The first five years
By Keith Gessen
244 pages. Viking. $27.
Laze back, Marshall McLuhan noted, spells “paid back.”
When writers Keith Gessen and Emily Gould had their first child, a son named Raffi, seven years ago, they expected a gentle creature. Instead, they got a destroyer, a furious one, a little warlock who constantly tests his powers.
The list of Raffi’s behaviors could lead to a run on the condom aisle among young readers. He scratches Gessen, headbutts him, kicks him hard between the legs, punches him in the nose. Raffi does not want to sleep, screams constantly and is kicked out of the nursery.
He rips flowers from community gardens, puts a giant dead cockroach in his mouth, bumps into other kids, throws his meals on the floor, runs away and won’t be caught. All children do these things sometimes. Raffi seems to do them all the time.
Gessen’s reactions are often comical. (“I hated being punched in the nose!”) But Raffi also scares him a bit. Raffi almost seems to know what he’s doing. His laugh can be unnerving. Does he behave any worse, Gessen wonders, than other kids? Is he a bad seed? And if so, crucially, “how much was it our fault?”
Unable to work on anything else, Gessen decided to write a memoir-cum-parenting book, “Raising Raffi: The First Five Years.” It is a wise, mild and enviably lucid book about a chaotic scene. If I were Raffi, I’d be scared of the subtitle: It implies Dad has updates in mind.
Is it okay to let your child out like this? Art Buchwald used to joke that if his family couldn’t supply him with material for at least two columns a week, he would throw them out of the house. “Everything,” said Nora Ephron, “is a copy.”
This book is not exactly a gloomy portrait. Raffi, as Gessen tells us, is sometimes cuddly and cute, but also beautiful and brilliant and loved. Still, this memoir will seem like a better idea when Raffi is happy and healthy in a few decades and can read it to his own children while chuckling at what a little miscreant he was, so wild he deserved his 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 a founding member of n+1, the literary magazine, has published two novels and is a contributing writer for The New Yorker. She was an editor at Gawker, ran a feminist publishing house, has written two novels and provides lively, sardonic, mama-bear commentary on Twitter.
If they’re not famous-famous, at least they are, borrowing words from Joshua Cohen’s novel “Book of Numbers,” “written anti-unfamous.”
Like all parenting memoirs, “Raising Raffi” is about ideals and expectations colliding with reality. Gessen was born in Russia; he hopes Raffi will be bilingual. Unfortunately, Gessen notes: “I turned out to be more of a yeller in Russian than in English.”
Attempts to interest Raffi in ice hockey, which Gessen plays enthusiastically, failed. Gessen is a cunning parser of children’s literature. “If you read a book once, you develop some opinions,” he writes. “If you read a book a hundred times, you develop” very strong opinions.” He’s just as good at parenting manuals.
Gessen and Gould live in Brooklyn. In the fashion of that congregation’s uniquely enlightened and complacent parents, they intend to raise their son as if they were laying the foundation for a new, better society. Here, too, they are often hindered.
For example, when it comes to choosing a school in a segregated city, the options for doing the right thing are smaller than they’d hoped. They use the disposable diapers they swore they wouldn’t; they keep the ugly plastic swing because it puts Raffi to sleep.
“Raising Raffi” offers a glimpse of what it’s like to build literary lives at the crossroads of the Trump and Biden administrations. Gessen and Gould, at home, two against the world, are reminiscent of Kenneth Tynan’s description of a literary feast: “over-furnished ghosts in an under-furnished room.”
They have Ikea furniture and live above a bar and have money problems. Gessen describes quarrels among the married perfect: “Our fights are ambient, the product of a certain humidity. The humidity rises for a while and then it rains.”
Gessen’s family moved to the United States when he was 6 (His sibling is the writer Masha Gessen.) His family lived in Newton, Massachusetts; his mother was a literary critic who worked at Harvard’s Russian Research Center. Gould grew up in Maryland.
They met in New York City. Gessen had recently been married. They dated and dated—”she dumped me at a Starbucks in Cobble Hill”—before they got married. Gould gave birth to Raffi at home because the couple was afraid of getting a child in a taxi. It was scary and there was a lot of blood.
Raffi was a burdensome kid to have at home during a pandemic. He challenged Gessen’s ideas about himself, especially about money, as children do. Gessen writes:
Before Raffi, there was nothing that people with more money had that I actually wanted. Now there was. Our friends with money could and did endless childcare, even at night. Some sent their children to private schools. They never worried that their landlord would complain about the noise they were making because they lived in their own house. Our lack of money, which had been if not a virtue of ours, at least harmful to no one, now denied our child things that other children had. It felt unfair to him. But he was attached to us.
Throughout history, needing money for the kids has led parents to do desperate things — even write revealing parenting memoirs.
Gessen’s short book is captivating, not because it provides answers, other than bland remarks like ‘time is the only solution’. It’s captivating because Gessen is a calm and observant writer – if he were a singer he would always get a little behind the beat – who asks the right questions about himself and the world and grapples with them.
Ultimately, this book reminded me of Joy Williams, who was dead silent in one of her short stories: “Kids. They are at another job.”