A lump can have anything inside it, or nothing at all. This idea of what is contained, concealed, and hidden is central to Nathan Whitlock's searing, smart, satirical new novel, Lump (Rare Machines/Dundurn Press).
The book follows Cat, whose life looks calmly, even smugly, functional from the outside: she and her husband have a comfortable home and two children, who Cat stays home to parent full-time. There are parks, snacks, cuddles, and giggles.
But inside, nothing is working. Cat is isolated and exhausted. Her husband Donovan is disengaged and immature, keeping toxic, life-changing secrets. When Cat makes the double discovery that she is pregnant again and that the lump in her breast could be a death sentence, the thin veneer of safety and success she's desperately maintained begins to shatter.
What sets Whitlock's work apart from even other excellent family novels is his sharp, funny, and wonderfully vivid language, where he showcases an easy creative brilliance, as when he refers to Cat's former, child-free life as being filled with days "like fancy Japanese paper that could be folded however she wanted" and hungry children "slap[ping] the fridge door like it’s the flank of a stud horse".
The novel explores gender, parenthood, power, privilege, and the fragile idols we build out of the hopes we hold most dear. We're sharing an excerpt today, courtesy of Rare Machines, in which we meet Cat and get a raw, honest glimpse into her life, and witness the first sprouting of the seeds of disaster in her marriage.
Excerpt from Lump by Nathan Whitlock:
For lunch Cat makes the kids whole wheat wraps full of cream cheese and cucumber, with raisins and thin spears of carrot on the side. Baby Jessica gets yogourt and a wedge of pear with most of the skin cut away. She brings the unbreakable plates into the living room and sets one near each child, then waits like a zookeeper to see if they will notice. None of the kids thank her — she could slip out the door and run off without them saying anything. Not that she’d get very far. The sticky strands of maternal guilt and duty would twang and throw her back into the house, ready again to serve. Donovan clipped the umbilical cords on both of their children like a mayor cutting a ribbon, but she is still tied behind them. Had the drugs and the doctors allowed, she would’ve taken the little seafood clippers out of his hands and hacked away at the cords herself.
Before Cat became a mother, every day was like fancy Japanese paper that could be folded however she wanted. She could make a swan of her day, or a scorpion. It is miraculous, the idea that she spent decades living only for herself. How had she not awoken each morning laughing out loud at how easy it all was? Now, each hour is like a hard lump of dough that refuses to rise and has to be gnawed through and swallowed dry.
She often tells herself: I will miss this, but is never convinced.
She knows mothers of teenagers and grown-up children — her own mother included — who say they miss the park days, the sandbox days, the endless swing days, the snack-and-nap days.
“It’s so easy when they’re that small,” they say.
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Liars. Not one of them would trade places with her now.
Always, out of the corner of her eye, Cat can see the swift-moving shadow of a hawk, the hawk that will swim down through the air and take her children up in its talons the instant she looks away. She knows of a little girl who, left alone for a minute, grabbed hold of the cord of a boiling electric kettle and pulled the whole thing down on herself in a furious, steaming cascade. She sees the girl sometimes at the pool, her skin red and pebbled as if erupting with shame — her mother’s shame — as she floats in cool water.
She has to remind herself to be grateful that her kids are relatively easy to be around. Silas’s friends from daycare are dirty and greedy. When they come over, they point at the TV and demand she turn it on. When they get hungry, they slap the fridge door like it’s the flank of a stud horse, their eyes angry and impatient: Give. Now. Bitch.
She takes a moment to breathe deeply, the way every podcast and YouTube video on stress and relaxation tells her to do. Her thoughts fall in heavy clumps. The mortgage is due in a week. Donovan’s parents helped them out the past two months, over Cat’s objections. She will need to scare up new clients, which means she needs new clothes, job-type clothes.
Especially bras — she has gotten out of the habit of providing her breasts with coverage and support. No one hires old-lady web designers who have exited the world of sex. Her hair needs attention from a professional. On her own she can manage only a shapeless bob that adds five dry years to her face. In a few months, she’ll be thirty-nine years old. In the park she had to squint to read the empowering words about midwives on one mom’s T-shirt. Age has finally found her. It is creeping in, breathing on her. She doesn’t want a birthday party, especially not one with her sister, her brother-in-law, and a handful of friends (who are mostly Donovan’s friends) getting day-drunk and making jokes about menopause.
“When is Dad home?” Isabelle asks.
“The usual time. Why?”
Her daughter doesn’t reply, but Cat knows the answer:
Mom is no fun. Mom can only offer protection and nourishment and order. Dad offers unpredictability and surprise. He’s like another kid, lazy and silly and fun-seeking. Dad gets it.
Must be nice.
They should ask their father what he does, what his job is, exactly. They should ask why he sometimes forgets to shave or change his shirt for days at a time. They should ask why he comes home so tired that he sleeps through dinner on the couch.
They should ask why Mom hates Dad so much right now, why she is so angry all the time.
She wishes she could tell someone the whole stupid story.
The whole stupid story:
One fine day in mid-December, Donovan came home late and would not talk to her, would not even say hello to the kids.
He went straight to bed. She found him asleep in his clothes on top of the blankets. He stank like cigarettes, which was unusual. He only smokes when he is stressed or drinking or both.
The next day, everything was back to normal. Some weird flu bug, he said. He even apologized.
For a while there was nothing. He got up early each morning as usual, left the house, and was gone all day. When he came back in the evening, he said little about work beyond a few vague mumbles. Once in a while he would stay home, not leaving the bedroom until Cat got back from dropping the kids off. He said he was owed some lieu days — he had it all worked out with his boss.
But something had changed. He got fatter. He was sweating more. There was always a smell about him at night, booze and toothpaste. On evenings when he came home late and a little wobbly, he told her there was a birthday party for one of his co-workers, or they all went out to celebrate a new project.
He was sharp with her, too. He had no patience for anything, especially for questions about why he had no patience.
“I don’t go after you when you’re on the rag.”
She laughed. “Don’t say on the rag.”
“Am I in trouble for everything I say now? I’m a fucking adult, Cat.”
That went on for almost two months. Then she saw the credit card bills, the statements from their shared bank account. She brought it all into their bedroom, where he was lying on his back, looking at his phone. It was late, the kids were asleep. When she asked him about the bills and the account statements, he put down his phone and told her everything: he had no job. He’d been pretending the whole time. Every day he went to a coffee shop downtown, far from the house, to read magazines and use the free Wi-Fi. He’d been doing that for weeks and weeks.
“How …” she began.
“What do you mean how?”
She dug around for the words.
“How did this even happen?”
He told her that back in December he’d been called into the conference room as soon as he got to the office. At one end of the long table was his manager and the head of human resources with papers and folders in front of them. Donovan said he asked, as a joke, if he were being fired. Neither of them laughed, and that’s when he knew. He left the office less than fifteen minutes later, holding a letter that outlined the details of his severance package and instructed him not to discuss the terms of his departure with anyone other than his wife.
He did them one better: he didn’t tell her, either.
Lying there on the bed, he laughed at his own joke. In an instant, all of the testiness and anger of the past couple of months was gone. It was if he were confessing to a bad hangover.
After leaving the office that day, he went straight to a bar and drank bourbon after bourbon, followed by beer after beer, then a few shots of something. He woke up the next day with his right arm hurting, and there was a scrape on the back of his hand.
Cat was in shock, only able to take in small parts of his story. Their lives had utterly changed, had been changed for months, and she’d had no idea. She kept waiting for him to say something more, to provide some other vital piece of information about what had happened that would explain why he had deceived her. He could’ve said anything: that he was scared, that he was certain the company would reconsider, that he’d been targeted for assassination. Anything would make more sense than that he’d simply decided to lie to her.
“Do your parents know?” Cat asked.
He looked puzzled. “Why would I tell them, of all people?”
“That’s not an answer.”
“No, they don’t know. And don’t tell them. Let me tell them.”
She asked to see the letter, the one he’d been given on the day he got fired. It was still in his laptop bag — he hadn’t bothered to hide it. It took him a minute even to remember that it was there, it meant so little to him. He gave it to her, then lay back on the bed and picked up his phone, as if the conversation had run its course.
The letter didn’t tell her anything. It was signed by his manager, whom they’d had over for dinner and drinks a few times along with her partner, a tall woman who did photography.
Cat did not recognize anything of that woman in the formal language she found in the letter.
“Oh, there is another thing,” he said, not looking up from his phone. “This is hilarious: they gave me all this information about counselling. Like, if I was feeling depressed or suicidal. They gave me a brochure, but I lost it. I was so tempted to say I was coming back with a loaded rifle. I guess you can’t joke about that kind of thing anymore.”
After that Cat spent a few nights sleeping in the back room that is also her office, more out of the belief that she ought to make some kind of show of resistance than out of genuine anger. When she realized that Donovan was not planning to protest this arrangement, she moved back into their shared room.
She realized only much later that at no point did Donovan offer anything resembling an apology.
Excerpt taken from Lump, a novel by Nathan Whitlock, published by Rare Machines, an imprint of Dundurn Press. Copyright 2023, Nathan Whitlock. Reprinted with permission.
Nathan Whitlock is the author of the novels A Week of This and Congratulations On Everything. His work has appeared in the New York Review of Books, The Walrus, The Globe and Mail, Best Canadian Essays, and elsewhere. He lives with his family in Hamilton, Ontario.