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Not sleeping around

books Updated: Oct 15, 2011 00:06 IST
Soumya Bhattacharya
Soumya Bhattacharya
Hindustan Times
Highlight Story

Go The Fuck
To Sleep
Adam Mansbach
Roli books
Rs 195 n pp 36

In India, books about parenthood tend to be written by mothers. They turn out to be either celebrations of motherhood, and the bond between mother and child; or they are wrung-out gripes about the (truly) tricky demands of managing home (which now includes the growing child) and the workplace.

In Britain and US, though, books about parenthood from the father’s point of view are hardly uncommon. Michael Lewis (made famous by Liar’s Poker and Moneyball) adapted the fatherhood column he used to write for Slate magazine into a forthright, funny memoir, Home Game. Marcus Berkmann, one of England’s wittier contemporary writers, offered us the charming and insightful Fatherhood: The Truth. And Ian Sansom, literary critic and author of the popular Mobile Library Mystery series, wrote The Truth About Babies, a book dressed up as an A-Z guide for the first year of the child’s life.

Adam Mansbach, an American literary novelist, steps into this sub-genre with his international bestseller, Go the Fuck to Sleep. While the books mentioned above were written, like proper books, by design, Mansbach’s was born more of accident than anything else.

Mansbach has spoken of how, as a new father, he was driven to anger and despair when his infant daughter, Vivien, would take more than two hours to go to sleep every night. He began to articulate his frustration in four-line limericks, a few of which he put up online. He followed that up with (what he thought of as) a droll announcement on Facebook: “Look out for my next book, Go the Fuck to Sleep”. The response was overwhelming; thousands wanted to know when it would be published. (Mansbach had no intention of writing it at this stage.) A small New York publisher showed interest, deciding to take it on.

Armed with a contract, Mansbach wrote a few more poems. Before publication, a pdf file of the book leaked. It went viral. Well before it was published, the book entered Amazon’s top five.

Pitched by its American publishers as a children’s book for adults, Go the Fuck to Sleep consists of 14 poems. Each poem is a quatrain. The second and fourth lines rhyme, with the final line almost invariably having ‘fuck’ (or a variation of it) and ‘sleep’. The opening two lines have tropes familiar to children’s bedtime stories (a tiger in a jungle; flowers in a meadow; owls in trees). They set up the grim frustration of the final two lines where the father’s anger at his recalcitrant infant almost bursts out of the shackles of the tight rhyming form.

“The cubs and the lions are snoring

Wrapped in a big snuggly heap.

How come you can do all this other great shit

But you can’t lie the fuck down and sleep?”

Mansbach is on firm ground here, ground that has been trodden over by many exhausted, bitter, sleep-deprived parents. One of the reasons why the book has resonated so widely is because Mansbach is very clever in tapping into and articulating that impotent rage (and the simultaneous guilt at feeling angry) when a small child, still unable to speak, refuses to go to sleep. It seems like a premeditated act of defiance. What makes the response complicated is that every parent knows that it is not so, and yet can’t fathom what exactly it is, and why.

With each poem accompanied by a classic children’s book illustration, Go the Fuck to Sleep is funny and honest. It takes a touch over two minutes to read. (I timed it. Could this last thing be one of the reasons for its staggering popularity?) It is a peculiar irony of contemporary publishing that a literary writer without a mass following has now earned his international reputation, celebrity and millions based on 56 lines of limericks.