Other Shapes: On Kate Briggs’s “The Long Form”
By Grace ByronOctober 26, 2023
The Long Form by Kate Briggs
Luckily, mommy-lit is a wide genre. Good and bad mothers alike make for good reading. Mothering literature has shifted, turning from simple how-to books to more ambiguous accounts of raising little tots. Kate Briggs’s new book, The Long Form, takes on the canon of mom-lit with elliptical, philosophical prose. The book is “a co-project, a complex interaction” between Helen and her newborn Rose. The two must make their lives anew day by day. Every sunrise is a new structure; the hours must be built and filled. Nothing ever works twice with a newborn, Helen tells us. Helen is a devoted mother and a realist. “[T]his fragile composition we’ve made: can it be remade and relied on to work the same way later, or tomorrow?” she asks. The answer, according to this fragmentary, poetic book, is a resounding no. But there are other shapes that may work. They just require new action on a near daily basis.
Helen and an omniscient narrator guide us through the early days of Rose’s life. Along the way, we meet a community of thinkers like D. W. Winnicott, Hannah Arendt, John Dewey, Henry Fielding, and the man Briggs herself has translated—Roland Barthes. Helen listens to Winnicott’s radio programs and tries to make it through Fielding’s History of Tom Jones (1749), though she’s interrupted every few pages. Eventually, the omniscient narrator steps in to fill in the gaps for us unspooling the structure of Fielding’s novel—a structure very much like that of the novel we’re reading.
Briggs is known primarily for her work in translation. This is her first novel, though one wonders if it is, indeed, a novel. That’s part of her point anyway. What is a novel? Briggs’s translations of Barthes’s lectures are beautiful works of art. Translation is holy to her. She knows something about fitting words together and breaking them down. The Long Form attempts something similar, a sort of translation of motherhood, to mixed results. At over 400 pages, there’s a lot to take in—though many sections tread the same few concepts.
Helen, a very good mother it should be noted, “docks” Rose “against herself as if she were the smaller of two space ships.” She waits. She tries to make tea, no longer drinking much coffee after having the baby. When a man buzzes the bell to deliver her copy of Tom Jones, she calls him a fucker under her breath. The man eventually becomes a fleshed-out character who is waiting on the young woman he’s dating to text him back. He wants her to say “I love you.” Relatable.
Not much happens in The Long Form: “Let nothing happen, in fact. For who cares if it’s boring, as long as it’s undramatic?” Boring days are successes when raising a child. Friendship is one of the saving graces of Helen’s life. At one point, she wonders why she moved out of the apartment she shared with her best friend Rebba, someone who knew how to give and take, and which songs to skip during hangout sessions. Helen feels that raising a child requires a new, vacant space—something she didn’t want to subject Rebba too. Rebba’s brief visits now do “almost nothing to smooth out the hard angles of our days, the weird loneliness of our wide long nights.” There’s a bitterness to the schism that the child has brought into their dynamic, even if they maintain a wonderful friendship. In the appendix of inspiring texts, Briggs references family abolition writers like Sophie Lewis, but none of this is found explicitly in the text. It would be interesting to see Helen reckon with the idea of giving up the nuclear family in order to create a more expansive network of care.
The lack of action in The Long Form leads to what Helen calls “barely scenes.” The park and her apartment suddenly encompass Helen’s world. A scene has no predictable pattern; neither does a child. Incidents may pop up, but events certainly don’t. Children just show up, Briggs writes. Like a poet needing a vacancy. And suddenly you find that you do, indeed, have a vacancy the size of a child. Or at least this is how it is for Briggs’s protagonist Helen. She seems to have enough money for the time being. Her landlord is amenable to the child’s noise.
When a man on a bike passes Helen and Rose by weaving around and playing music, she stops and admires his skill—the “soaring songs, pulling out drawers and opening secret cabinets in her chest, filling them, if only briefly, with jewels.” This kind of prose climbs to a beautiful height. Sadly, most of the novel plods along. Of course, this is part of Briggs’s point—the slow procession of days. Childhood’s idyll: Sullen, melancholic, glorious, and painful all at once.
The novel is the form most like life, Briggs tells us. A novel says “COME IN!” like a pub. “A pub with a cat is a good pub,” she writes. But a baby is the ultimate denial of life’s clock. Children don’t adhere to linear time—especially not in their sleeping patterns. “Rose SMASHES time! She fucking smashes it,” Helen yells at E. M. Forster’s rules for how time should function in the novel. As the book alternates these essayistic passages with brief snippets of narratives, it feels like a “Lesson” is being taught. It is sometimes welcome and sometimes distracting—Briggs is trying to deconstruct the novel, to remind us that many of the books that launched the tradition of novels were only partly novels. They contained many genres. The Long Form’s avant-garde turn doesn’t always click. I, too, would love a novel to feel like an open house or open container, but at times The Long Form feels almost too full. Instead, when Briggs focuses on the humanity of her character constructs as in a chapter on Helen’s grandma, the novel feels warm and spacious like the very forms she argues for.
“There is no such thing as a baby,” only mothers, Helen reminds us of Winnicott’s words. Winnicott means that where one finds a baby, one finds maternal care. Babies simply can’t live on their own. Interestingly enough, Rose has little interiority. Instead, the book is focused almost entirely on Helen’s point of view. Helen scuttles across the page as she wonders what a mother is. Certainly a mother is a type of human and not necessarily a biological destiny?
“The term ‘holding’ is used […] to denote not only the actual physical holding of the infant, but also the total environmental provision prior to the concept of living with,” Winnicott wrote in a paper called “The Theory of the Parent-Infant Relationship.” A so-called healthy childhood allows the child to individuate, one of the ultimate goals in life for many. (Winnicott didn’t place the whole burden on the mother: “It should be noted that mothers who have it in them to provide good enough care can be enabled to do better by being cared for themselves in a way that acknowledges the essential nature of their task.”) Holding requires changing to a child’s whims, because no child has the same needs from one day to the next. Briggs certainly has achieved a literary version of this conceit, though not without some cost to the reader’s pleasure.
This is the difficulty. Is child-rearing on some level not arduous, boring, numbing, and then suddenly revelatory? By the end of the novel, Rose has her first smile, and Helen and Rose briefly fall asleep to a Winnicott lecture. Moments like this may make everything feel worth it to some. Others may still wonder what the fuss is about, like they don’t even know what a human is anyway.
Grace Byron is a writer from Indianapolis based in Queens. Her writing has appeared in The Baffler, The Believer, The Cut, Joyland, and Pitchfork, among other outlets.
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