” It’s better, he argues, not to enter into the predicament in the first place. People sometimes ask themselves whether life is worth living. Benatar thinks that it’s better to ask sub-questions: Is life worth continuing? (Yes, because death is bad.) Is life worth starting? (No.)
This seemingly innocuous detail foreshadows what becomes one of the novel’s themes: the anxiety of intimacy. For several of the characters, the idea of being emotionally or physically close to another person is inseparable from a paralyzing fear.
Debut novels especially can sometimes too clearly betray their debts, but “Elmet” is a beguiling patchwork of influences held together by Mozley’s distinct voice.