The stories in The Babysitter At Rest by Jen George follow the logic and tenor of a nightmare. Fears and truths hide within distorted images and exaggerated worry. Characters inhabit familiar yet off-balance worlds. In one story, a feckless 33-year-old is instructed on how to improve herself by a tequila-chugging, robe-wearing guide, because she’s failed to transition properly into adulthood. In another, a woman goes into massive debt trying to have a baby, an ovulation machine spitting out snide readings to her like an abusive Magic 8 Ball. These stories are also hilarious, combining deadpan, often abstract language to create an original, confident debut that continually threatens to run off the rails but never does.
In the first story, “Guidance / The Party,” the aforementioned guide is the embodiment of the kind of impossible mandates offered in women’s beauty magazines and the Facebook feeds of Goop-reading, self-improving acquaintances announcing gluten-free diets and pilates regimens. Except the guide’s tactic is not one of blissful motivation, but of inducing anxiety by playing off the protagonist’s fear that there is a time limit on achieving happiness:
We find you at the point of early decay. Decay sets in with the loss of possibility, not having children, having children, a string of failures over years, memories, jobs, aging, becoming out-of-shape, losing your looks, realizing you’re a one-trick pony or fraud or nothing special, and understanding things too late.
The second half of the story is taken up by the party the protagonist is mandated to throw, featuring amazing comic details like a 10,101-ingredient mole, a record called Dance Songs Of Times Forgotten (It’s later noted, “No one thinks of times forgotten.”), and a lewdly violent tarot pack. It’s an auspicious beginning to a collection that only raises the stakes as it goes on.
Reminiscent of Kathy Acker, William Burroughs, and Thomas Pynchon in its absurdist portrayal of depraved sexuality, The Babysitter At Rest exaggerates sex to the edge of grotesque. The male characters are reduced to their basest instincts, while the female characters are often mere shells, valued above all else for their youth, sexuality, and only occasionally their promise to do something worthwhile. Each goes along with the requests of whichever erection-wielding man who’s taken a fancy to her: There’s the older man in the title story who has the narrator exclusively wear a bikini and saddle shoes (she ends up losing all her other clothing by story’s end); the artist-psychiatrist of “Take Care Of Me Forever” who masturbates while in session and makes the narrator his art project; and “The Teacher/older man with the large hands” in “Instruction” who wants the protagonist as both a sexual plaything and protégé.
But George doesn’t beat up her protagonists for the sake of salacious shock. Just as it seems like she’s pushed too far into the absurd, George grounds her stories in quiet and very much earned poignancy. In “Instruction,” for example, the main character exercises some agency by leaving her teacher/lover’s art school, rendered as a rat-infested warehouse where students have orgies and are tasked with burying dead horses (that she leaves for, at one point, a convent says something about the hilariously limited options available to her). And this melancholy passage from the title story, while wryly funny, portends the tone of its ending:
Time goes quickly and little is ever accomplished. It’s unclear if there is just nothing to accomplish, or if there are endless things. I go swimming often. I spend hours at the pool. I meet people, older women and kids, who like to play water games like splash-in-the-face, drown-a-bitch, and punchies-and-kickies.
George goes there again and again, combining the profane and the pathetic with a rarely seen energy. When’s the last time you read an opening line this charged? “On a bed in the emergency room, being pumped full of morphine and oxycodone, vomiting, then being pumped full of the same medications, I recall the ways I’ve always been.” (That little information about George is available—she was born in California and lives in New York—only heightens the appeal; her work stands alone.)
The Babysitter At Rest is a complete, cohesive collection of stories, in part because its protagonists are variations on a theme: women willing to debase themselves for love, sex, or some other kind of improvement in their lives. The book is also about what it means to be an artist—someone else in these stories who debases herself for the chance at another’s esteem. Yet, as demonstrated by the protagonist’s lemming-like classmates in the final story, not all artists have original thoughts of their own. Lucky for us, George doesn’t have that problem.