The Babysitter at Rest, Jen George. Dorothy Project (2016).
Clarice Lispector never understood why readers found her work opaque. The fact that she consistently attempted unprecedented forms in her writing was, for her, simply necessary to her aim: “In painting, as in music and literature, what is called abstract so often seems to me figurative of a more delicate and more difficult reality, only less visible to the naked eye.” Critics of her work often find the difficulty discernible, but the delicacy less so. Perhaps she just needed to tell a few more jokes.
Jen George’s brilliantly absurdist début collection of stories, The Babysitter at Rest, is an immersion into a similarly abstracted world of the delicate and difficult realities of woman-being, but it is a place which feels recognizable, before becoming completely warped, then pumped full of the epiphanic. Her stories are poignant and disciplined in their abstraction, but hilarious in their inappropriate and reckless abandon. When’s the last time you read an opening line charged with this much humour and intimacy? ‘On a bed in the emergency room, being pumped full of morphine and oxycodone, vomiting, then being pumped full of the same medications, I recall the ways I’ve always been.’ From the get go we know hers may be a mind run amok but there will be a sense of humour in our experiencing of it – in feeling alongside her thinking things through – if only to uncover that no epiphany is resolute.
The five stories in The Babysitter at Rest depict a world in which the female protagonists are not only willing to debase themselves; rather, it is an assumed part of their existence — of which they are painfully self-aware. Each is full of sardonic observations on the futility of what is generally considered maturity or success or love. George captures the loneliness that comes from participating in a society that feels rigged against sadness and genuine expression. George’s commitment to the absurd in the female inner universe is what makes it funny and spiritual at the same time. Commitment to absurdity is deeply compelling after all. With a weird, beautiful energy, George explores the challenges of woman-being: singlehood, self-doubt, motherhood, the dismaying fact of aging, the (dis)ability to love.
The collection’s first story, “Guidance/The Party,” follows a 33-year-old protagonist who is instructed by a genderless, tequila-chugging guide, intent in steering her toward adulthood. The Guide breaks into her home to offer dubious, unsolicited advice, throws her journals in the trash for the sake of her “future sense of self-worth” and says she “must now claim to enjoy things, learn a lot, and know yourself — this will heavily influence others’ assessment of your objective beauty and worth. Be aware that too much proselytizing may date you, so don’t go overboard. Your life may fall apart around you while you’re putting on the act of radiating positivity, but you will not realize it for some time.” The Guide throws away her unflattering clothes and requires her to have a party so that she can show herself off as the embodiment of empowerment and accomplishment. This, of course, doesn’t entirely work out, and the woman is left contemplating her missed opportunities and her long-term dissatisfaction:
“Q: Was there a particular point at which I should have done something different: gone to school for something specific, made professional advances, interned, taken a risk or leap of faith, asked for help, called people back, shown gratitude, applied for a job with a salary and benefits, saved money, gotten insurance, built a community, resigned myself to a relationship with someone for financial stability, had a baby?
Then, in “Futures in Child Rearing,” the protagonist struggles to name a hypothetical future child because of her certainty that each name will result in a very particular life. She wants to name her child Ocean, but greatly fears the implications: “the void, the vast emptiness, the unknown, big whale shits, giant octopuses, or other possible tentacle situations.” She also considers Meriwether, Jupiter, Horace, Atta Girl, and You’re OK:
“You’re OK is a good name because I always liked when people said that to me. There is reassurance in that name [. . .] On the other hand, there may be an element of mediocrity associated with the name, because of the ‘OK,’ that I’m unwilling to accept.”
In the final story of the collection, “Instruction,” the protagonist writes a song called A Woman Trying to Believe in the Inherent Benevolence of the Universe that She’s Read About in Self-Help Books and Spiritual Manuals. It wholly captures George’s ability to dignify the pathetic with an air of tragedy.
Where Lispector once said, “perhaps I understand the anti-story best because I am an anti-writer,” George picks up by embracing the vital humour it requires to be anti-life while living. Her stories avoid clarity in a way that imprecisely actuates a representation of life’s mysteries, not to reveal or define these mysteries of life but to affirm the comedy in their existence. Wary of the task of having to report what is definable, we, as her readers, garner truths of a more intimate power without fixed explanation. The Babysitter at Rest can be read as an attempt to represent the fabric of life through narrative textuality under George’s own terms. No story finishes with the triumph of one ideology over another, or with a new compensatory order after its crisis, but rather with the infuriatingly static chaos of literature – positioned with a self always before a mirror, a mise-en-abyme that suggests that there is, always, left a remainder that cannot be counted, subsumed, or excised to fit the frame of a simple domesticated narrative. A writer who is both feverishly imaginative, Jen George’s sprawling creative energy belies the secret (difficult) precision and unexpected (delicate) tenderness of everything she writes.
Alexei Perry Cox