Are our enlightened, engaged, sensitive parenting practices driving a certain segment of the population insane? Is the nice, liberal father who has just this Saturday carted his kids to soccer practice, play dates, piano lessons, made sunflower-butter sandwiches, and read Goodnight Moon three times seething with quiet desperation? The surprise ascendance of Adam Mansbach and Ricardo Cortés’ Go the F**k to Sleep on all sorts of best-seller lists eloquently answers that question.
The odd, rageful, beautiful little book’s inspiration lies in the commingling of insipid bedtime story rhymes with the inner monologue of the wildly irritated parent: “The owls fly forth from the treetops./ Through the air, they soar and they sweep./ A hot crimson rage fills my heart, love. / For real, shut the fuck up and sleep.” The stylish parody relies for its humor and frisson on a certain level of frustration, an over- the- top, pent-up fury toward one’s children, because without that fury, it’s simply not that funny. The idea of saying “shut the fuck up” to a 3-year-old is hilarious and enthralling only if you are channeling an awful lot of that “hot crimson rage.” As one Amazon reviewer puts it, “The sanity we give up as conscientiously-parenting adults makes bonding experiences like this so worth it!”
In Jokes and Their Relation to the Unconscious, Freud writes about the “hostile purpose” of jokes. He argues that jokes are liberating and give us pleasure when they articulate the anger we are not allowed to express in everyday life. Here of course, that anger or hostility is aimed at children, at big-eyed toddlers padding around in their strawberry pajamas, and that is what is both exhilarating and disturbing about the book. There is a nastiness in Go the F**k to Sleep, an undercurrent of resentment that is comic, or “cathartic,” as another Amazon reviewer put it, only to parents who are pretty radically subjugating themselves to a certain kind of kid-centered drabness, and judging from the book’s runaway success, that would be a lot of parents.
Somewhere in the space between the book’s lush pictures and obscene words lies a kind of existential despair that is very particularly ours. In the epic effort to get the child to bed, amid endless requests for drinks and teddy bears and stories and other kidlike stalling tactics, Adam Mansbach writes, “This room is all I can remember./ The furniture crappy and cheap,” and “My life is a failure, I’m a shitty-ass parent” while illustrator Ricardo Cortés evokes a mood of depressive intensity, an almost fantastical restlessness, with his drawings of dim interiors and sleeping creatures and bespectacled dads in relaxed-fit jeans and twinkling black nights and red skies. The portrait is of a very ordinary family life, but what is revealing, what may have lead to all the ecstatic blurbs, like Jonathan Lethem’s calling it “genius,” is its Sartre-like bleakness and claustrophobia.
What exciting adult rendezvous is the sleepless child interrupting in Go the F**k to Sleep? It is his parents trying to watch a video, the mother under a blanket, the popcorn in the microwave. If the child refusing to sleep brings to mind the young Marcel in Remembrance of Things Past yearning for a kiss from his fragrant, bejeweled mother amid the clinking wine glasses of a glamorous adult dinner party, that is not what we are talking about here. We are talking about two slouchy, exhausted people trying to watch a television screen somewhere in each other’s proximity. You can see why the father is so angry and unhinged; the precious adult time he is desperately fighting to preserve is so paltry, so modest, so barely there.
One wonders if this hostility toward the child, who is naturally and rightfully manipulative, is just a tiny bit misplaced. If we are raising a generation that sees the whole world as an expanse of devoted maids and butlers, if we ourselves are overly beholden or enslaved to our children’s anxieties and desires, isn’t it our own fault? Likewise, if we can’t manage to hire a baby sitter and get out of the house, if we have made of the conventional nuclear family structure something stifling, airless, it can’t really be the fault of a 4-year-old, resourceful and mischievous as he may be. We are, after all, to blame for our own self-sacrifice, and if we are being honest and precise, it’s not exactly self-sacrifice, tinged as it is with vanity, with pride in our good behavior, with a certain showiness in our parenting, with self-congratulation.
The book, in all its cleverness and artfulness and ingenuity, raises certain other questions: Are they having sex, these slouchy rageful parents? Not enough, perhaps. When the father turns back to the waking child’s bedroom, we look out at the comfy, sexless, vaguely depressive scene of his wife sprawled asleep on the couch under an ugly old blanket. No wonder the slouchy dad is full of rage. No wonder all those slouchy dads and moms who just want to watch a movie and eat some microwave popcorn find this book so funny, so transporting; no wonder it makes them feel, as the publicity materials suggest, “less alone.” But if those sweet-faced children, so gorgeously drawn by Ricardo Cortés, could talk back would they say: “Put on a fucking dress. Have a fucking drink. Stop hovering over us. Live your own goddamned life.”