JULY 6, 2016
READING RIVKA GALCHEN’S Little Labors, which, as the punning title intimates, is not just a small work of serial prose but also a record of the author’s early experiences as a mother (inappropriate food cravings, sleeplessness, euphoria, social isolation), I had a sinking feeling. Galchen is, for my money, one of the most gifted stylists writing in American English today. Her funniness is otherworldly; she is the reigning champion of litotes, or understatement for effect. Preternaturally deft, Galchen can do almost anything with next to nothing. This talent mostly allowed her to convert my sinking feeling, in reading Little Labors, into an encounter with bathos, Alexander Pope’s made-up term for intentionally botched attempts at sublimity. I found Galchen’s brief book accurate, poignant, and wry. But occasionally, in reading Little Labors, I was quite sunken, quite despondent, and not in a playful way. I was despondent because, like The Pillow Book, Sei Shōnagon’s famous 11th-century diary after which Little Labors is to some extent modeled, Galchen’s small volume concerns interrelated experiences of difference, exceptionality, and precariousness, which can seem ineluctably (and sometimes frighteningly) entailed by one’s status as a female human. Little Labors does this well, no easy feat. But it’s not a polemic or memoir. Rather, it’s a study of a baby and of babies, of culture, and of vulnerability. Most of all, it’s a study of everything one has missed perceiving, previous to the arrival of a child.
Throughout Galchen’s larger oeuvre, the examination of various kinds of cultural discomfort and uncertainty in the United States is a running theme. In her two previous publications, the novel Atmospheric Disturbances (2008) and short story collection American Innovations (2014), assorted STEM-educated individuals fail to read social cues; first-generation Americans struggle to develop the correct affective relationships to American consumer products and fast foods; daughters and parents, as well as wives and husbands, labor to fully connect, especially in Brooklyn and the Midwest. But Little Labors does not deal in the speculative plurals I avail myself of here. It is not a series of intertwined reflections on a group of beings called “the Rivka Galchens,” an interesting class or species to be sure. Rather, it explicitly presents itself as a sort of real-life occasional writing, a bouquet of empirical observations, an extended essay vérité. In other words, Little Labors purports to be true. It deals unashamedly and in large part with the declarative mood rather than the subjunctive, progressing, form and genre-wise, via affiliation with Shōnagon’s medieval diary. Shōnagon’s classic miscellany is unconcerned with a holistic plot, though the nonnarrative quality of The Pillow Book, it should be noted, has sometimes been further intensified by the tendency of Western translators to willfully excerpt, reorder, and rewrite Shōnagon’s text. The Pillow Book musters events and observations under a series of amusing topical headings rather than causing them to unfold seamlessly along a single temporal track. Its modular structure interweaves poetry and a succession of rather opinionated lists dealing in matters of aesthetics (“Things that Give an Unclean Feeling,” for example) with brief anecdotes concerning daily life in the quarters of the Empress Consort Teishi. There are descriptions of sunsets, seasons, fabrics, intrigues. As Galchen eloquently observes, The Pillow Book is also a wrenching, if witty, testament to the precariousness of the situation of its author, whose “intelligence, which is what saves her, also makes her vulnerable.” Written in vernacular Japanese, the female literary language of the time, rather than the classical Chinese reserved for the use of elite males, The Pillow Book is at once proof of its author’s ingenuity and of her difference; it underscores Shōnagon’s status as a mesmerizing and, perhaps to some, troubling exception.
The casualness of Shōnagon’s chosen form, the diary, gives the writer some liberty; what the day brings, she can record. Galchen seems similarly taken with the possibilities afforded by writing that allegedly emerge from observation of everyday events. The uncertainties and, at times, forms of chaos Little Labors discusses are, in this sense, not merely imagined or inferred, but lived. Galchen writes, of her daughter, “My life with the very young human resembles those romantic comedies in which two people who don’t speak the same language still somehow fall in love.” The world of the child, paradoxically, both coincides and does not coincide with the world of her mother:
she had appeared as an animal, a previously undiscovered old-world monkey, but one with whom I could communicate deeply: it was an unsettling, intoxicating, against-nature feeling. A feeling that felt like black magic. We were almost never apart.
The description of this discontinuity, the normalization of the “black magic” feeling that is the difference the birth of a child makes, is a labor that is less “little” than entirely absorbing, a kind of foundational narrative of the world. It is also what people have long dismissed as “women’s work.” It would, additionally, be very difficult to work this uncanny experience into a scene in a novel. Sure, this could be thought by one’s character, but could this experience of magic be “shown”? It is, as Galchen points out, at once very strange and not strange at all that, “Literature has more dogs than babies, and also more abortions.” Key unsung babies Galchen’s cultural research has uncovered: Frankenstein’s monster, Rumpelstiltskin, Godzilla. There is also the quietly noted fact that a great deal of the world’s canonical literature has been written by men, who tend not to give birth.
Beyond the general problem of being female and having reproduced, there is, in Little Labors, also the specific problem of being a professional writer — a slightly different, though equally inconvenient, problem of production. The baby occurs to the writer as a kind of microcosm, an unidentifiable animal, an independent world that language has not yet reached; is any sentence as lively as she? We are told the baby arrives in the form of a “puma,” a “near mute” force of nature if not an actual large felid of the subfamily Felinae. Later the baby will resemble a “featherless bird” (crying after being denied access to a can-opener), a “wounded deer” (pulling herself across the bathroom floor with her arms), a chicken. “We are of the large species; she is of the small species,” Galchen theorizes, in the baby’s imagined voice, in third-person perspective. The project of writing has become, in yet another genre-expanding maneuver, anthropological or maybe even biological, in the case that the baby is not yet assuredly a member of the human ken. The writing wants to reach the baby, and this cultural and/or biological research makes for engrossing reading. Galchen’s field notes, the prose of her immediate observations here, are a little starchier than her writing in her two previous books. Yet though her sentences are less antic, less obviously entertaining or oddball, they are still extremely appealing. They are drier, more searching and more serious, and, perhaps because of this, the voice, the narrator, is more winning still. I may need, the reader thinks, this person’s advice. Even as Galchen endeavors and sometimes fails to deal with challenging topics like race and economic disparity, there is, again, something empirical in her odd small book that reads as a frank attempt. Yet we also root for Galchen as if we were reading fiction, as we would root for the time traveler or the individual who has suffered an unexpected metamorphosis; we want her life to go back to normal, even though we recognize that it now no longer can.
Little Labors’s title might purport to name its trim size, or to name its semi-ludicrous, semi-striving style. There is also the matter of the myriad thankless tasks of raising a child that compete with writing — and this conflict might even be the hidden, though of course always an open secret, plot of the book. A recurring half-disguised drama or joke is the fact that this book should not have been written, that it could have been impossible to write, that it was, indeed, frequently impossible to write it. Something else seemed meant to take this book’s place. Replacement babies, interim babies, symbolic babies, Frankenstein’s monster-as-baby: many babies present themselves throughout this prose, as if to recall the writer to another duty. But what of the writer herself, in her professional capacity? What is the meaning of her own ongoing tastes, her own relentless professional and artistic drive to create, having already made, in addition to everything else, another human? Galchen’s book, a guide to that particular quandary of production, suggests that the answer lies in the difference between what we are willing to say about life and what we actually know about it. The book’s final anecdote, a conversation in which the author’s partner proclaims that a baby “is a goldmine,” because it should be possible to charge other people by the hour for the privilege of spending time with a child, rather than vice versa, proves this point. It is really hard to say just what spending time with a baby is worth, perhaps nothing, perhaps everything. A joke, like a book, is made to fill a void. For taste can no longer help us out.
So while Galchen’s book is not exactly a translation, even formally speaking, of Shōnagon’s series of anecdotes, lists, and poems, it does trade in the notion that there is something about the experience of women that is at once troubled by being revealed, even as it is troubled by being unrevealed; that there’s something either unaccountable or too accountable about being able to give birth. Where the medieval Shōnagon is matter-of-fact about the social disparities between women and men, the modern Galchen is worried. As Galchen observes — with reference to recent revelations about Arnold Schwarzenegger’s previously unrecognized son, what she terms “the covert baby-having thing” — men can have children secretly. They can move around in society with ease, even as procreation is occurring elsewhere, on their behalf. Pregnancy shows on a woman’s body, most obvious of things to say, and it also shows in her actions. Most galling of all is the fact that it is very difficult for a woman to hide a pregnancy or the resultant birth from the man who might be the child’s co-author. Galchen confesses herself envious of men’s ability to electively hide their offspring. One is often either too visibly female or invisible, because female. Galchen is made much of with her child, criticized with her child, and then, in a final twist, ignored: “There was only one group, very demographable, to whom the baby — and myself with the baby — were suddenly invisible, and that group was the group with which I am particularly comfortable, the young-ish, white, well-employed, culturally literate male.” It is also worth noting that this paradox of a simultaneous excess of visibility and excess of invisibility is meditated upon by Galchen in a book that locates itself squarely betwixt (recognizable) genres.
Galchen will surely be compared to contemporary writers who are pursuing genre-agnostic prose, such as Maggie Nelson and Claudia Rankine, but a more interesting way to think of Little Labors might be via its interest in at least one old-fashioned trope: topicality. Topicality is an important component of classical rhetoric, as Cicero teaches, and also has a role to play in the art of memory — see Frances Yates’s well-known history of mnemonics and art. In these accounts, the topic is a conceptual stopping place, a distinct speaking point on which we linger. Galchen, unlike Shōnagon, comes to topicality not merely to describe or reminisce, but to pin things down. Thus perhaps we are not so much watching Galchen trade in traditional genre for no genre, as we are watching her trade in the tropes and trappings of narrative for the immediacy of address of a contemporary audience as well as the immediacy of reflection in the present. The occasion, the excuse, for a given reflection or observation need be no more elaborate than that it can be easily and successfully organized under a new topic. “Babies in art mostly look nothing like babies in life,” she tells us, an excellent point. Or, “If you discovered you could communicate with a chimpanzee, would you give that up?” We are being asked to share in Galchen’s apparently genuine surprise, and this invitation, along with the astonishment that inspires it, feels not only genuine but important.