AT ONE POINT in Elisa Albert’s new novel After Birth, the narrator, Ari, recalls the advice she received in graduate school from her mentor and feminist-theory luminary, Marianne: Don’t bother with fiction. Writing it, studying it. Novels are, in Marianne’s view, “irrelevant, because they are forever going on and on about the things around the thing […]. Stories are a rehearsal, an avoidance of politics and activism and rage and grief. A way for the writer to remove herself from the real problem.”
Ari’s response to Marianne’s diatribe — “So … you think I shouldn’t go for an MFA?” — highlights Albert’s light touch, her comic timing, and her ability to move effortlessly between registers. At the same time, Marianne’s words are like a thrown gauntlet that the rest of the novel fearlessly and energetically answers. After Birth is a political novel, and a feminist novel. It’s full of anger and frustration and heartache. It is also hilarious and entertaining. Ari’s voice is freewheeling, manic, edgy: the voice of an intelligent woman on the edge of a nervous breakdown. It’s like Lorrie Moore but more cracked open, running on not enough sleep.
The novel weaves together threads from Ari’s past and present to create a sense of who she is, where she’s coming from, and what she might become. In the present, she’s mother to one-year-old Walker, whom she affectionately describes as “an awesome baby, a swell little guy. Still a baby, though, of which even the best are oppressive fascist bastard dictator narcissists.” Still reeling from the trauma of Walker’s birth — an unplanned C-section that left her feeling “gutted like a fish” — Ari is “worn down by the drudgery and isolation of caring for a tiny child.” Although she’s supposed to be working on her women’s studies dissertation, in the hours when she isn’t attending to Walker she finds herself unable to engage with the ideas that once inspired, even defined her. Instead, she’s paralyzed by “delicious, terrible inaction,” pinned in place by the surprising double-edged sword of her attachment to Walker: “When I am with my precious peanut, I itch to hand him over; when I hand him over, I itch to take him back and never let him go.”
The mess of emotions that overwhelms Ari each time she drops Walker off at daycare — from guilt and regret to freedom and relief — is just one of the many aspects of being a mother for which she feels grossly underprepared. Recalling the feverish first days home with her newborn son, when terrifying images of him being hurt or killed hounded her even in her sleep, she rails, “The baby books said nothing about this. […] The baby books said nothing!” The idea that we aren’t told or taught, don’t know and aren’t shown, is a theme that runs through After Birth, persistent as a heart beat. This is the “real problem,” or one of them, that Albert confronts head-on in the novel. The loneliness Ari feels isn’t just the result of spending countless hours alone with a baby; it also comes from the sense that she is alone with her experience, that nobody wants to hear or talk about the harder, darker, knottier parts of motherhood. And when something isn’t talked about, Ari observes, it begins to feel shameful, like a secret failing that must remain hidden.
Part of the irony here is that there is more information available to us today about pregnancy and birth and childrearing than ever before. While pregnant, you can download an app that will tell you what fruit your fetus resembles each week. (It’s the size of a blueberry! No, an orange!) You can trace the development of its “limb buds,” know the moment when its elbows and knees emerge, and watch a video simulation of its brand-new facial features shifting eerily into place. On sites like BabyCenter and The Bump, you can find out whether your future child’s astrological sign is compatible with your own, study up on sleep training techniques, or calculate how much your baby’s first year is likely to cost you — all while being bombarded, of course, by advertisements for strollers, diapers, maternity wear, and onesies. “Who knew,” Ari quips, “motherhood could be a mostly material experience?”
Yet all this information somehow fails to add up to any real knowledge. Ultimately, it’s just more data, packaged for easy consumption. What Ari wants is something more, something deeper. She longs for a sense of community beyond what can be found in mommy discussion forums. She wants a guide, someone in possession of “primal knowledge” who can “demonstrate so I might learn.” The pickings, however, are slim. Ari’s mother has been dead for years. Her ghost now occasionally visits Ari but only, it seems, to criticize and nag. In the small town in upstate New York to which Ari and her husband Paul have recently moved, she scrounges for friends among Paul’s university colleagues. Desperate for a comrade-in-arms, she tries a group for new mothers but finds it “a chore, trying to talk to these women. You saw them calcifying. You saw them race to this endpoint, then come to a stop and calcify, never to move again.”
Enter Mina Morris. Poet and former bass player for the Misogynists, an influential if not-quite-famous all-girl punk band from the eighties, Mina also happens to be nine months pregnant when she moves to town for a writer-in-residence gig at Paul’s university. Ari is immediately drawn to her, moved by her art and impressed by her aura of self-possession. The two meet at a faculty party, where Ari sizes Mina up from across the room: “Tattoos all up both arms, nose ring. Careworn. Hair in her eyes. Messy, artless, doesn’t give a shit. Not like trying to look like she doesn’t give a shit, actually does not give a shit.” Ari’s admiration only deepens when she learns that Mina has hired a midwife and plans to give birth at home. In a way, Mina not only represents everything Ari is looking for in a friend, but also everything she’d like to find in herself. Yet Mina, a first-time mother with basically zero support system in town, also needs Ari. After Mina gives birth to baby Zev, the two women form a tight bond that feels at once radical and elemental.
Ari’s relationship with Mina, however, and with women in general, is far from simple. One of After Birth’s threads traces the history of Ari’s female friendships, beginning in grade school — a history that includes healthy doses of mean-spiritedness, jealousy, and resentment, as well as at least one black eye. At times, Ari seems to want too much from the girls in her life, while at others, she appears to be always waiting for them to disappoint her. Ever critical and biting, she often makes other women the target of her sharp tongue; at one point, she even says she hates them. Occasionally, Ari’s bitterness toward other women seems a little unfocused, as though she is still groping after exactly what she feels, and why. Nonetheless, it’s exciting to see Albert take on female friendship with the same boldness and irreverence with which she dismantles the clichés of motherhood. She captures the push-pull of these relationships, the way our friends can both help us define who we are and act as a kind of funhouse mirror, revealing through what they possess all that we seem to lack. Elsewhere, she writes about friendship with exquisite tenderness. Describing the night she met Molly, once her closest friend, Ari recalls, “We laughed, I remember laughing. We focused single-mindedly on each other’s amusement. Which is a way of falling in love.” And here’s Ari on Mina, soon after they become friends:
She’s like a big old bell I can feel ringing in the best part of me. The vibrations go on and on, clear away the cobwebs, all the dense, cluttered junk, and it’s like oh my god there’s so much space in here, I had no idea there was so much room in me, what a pleasant place I turn out to be. Recognition. Reunion. A light on that’s been out a long time.
After Birth is much more interested in ruminations like these than in dramatic plot turns. It’s digressive, conversational. In its exploration of one woman’s consciousness, it almost feels like a diary. Instead of the relentless forward push of a traditional, linear narrative, Albert gives us Ari’s meandering thoughts and observations and memories and rants. This kind of movement feels fresh and daring. It’s also one way that the novel is able to defy Marianne’s claims about the limitations of fiction. In Marianne’s view, the problem with stories is that they prioritize actions over ideas. If they were to talk directly about the ideas animating them, then “all that narrative would become immediately inconsequential.” But After Birth subordinates action to reflection and wears its ideas on its sleeve. Ultimately, though, ideas may be easier to forget — and to ignore — than people. What makes After Birth unforgettable is Ari, the messy, complicated, electrifying character at its heart.