The First Five Years
By Keith Gessen
244 pages. Viking. $27.
Diaper backward, Marshall McLuhan noticed, spells “repaid.”
When the writers Keith Gessen and Emily Gould had their first child, a son named Raffi, seven years ago, they expected a mellow being. Instead, they got a destroyer, an infuriator, a little warlock constantly testing his powers.
The list of Raffi’s behaviors might, among young readers, spark a run on the condom aisle. He scratches Gessen, head-butts him, kicks him hard between the legs, punches him in the nose. Raffi won’t sleep, screams constantly and is kicked out of day care.
He rips flowers from community gardens, puts a giant dead cockroach in his mouth, crashes into other kids, tosses his meals on the floor, dashes away and won’t be caught. All kids do these things some of the time. Raffi seems to do them all the time.
Gessen’s reactions are frequently comic. (“I hated getting hit in the nose!”) But Raffi scares him a little, too. Raffi almost seems to know what he’s doing. His laughter can be unnerving. Is he more badly behaved, Gessen wonders, than other kids? Is he a bad seed? And if so, crucially, “how much of it was our fault?”
Unable to get work done on anything else, Gessen decided to write a memoir-cum-parenting book, “Raising Raffi: The First Five Years.” It’s a wise, mild and enviably lucid book about a chaotic scene. If I were Raffi, I’d fear the subtitle: It implies Dad has updates in mind.
Is it OK to out your kid 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’d toss them out of the house. “Everything,” Nora Ephron said, “is copy.”
This book is hardly an entirely gloomy portrait. Raffi is, in Gessen’s telling, sometimes cuddly and adorable, as well as beautiful and brilliant and beloved. Still, this memoir will seem like a better idea if, a few decades from now, Raffi is happy and healthy and can read it aloud to his own kids 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 don’t, in all likelihood, work in journalism or publishing. He was a founder 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 imprint, has written two novels and dispenses lively, sardonic, mama-bear commentary on Twitter.
If they aren’t famous-famous, they are at minimum, to borrow words from Joshua Cohen’s novel “Book of Numbers,” “writerly anti-nonfamous.”
Like all parenting memoirs, “Raising Raffi” is about ideals and expectations crashing into reality. Gessen was born in Russia; he hopes Raffi will be bilingual. Alas, Gessen finds, “I turned out to be more of a yeller in Russian than I was in English.”
Attempts to interest Raffi in ice hockey, which Gessen enthusiastically plays, are unsuccessful. Gessen is a wily parser of children’s literature. “When you read a book once, you develop some opinions,” he writes. “When you read a book a hundred times, you develop very strong opinions.” He is just as good on parenting manuals.
Gessen and Gould live in Brooklyn. In the manner of that borough’s uniquely enlightened and self-delighted parents, they plan to raise their son as if they were laying the foundations for a new, better society. They are often stymied here, too.
When it comes to choosing a school in a segregated city, for example, the options for doing the right thing are slenderer 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 glimpses of what it’s like to eke out literary lives at the intersection of the Trump and Biden administrations. Gessen and Gould, at home, two against the world, call to mind Kenneth Tynan’s description of a literary party: “over-furnished minds in an under-furnished room.”
They have Ikea furniture and live over a bar and have money problems. Gessen describes arguments among the married perfectly: “Our fights are ambient, the product of a certain level of 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, Mass.; his mother was a literary critic who worked for a Russian research center at Harvard. Gould grew up in Maryland.
They met in New York City. Gessen had been married, briefly, before. They dated and broke up — “she dumped me at a Starbucks in Cobble Hill” — before marrying. Gould gave birth to Raffi at home, because the couple feared having a child in a taxi. It was scary and there was a lot of blood.
Raffi was a taxing child to have home during a pandemic. He challenged, in the way children do, Gessen’s ideas about himself, especially as regards money. 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 hire infinite child care, including at night. Some sent their kids to private school. They never worried about their landlord complaining about the noise they were making, because they lived in their own houses. Our lack of money, which had been if not a virtue of ours then at least not harmful to anyone, was now denying our child things that other children had. It felt unfair to him. But he was stuck with us.
Needing money for one’s children, throughout history, has made parents do desperate things — even write revealing parenthood memoirs.
Gessen’s short book is absorbing not because it delivers answers, beyond bland comments like “time is the only solution.” It’s absorbing because Gessen is a calm and observant writer — if he were a singer, he’d always come in a bit behind the beat — who raises, and struggles with, the right questions about himself and the world.
In the end this book made me think of Joy Williams, who deadpanned in one of her short stories: “Kids. They’re in a different lane.”