In the first story of Jen George’s debut collection The Babysitter at Rest, a nameless genderless Guide climbs through the window of the narrator’s apartment to usher her into adulthood. “Despite your lack of intuition,” they tell her, “you may have become aware of the following changes that signal the onset of adulthood: listening to others, doubting everything you think, health problems, understanding of the limitations of time and/or life/living/the individual experience…” the list goes on. Such mounting neuroses are experienced by not only our first narrator, but by all of the female protagonists that populate George’s stories. Given the absurd circumstances surrounding these women, it’s not hard to understand the source of their anxieties. One character racks up debt in her attempts to have a baby, which include purchasing an ovulation machine that, instead of telling her when she is ovulating, berates her; in the title story the protagonist chooses to start her life anew as a young adult, where she is “anywhere from seventeen to twenty-two,” and “the only rules are you start pretty broke and you have to have roommates”; another experiences misdiagnosis after misdiagnosis from hospital doctors, who probe her in the Gynecological Exploration room and place her in a full-body cast. Yet despite the heightened strangeness of these fictive worlds they retain a disturbing similarity to our own, largely through the ways their absurd settings examine society’s influence on women.
In the first story, “Guidance/The Party,” a manual the Guide hands our narrator instructs her on how to prepare for the party that will officially mark her entrance into adulthood. It advises to eat only “light foods,” as “a young woman eating fried foods, cream sauces, cheeses, potatoes, and cakes is charming; an adult woman eating those same foods is grotesque.” Throughout her collection, George highlights society’s unattainable yet accepted social expectations for women, and she’s sharpest when skewering these expectations for the female body. Women are frequently not eating, or eating very little, such as the subject of “Take Care of Me Forever,” who even in her own drug-induced dream, which takes place at a hotel, eats “small cakes” at the “children’s/wives’ table” while the other guests feast on meats hunted by her husband. George also probes the idea of physical beauty as currency, such as in the final story, “Instruction,” which begins with our protagonist stating: “I was sexually attractive, which is highly valued in college and art circles, as well as other hierarchal scenes mimicking the structure of capitalism wherein older men with large hands finger younger women.” In a collection that features mostly passive women floating dreamlike through their lives, this self-awareness and unflinching humor saves them from a lack of agency.
Though these women are unsure of where they’re going or what they’re meant to be doing, their minds move with unrelenting energy, thoughts spiking like the needle of a seismograph. In “Futures in Childrearing,” the narrator contemplates names for her not-yet-conceived baby with unrestrained imagination:
I’d like to name him Horace. He will be a lyric poet and a Sagittarius. He will bat his eyelashes and men and women will swoon in the streets. He’ll write an autobiography dedicated to his loving mother who resides in a chalet in the Swiss Alps. I wave from the mountain as I ski down an expert slope while wearing top-of-the-line gear in the film about his life.
The turbulent minds of George’s protagonists are constantly disrupting the stories’ narratives, making it impossible to predict what they will think, do, or screw up next. Much like these women, the reader is rarely on firm footing, but George’s hilarious and confident prose promises that this destabilization will lead to honest insights about our own world.
The stories are particularly adept at illuminating the ways in which men can become obstacles to women achieving their potential. George’s women aren’t directionless simply because they lack drive—they have been discouraged (with frighteningly innocuous intent) from reaching for more. “Child, please don’t pursue obscure aspirations of becoming something, though I know you wouldn’t know how to even if you wanted,” says Tyler Burnett, the love interest of the main character in the title story. Another character, Lee, completes an ambitious art project only to have her Teacher, with whom she is having an affair, say: “[T]his is the best thing you will ever do.” Men are frequently undermining female ambition through their own beliefs about women’s capabilities. It’s unsurprising that these men circumscribe women’s competence so narrowly, given their propensity for overriding female narratives with their own. In “Take Care of Me Forever,” the narrator attempts to communicate the symptoms of her illness to her male doctor, who calls them “psychosomatic…much like your mother’s fear of dying on an operating table. “But she did die on an operating table,” she informs him. “According to the records, she told everyone in the hospital she was going to die on that table. It was labeled suicide by self-fulfilling prophecy,” he tells her. Like in most of George’s stories, here the male voice possesses unquestioned authority. “My mother committed suicide?” the protagonist asks, failing to protest. This authority gives men the power to not only override female narratives, but rewrite them completely.
The men of these stories do not only attempt to curb women’s ambition, but also their love and desire. When Teacher tells Lee that he was once in love with his aunt, she replies that she used to have “crushes on older guys,” but Teacher quickly dismisses Lee’s former attractions as unequal to his own: “No, not like that. I was actually in love with my aunt.” In “Take Care of Me Forever,” the doctor refuses to endorse the narrator’s sexual desire or expression of love. He instructs her to masturbate, then prevents her from achieving orgasm by penetrating her. When she tells him she loves him afterwards, he says, “Shhh,” and then, to further erase her words, “You have a tightass pussy.” In these stories sex is not an act defined by mutual love and desire, but male pleasure. In the title story Tyler Burnett explains that he enjoys sex with the protagonist, Child because of her youth: “[W]e screw young girls a special way, with the intention of forgetting everything we’ve ever been.” He uses sex with Child as a tool for erasing his past and altering his own identity, without considering her separate sexual desires. Even his decision to call the unnamed protagonist Child (who is actually a young woman) infantilizes her and reinforces his own power in the relationship. Here women are not sexual partners—they are objects to fuck, gateways to male satisfaction.
The Babysitter at Rest highlights the absurdity of what our own society demands from women, while analyzing the different vessels—men, food, sex—through which these demands are delivered. George’s stories encourage us to examine the weirdness of our own lives, and returning to reality after reading this collection is like standing up after a series of somersaults: familiar ground feels suddenly precarious. Readers may find themselves wondering which world is stranger: George’s, or our own?
Publication date: October 17, 2016
Reviewed by Alina Grabowski