Lost in Space

By Ben Tanzer


Curbside Splendor
March 2014

Reviewed by James Orbesen


One of the most telling scenes in Ben Tanzer's Lost in Space comes quite early. In it, he sits with his two sons, Myles and Noah, watching The Empire Strikes Back. Tanzer, as narrator, is on the edge of his seat. However, instead of raptly watching the action on the screen, the lightsabers crossing to and fro, he's looking at his sons, hoping that the movie that meant so much to him would have a similar impact on them. 

Instead of learning the life lessons Tanzer is so eager to impart, though, his children just want to know how long until Luke realizes he's been making out with his sister. As Tanzer puts it later:

"Why doesn't anyone talk about this shit," I asked an older colleague, "when [Myles] was still young and had colic."

"Because no one would have children," she replied.

Lost in Space is an essay collection laced with poignant observations about fatherhood, maturity, and the longing for a connection to the past. Tanzer constantly references the pop culture of his youth that still informs his life as an adult. At first, these references are quirky, allusions to Star Wars, Vanilla Ice, and the X-Men. However, as the collection progresses, the digressions add up. Each detour from the central meat, the emotion, of each story appears less like a youthful indulgence and more like a way of coping. As Tanzer writes:

From the start your relationship with [Myles] has prompted you to feel things you have not allowed yourself to feel before. Emotions you had hoped to bury or avoid. The idea of them embarrassed you. You were above all that, and not because you were better than anyone else, but because you were not willing to embrace it, any of it. It was all too messy and real.

Much like the Robinson family in the actual Lost in Space, Tanzer is adrift between worlds. On one hand, he is a father, husband, and provider. He brings home the bacon and cares for his family. Yet, he also yearns for the past, a past that even intrudes into the life of his child. Both Tanzer and his son suffer from sleep problems, an issue that plagued Tanzer's father before him. "We think we can escape our parents' shadows," he writes, "but moving away from them, or shutting off our feelings, even their death, does not make the shadows go away."                           

Ghosts are the past knocking on the present's door. Lost in Space is haunted and that becomes clear when Tanzer reflects on the difficulty his son has trying to nod off during a sleepover with friends. Father and son are on the phone, Tanzer trying to comfort his son. When all Tanzer hears are the deep breaths of his child, he frets on whether to hang up, thereby cutting the connection:

The thing is, they cannot sleep because they are alone. Sleep is not the enemy, isolation and the anxieties that surround it are. It is the lack of touch, love, and intimacy, and the voices that keep reminding you just how alone you are in the world and what a failure you have become. I didn't understand that at ten, but now I recognize this is what we had in common, not the lack of sleep per se, but all the reasons we cannot. 

The real joy of this collection is the interplay between past and present, childhood and maturity. Tanzer has crafted a series of essays that get at the joy and terror of adulthood and parenthood. It all sounds so terrible, having kids. You try and teach them something, à la The Empire Strikes Back, and they just let out the equivalent of a loud fart. It's bitter, but understood. "There's no guarantee they will be interested in anything I want them to be interested in," Tanzer writes, "but there's a chance, and that's more than I can say about my relationship with my father."

Tanzer cuts through the sourness of growing old, inexplicably, by showing how sour it can get. It's an odd technique, but it's refreshing for someone writing about parenthood to avoid sentimentalizing becoming a parent. Through the pain and discomfort, something sweet and touching can emerge. Like some of the best flavor pairings, the sour and the sweet aren't just in opposition, but they actually complement one another. This is because Tanzer just presents fatherhood, warts and all.

For instance, when he's dealing with a colic stricken baby, Tanzer finds himself at his wit's ends after "fifteen to twenty hours a day" of tears. He resorts to some unconventional advice from a pediatrician: put the baby on his stomach. After holding out because of the real risk of infant death, Tanzer gives in. He writes:

We didn't do it though, couldn't, until we did. Or, I did anyway.

It was so late, and he was so up, crying, purple, and sweating.

Babies sweat you ask? They do. It's amazing, though so much preferable to discuss long after the fact and from a comfortable distance.

Debbie was asleep.

I wondered if I should ask her what she thought about laying him on his stomach. I also wondered if I should just lie him down and allow her to not be complicit in his likely death.

I didn't wake her.

Instead, I put him down on his stomach. There was movement, not much, a hitch and a jump, but no tears, none, nada, nothing. The silence was massive and ear-shattering.

For the next hour I checked on him, never sure he truly was breathing, nor trusting he would continue to. At some point, I dozed off.

It sometimes seems parents are a different species, abiding by different norms. Like pod people, they emerge, looking like the same person, but irrefutably altered. Having a kid was The. Best. Thing. Ever.

What softens and humanizes Lost in Space is the sense of yearning. Tanzer undoubtedly is proud to be a dad and that's fine. But you can see the seams where his life and his sons meet. That collision is what saves this book from being just another droll look at what it means to be a parent.

When Tanzer titles a chapter "I Am Your Father," an obvious homage, you can hear him both speaking, and listening to, that signature line. The way Tanzer straddles that divide is what makes Lost in Space a gem to seek out.