Reading the stories of Jen George’s debut collection The Babysitter at Rest was akin to witnessing a distress signal explode directly into my face—a flare made out of the remnants of garbage, used paint brushes, thimbles full of absinth, giant mirrors, ice cream cones, dirty bikini bottoms, expired weight loss tea, dead horses, and black spinal fluid. There is absurdity in every story (a “forever baby,” a hospital’s “Mummification Room”), and yet I felt like I knew these absurdities from the reality of my own life—or, rather, I’d encountered them in a kind of danger that comes with age and knowledge. The wounds of self-doubt and painful self-awareness manifest in a myriad of ways throughout life, and, despite myself, I related deeply to the inner landscape of George’s narrators.
What unites these five stories is a distinct and alarming female loneliness—George’s characters wallow in a pool of stagnancy, the missed opportunities of their twenties. They are not, in any apparent way, successful, are possibly barren, and seem consumed by their failures. However, what saturates this loneliness is George’s deadpan humor. In the first story, “Guidance/The Party,” the narrator (a thirty-three year old woman) is given an unsentimental pep talk from “the Guide,” who will be her ethereal coach in preparation for a party she must host in order to be saved from her own inability to transition into adulthood:
‘Though you’re visibly aging, you’ve failed to transition properly and now is the last hour.’ The Guide enters my kitchen and looks over my tea collection: teas for energy, for shitting, for sleep, for being calm, for being present, for liking what I’ve been given, for being my inherent self—most of which are long expired.
Implied in this, the collection’s opening scene, is the image of a subject embodied by all she lacks, a woman who at thirty-three is already decaying. No babies, no boyfriends, no husband, no semblance of cherished stability, no book or art deal, a body that is going. That’s what you need a Guide for—to make you right, to make you whole, to force you back into the light of productivity no matter how undisciplined of a human you’ve become. (What has she been doing all this time, the Guide would like to know. “‘Looking around. Watching stuff on TV. Having weird dreams. Eating sandwiches.’”)
But there are remedies to all this. Roll your neck, whip your arms, elongate your neck to stave off the turkey wobble. No more sitting in the shower; no more television; no more social anxiety; no more complaining about not being a genius. Like a weird mash-up of a gender-neutral angel and bored Kardashian-like neighbor friend, the Guide wanders around the narrator’s apartment dispensing the implied wisdom and subtext of every self-help book and women’s magazine I’ve read: If you are not happy, you are failing. If you are not trying to be happy, you are losing. Even a faker of happiness is a winner in some way, or at least inspiring. That adage “Fake it ‘til you make it” seems forever apropos.
It is both hilarious and heartbreaking that the defining characteristic of George’s narrators are their earnest and damnedest attempts to flit through the narrow gates of acceptable 21st century adulthood, in this story portrayed to the hilarious extreme—the narrator takes it for granted that 10,001-ingedient mole sauce (with albino peacock talon paste), a self-given enema, diuretic “shit” teas, and large quantities of flower bouquets adorning a party everyone will show up to and probably rank as poor to middling are not just impressive, but sure proof of inhabiting an authentically adult sphere. This is her “last hour” party after all, and the stakes are high, at least in the eyes of the Guide, who, even so, leaves mid-story to get back to its own life. In the end, it’s left ambiguous as to if this party is truly a defining moment for the narrator’s continuing forward momentum, and something more than just a formidable and desperate public display of getting her shit together. Even after she throws the party, we won’t know if she ever does.
On the flip side, however, George’s harsh portrayals present us with a mainstream society that now seems rigged, destined towards its own insane horizon. What becomes revealed more than a woman’s various failures is the inherent absurdity of a patriarchal hierarchy where women are equated to sexual treats and the apogee of their existence is procreation. In a world where mothers are debating whether to name their unborn children Whirling Dervish (girl) or Phallus Maximus (boy), we must question everything.
The prize of the collection is “The Babysitter at Rest.” It is messy and perfect, and unlike any story I have read before. “I’ve been given a fresh start, a new beginning,” says the narrator. “It’s almost like being reborn, but without birth and childhood. I get to start as a young adult, when you are capable of looking after yourself and making decisions. When your body is in its prime. The only rules are you start pretty broke, and you have to have roommates.” The narrator is allowed to work in a newspaper office because she is interested in the arts, where her duties include ordering sandwiches and watering potted plants. Hobbies are essential here, so she takes up growing tomato seeds; she paints a little, but her roommate is better at this—she seems better than the narrator at everything. The narrator begins an affair with Tyler Burnett a pedophiliac chemical plant owner who is married to the successful artist she wishes she could be and with whom he has a forever baby, a baby that will never age and becomes the narrator’s main charge.
There’s such a dysfunctional dread to all this—for instance, the inappropriate sex scenes between her and Tyler Burnett who feeds the narrator ice cream and candy on their excursions to the ocean. “ ‘Child,’” he says, “ ‘please don’t pursue obscure aspirations of becoming something, though I know you wouldn’t know how to even if you wanted. It’d spoil you. You are better the way you are.’” To be a prize, she must remain hopeless. She fills her days with trips to the swimming pool, and eventually wears nothing but a bathing suit at all times, having inexplicably lost the rest of her wardrobe. As she watches Tyler’s forever baby, she realizes she can only interact with it a handful of ways, because it’s will never achieve the potential she and others squander.
‘It is a curse to have a forever baby’ [says Tyler Burnett]. ‘The baby will not inherit my property, my good looks. I thought the point of having a baby was so you could age and die. You could be released after cursing someone else into this existence. With this baby sealed in infancy, I fear I may live a very, very long time. I age, but I’m not dying. I can think of nothing worse.’
Tyler’s and the baby’s plight extend to the worlds in each of George’s stories—that there is no such thing as true success without a wink of acknowledgment that success is measured by the lame ideals of a condescending society that celebrates individualism and shuns community. The parody of the self-aggrandizing leader/artist is both a comical and sinister black hole: “ ‘Cry for my little penis, you stupid fucking bitch,’” says a painter to the narrator in “Take Care of Me Forever” as he paints himself into a matador scene with a pile of slain bulls at his feet. And she does, because when it comes to mourning, she could have been a professional, and this, unquestionably, is what the little penis wants.
These stories are weird, and get weirder as they get darker; that’s the beauty of the collection. In “Instruction” a group of art students attend an orientation that includes lying for five days on black trash bags without moving, eating, or drinking. They must vomit, shit, and infect themselves in a kind of pseudo cleanse meant to reveal the smallness of their existences. They have orgies, bury dead racehorses, and compete for the attention of the Teacher/older man with large hands who keeps a jar of nail clippings from the last thirty years on his desk and expects sexual dalliances in his office. The plot and characters descend into a kind of rabid whirlpool of sex, art, and narcissism. This final story makes the collection an homage to lost dreams of identity and recalls the first story “Guidance/The Pary”: ‘I first forgot who I was when I was very young,’ whispers the narrator to the Guide as it sleeps.
…At the moment of realization, I walked out of my backyard and into the street. I was able to see the world spinning. It went very fast and made me dizzy. A police officer pulled over and said, ‘What is a little girl doing out here alone?’ I said, ‘I don’t know.’ ‘Where do you live?’ he said. ‘I don’t know,’ I said…I didn’t know the answer to any of his questions. I was someone else after that, and since then I’ve forgotten who I was and have become someone else completely over and over again.
The expectations of domineering authority figures (teachers, husbands, doctors, artists, ovulation machines) moves to obliterate these female narrators. It’s the plight of the protagonists and the hilarity of this kind of culture that creates one of the most tender and grittiest collections I have read. That forever baby haunts me—a baby who never ages, who traps adults into roles they are incapable of transcending, never evolving, who keeps the babysitter in a state of arrested development, forever at rest, but who itself, in a way, is saved from this awful mess, the mess of life, the mess of being a woman or a man: “ ‘Your father’s good looks and his property will never be yours because you will always remain a baby,’” says the narrator. “ ‘It is better this way.’”