Thursday, Aug 30, 2012 8:30 PM UTC

Communists, mathematicians and temps

In Josh Kornbluth's "Red Diaper Baby" monologues, all things devolve to the absurd

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This is the latest installment of our new weekly audiobook column, The Listener. Every Thursday, Laura Miller or another top critic will recommend a great new title. The Listener is sponsored by Audible.

Few books are as ready-made for the audiobook as Josh Kornbluth’s “Red Diaper Baby,” a collection of three interconnected monologues  that have already enjoyed a long life on the stage, as a book and as two concert films (“Red Diaper Baby” and “The Mathematics of Change”) and one theatrical release (“Haiku Tunnel”).

The opening section tells the story of Kornbluth’s upbringing, as the child of two more-or-less harmless American Communists in New York. Kornbluth’s parents are not likely candidates to inspire a violent revolution. His father is a schoolteacher who is fired from job after job for cursing out the principal. He wakes his son every morning by singing the “Internationale”  –  “Arise ye prisoner of starvation …” – which Kornbluth interprets as a call to breakfast, a call made less appetizing because Kornbluth’s father refuses to wear anything but talcum powder in the house.

Kornbluth’s mother runs writers’ workshops in her living room. The primary difference between the household of the mother and the father is that in the father’s house there are doors but few interior walls, while in the mother’s house there are walls but no interior doors. Kornbluth listens to his mother’s workshops through the opening where his bedroom door should be, and learns that she is writing an erotic coming-of-age novel with a teen protagonist named Josh Kornbluth. Later, he loses his virginity to an older woman who spends most of her time in the workshop crocheting rather than critiquing.

If this sounds funny, it is, but there is also a tenderness and a vulnerability to Kornbluth’s portrait of his family. It is clear that their excesses, ideological and otherwise, arise from an abundance of care about the world, and this care clearly extends to their son. And Kornbluth’s place at the center of such a family also gives him a unique vantage point from which to observe the rest of the world, which turns out to be no less strange than the homes in which he was raised.

There are strange parallels, for example, between the ideology of the Communists in the opening monologue, and the institutional culture of the math people he meets at Princeton in the middle monologue (“The Mathematics of Change”). At home and at Princeton, Kornbluth “hits the wall” – first, with Communism, and then with math. There comes a point, the monologues seem to say, in which all things devolve to the absurd, and laughter can bring us as close to what’s true as the most impassioned analysis.

In the third monologue, “Haiku Tunnel,” Kornbluth turns the lens on himself, as an inept secretary at a San Francisco law firm (significantly abbreviated “S&M”). After a long and semi-successful stretch as a temp, ignored by all the other secretaries, he is finally promoted to “perm,” a job he finally fails because he is unable to complete the important task of mailing 85 letters, because “mailing them would have been easy to do, and as a secretary I need something easy to do, on standby, at all times, so that in case I should be given something difficult to do, something that might hurt my brain, I can, at any moment, jump to the letters.” In his self-defeating logic, he has become not unlike his parents. It seems in some ways the fulfillment of his love for them.

“Red Diaper Baby” is a more intimate experience as an audiobook than in its stage or video versions, especially if you listen through headphones. Kornbluth doesn’t sound like he’s reading. Instead, he sounds as though he is speaking directly to a friend. It’s true he hopes to tell his story, but he also hopes to please. There is something occasionally over-insistent about the plea — a feeling akin to someone saying, “Please don’t hang up the phone!” But on the whole, he is a good companion, and “Red Diaper Baby” succeeds in helping the listener, who might be walking the city streets or riding the subway or sitting in the middle seat on an airplane, to carve out a private space within a public space, and, paradoxically, feel less alone.

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New to Audible? Listen to “Red Diaper Baby” for free, or check out a sample.