The Limits of Agency: On Olga Ravn’s “My Work”

Ariel Courage reviews Olga Ravn’s “My Work,” translated by Sophia Hersi Smith and Jennifer Russell.

The Limits of Agency: On Olga Ravn’s “My Work”

My Work by Olga Ravn. New Directions. 419 pages.

OLGA RAVN’S My Work (tr. Sophia Hersi Smith and Jennifer Russell, 2023) can be described as a motherhood novel, but, as its title suggests, is really about a workplace. Rather than pitting family life against a typical nine-to-five, My Work treats family itself as a jobsite, with all the attendant drudgery and despair. The title also alludes to the protagonists’ creative work, which, like child-rearing, is often barely considered “work” at all, since it is largely self-directed, presumably enjoyable, and only marginally remunerative.


There are technically two protagonists of My Work: the narrator (the unnamed “I” of My Work) and an avatar of her past self, whom the narrator calls Anna (after Anna Wulf of the 1962 novel The Golden Notebook). Like Ravn, both the narrator and Anna are Danish writers. My Work is a product of the narrator combing through her journals—which are also Anna’s journals—from a period of three-ish years, beginning with her pregnancy in her late twenties.


Reviewing these notebooks years later, the narrator professes not to remember writing in this period of her life, so My Work is a process of rediscovery. The narrator arranges Anna’s notes in loose chronological order except for the pregnancy section (the text begins with Anna near term, while her early pregnancy appears in the middle of the book). She divides the text into 13 beginnings, 28 continuations, and nine ends, evoking the “chopped-up, stuttering” nature of writing on a “child’s time,” and reflecting the narrator’s uncertainty about how to approach such difficult material.


In procreating, Anna becomes “precivilization, preschedule.” Her identity fractures from the woman and writer she was before. The break, presaged in her pregnancy, becomes inexorable after birth. Popular depictions of childbirth exist on a short spectrum: at one end, bloody sheets and sweat-soaked suffering; at the other, pastel swaddles and the exalted glow of oxytocin. The birth of Anna’s son, as relayed in her medical files, is neither. Pain and mess are present, but described with clinical detachment. The days following the birth are poems featuring images of coldness, darkness, muteness, and hardness: the glint of a speculum, the hollow corners of an unused cabinet, stones moving over forest floors. During her hospitalization, Anna has a sense of being buried, the making of life having pushed her closer to death. There is none of the joy promised as the fruit of labor.


Once home from the hospital, the sharpness continues in Anna’s suicidal fantasies about her kitchen knives. Breastfeeding becomes both duty and escape from other forms of domestic drudgery. She argues with her partner, Aksel, a Swedish playwright so millennially committed to gender parity that he fails to appreciate the unique demands of motherhood. The fracture in Anna spreads along her reading, writing, partnership, and ability to baby-bond. Her bond to her country is also broken, as she and Aksel temporarily move from Copenhagen to Stockholm. Anna is severed even from the narrator, who writes her unsigned letters, as if addressing her across a great distance. The rare occasions when they occupy the same space are fraught. (In one darkly comic reverie, Anna stabs the narrator to death in a supermarket, soliloquizes while waiting for her resurrection, and then stabs her to death again.) The narrator keeps Anna in a kind of psychological quarantine, as if her old postpartum sadness were contagious.


Anna’s sadness stems partly from the anxiety she feels about having an undefined and thus incompletable task: rolling up her sleeves to get to work, only to plunge her hands into “enormous shadow.” The news cycle drives Anna’s belief that the world is worsening “all the time,” albeit less vividly than her private life. In times of terrible headlines—her son arrives months after Trump’s election—the articles she records in her journal are as likely to touch on community service for teen delinquents as signs of climate apocalypse. Anna’s mélange of concerns accounts for the “Mixed” in the grim, absurd “Mixed Anxiety” group therapy sessions she later attends.


Groping in the dark for her elusive task, Anna takes solace in shopping—also known as participating in the global economy, for those inclined to dismiss it as mere frivolity. Shopping is her lifeline to civilization, letting her touch the supply chain with an “invisible hand.” Anna enjoys the mixed materials and textures of consumer goods in her bag, elevating the contrasts to “an art form,” much like the collage effect of her writing. The objects she acquires become a way of knowing herself and her son, and writing about them lets her linger in this world of “the onesie / the blanket / the hat.” Anna feels freer among the signifiers than the signified: the clothes for the woman, the toys for the child, the words for everything.


Anna eventually complicates her schedule with a full-time office job and the occasional teaching gig, but the bulk of her work is writing. Anna must separate from the baby to write, putting the primary aspects of her identity in conflict even as she recognizes their similarities. Anna lives in contradiction, wanting to leave her baby and to never put him down, to be equal with her partner and to be recognized as special. Other forms of labor offer no solace. Anna reflects on a small assortment of gigs she had prepregnancy, not with nostalgia for a freer time but with a sense that these jobs, like motherhood, reduced her to humiliating bodily needs.


That Anna is aware of her privileges, and doubts her qualifications for sadness, does not bring her any closer to a cure. She fixates upon normalcy, a standard by which her work can be measured. She wants a normal, average child and a normal, average, “whole” book. What she produces instead are fragments of poetry, prose, plays, letters, essays, medical records, headlines, and government brochures. Women really can have it all, at least literarily. The resulting genre collage is uneven and irregular: fitfully funny, but more often sad.


Both Anna and the narrator compare stylistic flaws to mistakes in their parenting. Anna doubts the validity of her fragmented approach, but concludes that “old” forms no longer suit modern motherhood. Her writing, less fragmentary than fluid, moves through various states but remains part of a continuous whole. The wholeness manifests in a triumphant conclusion, with the narrator on the cusp of both publishing her long-gestating book and giving birth to her second child. Arriving at this sublimity takes work—work that will soon begin again. The title My Work is both a declarative label of the manuscript, as in read my work, and a description of an unsettled, ongoing process.


Ravn’s first novel translated into English (by Martin Aitken in 2020), The Employees, is a slim, dystopian prose poem about a spaceship crew. In My Work, few characters exist outside the family unit; it is its own spaceship. The story mostly occurs between Anna and the narrator, like Simone de Beauvoir’s formulation of pregnancy as “a drama playing itself out in the woman between her and herself.” In My Work’s final, essayistic movement, Anna finds an imagined collective in other women writers throughout history, mothers and nonmothers alike.


Marx omitted women from his revolutionary calculus, Anna realizes, electrified with bitterness and taking aim at the unfair exclusion of domestic labor from the definition of work. Anna wonders whether “writing about her body and home [is] not precisely workplace literature.” In the climax of My Work, Anna cares for her sick son alone, making the labor of childcare so painstakingly, patiently visible that it achieves a hallmark of workplace fiction: transcendent boredom.


Though most writers and readers identify as women, “women’s fiction” has yet to shake the shadow of second-rateness; to write about women’s concerns is still to be provincial. At the beginning of My Work, the narrator doubts whether anyone besides new or soon-to-be parents should read it, mostly to protect Anna from being misunderstood or dismissed. Even today, rebranding a tale of motherhood as workplace fiction—as near-universal experience—is a daring gambit. Will men read My Work? Hopefully yes, in this age when the “old forms” of literary greatness are eroding to irrelevance.


My Work might draw comparisons to another recent release, Kate Zambreno’s The Light Room (2023), as both elevate the mundane labor of modern motherhood to the realm of high art. Both Zambreno and Ravn hybridize diaristic and essayistic modes, both turn to other artists for answers, and both of their protagonists do lots of laundry.


Unlike Motherhood (2018)—another gem of art-making and reproductive anxiety—where Sheila Heti’s narrator pursues every line of self-inquiry like a spring traced back to its groundswell, both Zambreno and Ravn skirt a certain question: at a time when women of Ravn and Zambreno’s milieu exercise some degree of reproductive control—and when science has confirmed our anxieties about the world’s deterioration—why have babies?


The answer might have revealed much about the characters. Did they always want children? Did both partners want children equally? Do they view their desire for children as an expression of love, a function of curiosity, a sense of responsibility to the world? What hopes do they have for their offspring? Have those hopes changed over time? In works that excavate other deep veins, leaving this one largely unmined is surprising.


In The Light Room, when a babysitter asks, probably rhetorically, “Why have children [when] we’ll all be dead in fifteen years,” Zambreno dismisses the question with a scant two sentences on “[t]he callousness of such nihilism and despair.” In fairness, the babysitter asks this in front of Zambreno’s daughter, but “callous” more accurately describes the context than the question. (Readers also aren’t privy to the daughter’s reaction to the comment, if any.) Refusing to countenance the uncomfortable truth in her poor babysitter’s gallows humor makes it seem like an objection to motherhood for which Zambreno has no rebuttal.


Ultimately, Zambreno locates the problems with maternity—isolation, overwork, despair—in a lack of local support systems, not in global threats to stability or any intrinsic quality of mothering. Zambreno prescribes accordingly: cooperative models of parenting and education, plus an appreciation of small, ephemeral beauty. My Work certainly has bones to pick with society, but it makes no pretense of offering any salves for world crises, instead turning inward. In this context, Ravn’s vagueness about the why takes on different dimensions.


How vague is the why? There are hints that Anna’s first pregnancy was accidental. She briefly contemplates abortion, then decides she wants the child, without explaining why. She complains that her experience doesn’t align with “established truths” of motherhood but doesn’t specify what those truths are. She feels, with hindsight, that she was indoctrinated to reproduce—the dolls she was given in childhood were preparation for motherhood, she says—but this is a general grievance, not isolated as the reason she desires this specific child. The other couples at her birthing class are older, married, and better financially prepared for “Project Baby.” Anna and Aksel never talk about getting pregnant.


Baby number two is similarly shrouded in mystery. As her due date nears, the narrator speaks of forgetting the horrors of her first pregnancy, even though she has just finished compiling all its written evidence (and echoing her claim at the start of My Work to not remember the act of writing it). It’s a cliché that women forget the pain of childbirth, but here the forgetting is not passive acceptance; it’s an active embrace of the “radical and outrageous” act of creating life—an embrace the narrator has to work at. Still, the original obscurity of her desire to have children at times makes the narrator seem like an automaton running on ancient biological code. The “monstrous” quality of maternity stems partly from it forcing a reckoning with the limits of agency.


The closest Anna comes to articulating a hope for her child beyond generic “normalcy” is when she pictures him grown up, plucking fruit from a tree that will still stand in the park through which she walks, “without giving [his mother] a second thought.” In this image, in questioning the precept that “a child must be a mother’s all,” and in reflecting that maternity is “designed for a woman who no longer exists,” Anna strains toward a foundational reconception of motherhood. This reconception is promptly complicated and undercut with doubt, but remains profound.


In My Work, the line from why have children? to why write? is easy to draw. The two questions become almost the same. The exact pivot when Anna goes from not-writing to writing is hard to pinpoint—she notices that she’s writing again, so “something […] must have changed”—but it may partly be that unchaining her work from expectations also lifts the cloud of parenting anxiety. Can you be disappointed by a changing world if you have no expectations? What can art, and motherhood, become when it is freed of definitions?


¤


Ariel Courage is a writer living in Brooklyn. Her work has appeared in New Limestone Review, Guernica, Works Progress, and elsewhere.

LARB Contributor

Ariel Courage is a writer living in Brooklyn. Her work has appeared in New Limestone Review, Guernica, Works Progress, and elsewhere. She was a 2018 Kimmel Harding Nelson Arts Center resident and a 2019 Glimmer Train finalist. She is an assistant fiction editor at AGNI.

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