There’s a point late in Jen George’s The Babysitter at Rest when an aspiring artist named Lee earns entry into an arts program held inside the Aqueduct racetrack during the offseason. While there, between cleaning concession stands and burying dead horses, she is expected to a complete one large art project each month. For her first month, Lee paints “Your Unceasing Fantasy Will Not Conjure the Desired into Being,” “a series of one hundred watercolors depicting women in various states of longing/desire/dreaming/despair with their eyes slightly crossed, mouths mostly open, vaginas reluctantly dry.” Her instructor, known as “The Teacher/older man with large hands,” decrees that the work is “sexy as hell while being totally amateur and bad.” Lee soon ends up sleeping with him. This section of the story is bears the title “Early work.”
This debut collection, out now from Dorothy, a publishing project, may represent George’s early work, though there is nothing amateur or bad about it. (Sexiness, of course, remains subjective.) The five stories contained within the book can certainly be seen as five portraits of women in various stages of longing/desire/dreaming/despair. They are creatively and sexually frustrated, subject to the caprices of men, machines, mortality, and other arbitrary powers.
The opener, “Guidance / The Party,” is a diptych. The first section, told from the perspective of a woman, age 33, documents the arrival of The Guide, an angelic figure in heavy robes with illuminated skin and blindingly white teeth. Bursting into her apartment via a screened window overlooking the fire escape, The Guide informs the narrator that she has aged but not matured. The Guide (who is referred to always using plural pronouns like we and they) has come to prep the narrator for a party to mark the occasion of her transition into real adulthood. “You must send out invitations,” they explain. “Invitations are formal; guest show up having RSVP’d. People will most likely speak about articles they’ve read and restaurants they’ve been to. Regarding television, follow people’s cues so as not to let on how much television you actually watch. Avoid overtly solipsistic topics like childhood or family stories. Do not overshare.” The guide delivers the protagonist a thick manual, full of symbols she “cannot make sense of and lists of rules. Also, some questionnaires and a page of hygiene tips.” The story is formatted in much the same manner, with titled sections dedicated to subjects like Excuses, Friends/regret, Maintenance, and Stretches & such. Even as The Guide criticizes every aspect of the narrator’s life — and takes naps, and gets drunk — the narrator finds herself increasing attracted to The Guide, unsure of what she will do once The Guide departs.
The second section covers the party itself. The perspective shifts to the third person: the narrator has become The Host, though the appellation seems an optimistic one meant to buttress the woman’s confidence. The Host has attempted to expunge her apartment of all trappings of immaturity, as per The Guide’s instructions. She has redecorated to suggest her own sophistication. She makes a 10,101-ingredient mole, which includes “liquefied frankincense and powdered rotten tooth that belonged to The Host, hand ground with a jade mortar and pestle.” As the guests show up (none of them actual friends, so as not to risk the presence of emotional baggage), The Host attempts to remain calm, though she frequently escapes to the kitchen to pretend to “check the oven.” The story is a catalog of the ways in which a person can feel inferior to her peers, never confident in how or why she is living the way she is, but certain that she’s doing it completely wrong.
The other tales in the collection feature similarly vexing scenarios in which the protagonists are made to squirm before an unsympathetic universe. In “Take Care of Me Forever,” the hospital-bound narrator is diagnosed with increasingly unlikely disorders of the body and mind. With her impending death presumed, she is forced to sacrifice her dignity for the benefit of medical education and the art projects of her various physicians. In “Futures in Child Rearing,” a woman thinking about having a baby seeks answers from a prognostic ovulation machine only to receive responses such as “You will never be able to pay off your credit card debt” and “Get outside and/or a life.” In “Instruction,” which follows the students laboring at the Aqueduct racetrack, The Teacher’s growing obsession with Lee affects an entire generation of artists.
In the wonderfully Gothic title story, the narrator comes to consciousness in a seaside town. She lives in a house with five roommates, and works at a newspaper office where she suspects she is being continually demoted (what begins as a desk job becomes more and more janitorial). She meets Tyler Burnett, the owner of the town’s chemical plant and scion of the local aristocracy, who is three decades her senior. Burnett lives in a house that is slowly falling into the sea with his artistic wife and his infant son. The son is a “forever baby,” who does not age. “It is a curse to have a forever baby,” Burnett tells the narrator. “The baby will never 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 to this existence. With this baby sealed in infancy, I fear I may live a very, very long time.”
The narrator soon becomes both Burnett’s lover and the infant’s babysitter, a web of relationships that causes her some confusion. “Tyler Burnett buys me a stuffed animal, a pony. ‘What will you name him, child?’ Tyler Burnett says. ‘Pony?’ I say. ‘Wonderful, child. Excellent. You’re a beautiful child.’ He gives me a bag of candy from the grocery store and pats me on the head. At times, I forget if we’re lovers or if he’s my father. He does not feel like a father.” The narrator must also contend with a stalker, a dying roommate, and a recurring bout of arson at her home. As in “Guidance / The Party,” she is constantly navigating the space between childhood and adulthood, weighing the expectations of men and society against her own instincts.
This incongruity between the narrators and their respective worlds forms the collection’s throughline. One might expect the protagonists — each rational in her way — to crack under the complete irrationality of her circumstances. (After all, isn’t that how a normal person would respond?) But these characters do not crack. They check themselves. They adapt. They mold to the expectations of their environments. For this, as the reader realizes, is how things actually are: even when humans are confounded by the illogic that surrounds us, we rarely respond with logic. Instead, we become illogical, so as to meet the world on the same terms. Such is the way that individuals survive.
The collection remains faithful to the Dorothy aesthetic: books that are not only strange and inventive, but strange and inventive in ways that distinguish themselves from each other. Within that family, George’s surrealist comedies are perhaps most reminiscent of Joanna Ruocco’s endlessly digressive (and marvelous) novel, Dan, published by Dorothy in 2014. Broad comparisons to Aimee Bender and Alissa Nutting might also be made, but George’s motley presentation and aversion to explanation mark her as a truly distinctive voice. Her frank dystopias have the charming eccentricity of Edward Gorey illustrations. They do not rely on beauty or brutality or humanistic appeals to sell themselves. Just a vision and a ghoulish sense of humor.