I imagine a woman must’ve sat Kevin Wilson down and explained to him in excruciating detail what pregnancy, childbirth, breast-feeding and the mothering instinct feel like – the pain, the physical sensations, the associations, memories and convoluted reasoning. These descriptions in his latest novel, Perfect Little World, are not the descriptions you’d read in a medical handbook. They seem to be intensely personal and individualistic, even a bit voyeuristic. Reading how “Isabel (Izzy) Poole”, the main character, feels during those moments is like feeling it yourself, and it is really not pleasant. However, Perfect Little World is a near-perfect depiction of what happens to people when they have children, the good and the bad.
The plot thickens…
The plot of the novel is about an experiment in Family Sociology, called the “Infinity Family Project (IFP)”, in which Izzy and nine other sets of parents volunteer, or get selected for, (depends on how you see it) living with their children in a closed environment, where intensive “group parenting” would be practised, studied and manipulated. In other words, their situation does get manipulated and the children are exposed to experiments to see how well they are developing. The leader of the project, that is funded by an eccentric billionaire, is “Dr. Prescott Grind”. He was himself the subject of a childhood experiment in which his parents taught him to be resilient when experiencing difficulties, called the “Constant Friction Method”. This involved them deliberately causing him psychological pain, for instance, getting rid of his beloved dog and teaching him to “shake it off”, so to speak. Preston develops a zen-like calm manner – or is it a layer of psychological calluses? – and sees the families in his care as an interesting collection of amoebas on a glass microscope slide, but also his own family. And therein lies the problem.
Characterization – all the test bunnies in one place
The people on the experiment are needy in one way or another, but as people who have experienced setbacks they don’t really have a leg to stand on to object to being test bunnies. Izzy is a bright but antisocial girl who gets pregnant by her teacher in high school, who then kills himself. Since her mother is dead and her father is an alcoholic, and her lover’s parents are snobs who are mortified by what has happened and want to keep it quiet, Izzy sees the ten-year project in a custom-built luxurious centre as a second chance. It will allow her to give her son the best possible education and home life, since, she reasons, both she and he will have the best education and work opportunities, the best place to live, the best physical and psychological care, and a whole centre full of other parents to love him.
The premise of the project is that all the parents will love and care for all the children, and with that kind of support, they should flourish like one big, happy family.
“Once they’d finished the tour, Mrs. Acklen [the financier] hugged Dr. Grind. ‘It’s perfect. It’s a perfect little world that you’ve got here. I really think this could work.’” (p.89)
Hence the title of the book.
Izzy discovers that the rest of the world thinks the project is a cult or a love-in type of commune, and that what goes one way, also works the other way; if a parent does well, everyone benefits. If one parent does not do well, everyone suffers, regardless whether they did anything wrong. She also eventually figures out that, notwithstanding nurturing, nature and the inborn characteristics of the child cannot be repressed.
Dramatic structure and climax
The second part of the book is divided up into chapters representing years. As the project moves through phases, from communal nursing to pre-school, to seven and eight-year olds, all manner of things start going wrong. First, Izzy and the other parents try to reason their way out of their gut instincts that there is something fundamentally wrong with the project. Then, when things do go off the rails, the reader finds out what makes parents, and humans in general, tick. Dr. Preston Grind assumes, in the first place, that everyone is like him: informed, good, ethical, calm. They are not. He also assumes that the benefits of the centre outweigh and will overcome the participants’ resistance to their circumstances. Not.
Even the children involved in the classical “Stanford Marshmallow Experiment” in delayed gratification understand all too well that they can manipulate the rules and get what they want, wrong or not. In fact, they seem to be almost wicked in how they react. (In this actual experiment, children are told: “If you wait fifteen minutes to eat the marshmallow in front of you, you can get another marshmallow to eat, which makes two”.)
“Dr. Grind continued to stare through the one-way mirror at the empty seat in the other room. Had he made a mistake? Were the children too protected, too spoiled? Was he alone responsible for any outcome? He reminded himself that he could not allow the luxury of doubt, the idea that he could simply try something else with this family.” (p.247)
As the chapters are numbered per year Wilson draws the reader quickly and efficiently along to the conclusion of the project and the book. Though, it is only at about two chapters from the end that you actually understand the significance of the first chapter, where Izzy is finally introduced to her son as his birth mother.
Writing style – crisp and refined
Wilson writes sharply, cleanly, and precisely. Nothing is repetitive, and the book is well structured to sustain a sense of anticipation and intrigue.
Izzy and Dr. Grind (who only becomes “Preston” towards the end as he becomes more vulnerable and his past catches up with him) are interesting, likeable characters, consistently and comprehensively depicted. The adults and children in this novel are far from as damaged as those in Wilson’s earlier novel The Family Fang, though the two novels share the theme of how parents treat their children and what that results in. Izzy grows up during the project and becomes a skilled cook, specializing in pork barbecue, and an artist, so it is also partly a Bildungsroman:
“She watched him [“Mr. Tannehill”] rub down the lifeless carcasses of the pigs with a simple mixture of salt and pepper, watched him somehow hoist these beasts onto the smoker, and watched him mop the skin with a prehistoric-looking implement before finally tearing the pig apart into something so delicious that is was not food but a miracle.” (p.28)
Wilson amusingly calls the restaurant that Izzy and Mr. Tannehill start, “Swine Before Pearls” – a nice touch.
If there is one aspect of this accomplished and polished novel that I can find fault with, it is that the ending was a a bit of a cop-out. Everything is resolved too tidily. If Wilson were commenting that, ultimately, the project did work and the people involved emerged stronger, more resilient, and more accommodating, that does make the point. However, he also makes a compelling argument in the book about the dangers of the rigorous adherence to a particular type of child-rearing ideology, and the characters in the book all have unpleasant incidents to contend with and the ending seems to resolve these difficulties with too much ease.
I do not like traditional family novels. I try not to read them. But in this instance, Wilson is so clever and so carefully precise in his depiction of parents, children and their relationships, that it overcame my resistance. I was not totally hooked, but I was entertained by the strange, disconcerting and not at all perfect world of child-rearing methods. It could cause some heated debates amongst readers who have children.
About the author
More about Kevin Wilson and The Family Fang, here.