The Babysitter at Rest
By Jen George
Dorothy, a publishing project
Reviewed by Marie Curran
Each story in Jen George's new fiction collection, The Babysitter at Rest, bends the rules of time and space. And each one spotlights a different youngish woman experiencing harsh social, economic, artistic, and sexual limits. George's grotesque worlds are inhabited by lonely, quirky protagonists who are kindred spirits facing similar humiliations.
"Guidance / The Party," the collection's first story, is a silly and symbolic tale of a woman in her early thirties who receives some discomfiting news when an ethereal being, The Guide, comes into her apartment. From there, this woman's life is informed by The Guide's complaints: she lacks a mate, children, a career, artistic drive, and is also getting out of shape. She is stripped of her humanity by a not-quite-human presence. "Increasingly, less can be done," remarks The Guide. While guzzling the woman's alcohol stash, The Guide lectures her on the virtues of denying oneself food. This woman is not the last to be insulted in Babysitter. Throughout the collection, George creates the kind of women The Guide seeks to debase. And then they are debased. They never overthrow the system. They rarely find even modest success.
But, assuming this matters to this readership: why read another book where women are degraded and lack agency, especially now? To say because Babysitter is funny—which it is—misses the mark. And while this book is a smartly wrought, feminist statement about misogyny, this is also not enough. Babysitter's core is bizarre and inconclusive. At one point, the woman in George's opening story, who is falling in love with The Guide, replies, "I thought I could maintain certain things…Like the belief that my experience is leading somewhere. Except I didn't know it was a belief when I was young." These pathetic words defend her existence, and utterances of this kind, even when later regretted by the speakers themselves, become the collection's marrow.
While reading Babysitter, an interview with Danish writer Dorthe Nors came to mind. In it Nors states that many of her subjects—middle-aged women who have never had children—are "on the brink of losing their license to live." George's younger characters are similarly being warned.
So it goes, even in the collection's excellent title story. The babysitter has what the woman in "Guidance / The Party" does not: time. She has just re-begun her life as a young woman in an uncanny universe. She finds the secret to communication is not asking questions. To improve herself, the woman takes up hobbies. But her new life falls apart. She begins babysitting an infant who never grows old, or a "forever baby." The baby's rich father, Tyler Burnett, needs the babysitter for kinky sex, and suggests she don her bikini all the time.
The story has the stuff of nightmares. The babysitter loses all her clothing except the swimsuit she wears. She's frustrated that she does not know her own birthday, and that Tyler repeatedly asks if he can help her with her homework, though she is not a student. The protagonist does have a fantasy involving Tyler—she imagines using his money to become a "Great Artist," even as her own functionality slips out of reach. Tyler, who likes his lover simple, warns her not to try to do anything meaningful, and she continues to care for the child who will never become his heir. George does not reveal who the babysitter was before starting her new life, but it's not hard to imagine an older woman who felt tired and unloved. Whoever she once was, her "fresh start" changed little.
Babysitter's middle stories, "Take Care of Me Forever" and "Futures in Childrearing," offer no hope either. In the former story, a young woman is imprisoned in a hospital and told she is dying. She is surprised at this end, as she reflects, "I've always thought I was destined for great things such as people taking pictures of me." At one point she is placed in a body cast, and at another subjected to "gynecological exploration" in which aroused male medical students probe her uterus and discuss it in front of her. The language in "Take Care" can be less compelling, but it is a fascinating addition to the woman-imprisoned-in-the-hospital genre, especially as the protagonist's experiences there become more of a performance and her earlier ambitions are (perversely) met.
"Instruction," follows a talented young artist, Lee, who withstands a tortuous interview process for acceptance into an exclusive residency. She becomes the prized sex pupil of The Teacher, who renames her "Ranchera." Lee explains their first sexual encounter, which The Teacher initiates with a compliment:
"Ranchera, you have such lovely skin." The Teacher puts his large hand over my head, covering my face entirely, blocking my eyes, nostrils, and mouth.
"I don't even hardly wash my face," I say.
Lee promptly reminds herself not to say stupid things. Sex ensues.
Life in the residency is exploitative. But Lee enjoys the work and sex. As the Teacher's sexual demands intensify, Lee begins developing a serious internal voice. She thinks about what she wants and does not want. Agency germinates in this young woman, an echo of the babysitter's repressed impulse to tell Tyler to stop asking about homework. In Implosion, Lee's ambitious final project in the residency, she installs mirrors around parts of New York, and the result is that Manhattan looks in on itself. The Teacher, the other residency students, and Lee build it. The work is dangerous, expensive, and people take drugs in a chaotic parody of the pursuit of art. After completion, The Teacher and Lee copulate along the ring of mirrors. "This is the best thing you will ever do, Ranchera," The Teacher tells her.
The Babysitter at Rest, published not long before the 2016 elections, generously offers a crystallized moment that rings true for many women, glum professionals to dropout artists—privileged, though not exactly successful, and definitely stuck. It invites readers to rest their minds in a time of feeling young but getting older fast, a time of fleeting fake security. It builds a world in which unfairness runs rampant, but the players do not seem to know what is at stake, or if they can do anything about it, and then holds this moment close. Beyond the protagonists' glib memories of youthful invincibility, George doesn't write about what could have gone differently. Revolution is not an option. And how could it have been? When pushed, these women barely assert their humanity.
After The Teacher proclaims Implosion as Lee's/Ranchera's peak, she snaps. She says nothing, but she does leave. This is a great, late shift in the collection: a woman, in even a belabored way, saying "no." Lee chooses. George's characters take few actions, but they do take pauses to remember their humanity. It's not enough to change the world, but an important minimum. Nothing else can be done until existence is claimed. This is the small thing George's characters struggle for, and, sometimes accomplish.