“Literature has more dogs than babies,” Rivka Galchen writes in Little Labors, “and also more abortions.”
Put like that, the observation is startling. And though the babies are definitely out there — Galchen finds them in Beloved, The Millstone, A Personal Matter, The Fifth Child, and Dept. of Speculation for starters — the search seems to leave her (playfully) grasping at straws. Perhaps Frankenstein’s monster is her favorite fictional baby, Galchen cheekily suggests. Perhaps Rumpelstiltskin is the metaphoric firstborn of the fairy tale, and his hijinks are merely sad attempts to gain his surrogate mother’s attention.
From my own bookshelf I’ll add to the list Rachel Cusk’s A Life’s Work, a vicious and spry chronicle of her daughter’s first year. Ernest Hemingway’s “Indian Camp” features a baby of sorts. (Though one centimeter over is “Hills like White Elephants,” in which there will soon be an abortion.) Trials of parenting, once a child has achieved a certain age, give us highs of tenderness and brushstrokes of true cruelty. See Mrs. Ramsey winding her shawl around a fright-giving pig skull in To the Lighthouse; or Jason’s attempts to corral his mutinous niece in The Sound and the Fury.
And yet between courtship and marriage, or between the searchings of early adulthood and the intrigues of family life, literature seems to draw a two-year blank. A survey of 1,000 novels might produce nuanced portraits of extramarital affairs, or descriptions of all-night benders, but scant answer to the questions: Where do people come from? Under what circumstances are we born?
Why the omission?
Galchen isn’t sure. Thankfully not. Her investigations shoot off from her subject like finely-pointed spokes from a hub. The book’s split-up structure fits her purpose well. On the one hand you can occasionally imagine these short chapters as the immediate and authentic jotting-downs of a new mother reporting from the front. (For instance, Galchen on iPhone videos of her daughter, a.k.a. the puma: “footage of the puma has the unfortunate quality of making it seem as if the puma has passed away and the watcher, me, is condemned to replaying the same scene again and again and again.”) On the other hand, the book’s loose form also gives room to Galchen’s commendable analytical mind. Here, as in her novel, Atmospheric Disturbances, she is the type of writer who can show you in an outstretched arm one view of a sphere, then spin her subject in hand, and show you something quite different.
Unifying these chapters is a low-wattage but steadily glowing anxiety: that babies are not a subject of literature because babies are not interesting. To their parents and families in real life, yes, but not in general, not as a surface that will for the writer yield fruitful depths. Before she was a mother herself, Galchen confesses a nose-in-the-air dismissiveness toward a subject so patently and traditionally female. And her aloofness, she admits, didn’t stop at just babies: the authors she liked were all men (including Denis Johnson, whom she mistook for a French woman during an attempt to diversify her reading.) Two people with otherwise equal qualities would differentiate by gender: the man inevitably more magnetic in the pair. As for babies? The way Galchen tells it, you’d think it a prerequisite of youthful intellectualism to fall asleep at the mere mention of the word: God help you if you cared to go into particulars. Or put those particulars into writing.
But Galchen knows that’s not the whole story. Only recently have women begun writing with equal output of men, and with equal education to back them up. Only very recently have writers who are also women and also mothers had any significant spousal or institutional support to continue their work with children at home. Karl Ove Knausgård, for instance, whose influence is apparent in passages, manages to write about children’s birthday parties, his wife’s labor, a child’s real-time soiling of a diaper, in a way that makes those moments tremble with cosmic meaning. (Of course in Knausgård everything trembles with cosmic meaning.) Perhaps, though, the subject matter isn’t really the problem. Perhaps the problem is that while you are taking care of a baby you often don’t have time to write about taking care of a baby. Or as Galchen describes life with a newborn:
The world seemed ludicrously, suspiciously, adverbially sodden with meaning. Which is to say that the puma made me again more like a writer (or at least a certain kind of writer) precisely as she was making me into someone who was, enduringly, not writing.
And it isn’t just time that’s the problem. Despite the fertile ground that Galchen describes — and which other new parents must certainly feel — it seems remarkably difficult to see past the “dull” label that has been affixed to infant heads. And no wonder, given a literary tradition in which an erection can boast an established history of metaphoric usage, while a menstrual cycle, for instance — with exceptions such as in Elena Ferrante’s Troubling Love — is a detail that writers habitually leave out with trips to the bathroom and the buzzing of morning alarms.
Galchen, though, breathes decided life into her topic. And her writing is so good that her observations double as arguments for her choice of subject. Take, for example, this passage on a baby’s seemingly metaphysical essence:
We know babies are the only ones among us in alliance with time. They are the only incontestable assessors to power, or, at least, they are immeasurably more well-placed than their elder co-unequals. The way a baby, in a stroller, briefly resembles a fat potentate, for a moment unlovable, has something in it of the premonition. Even as to see a baby raise its chubby hand — to bow down before that random emperor can feel very right.
Or consider this, a comment on a baby’s loss of intrigue with the acquisition of language:
It’s as if babies don’t grow larger but instead smaller, at least in our perception. It’s striking that in the canonical Gospels, we meet Jesus as a baby and as an adult, but as a child and teenager, he is unserviceable.
There are a few places in this book where the writing does make a dangerous shift from brightly analytical to willfully cryptic (e.g., an unnecessarily complex description of a movie poster and its surrounding geography.) But that is rare. In Little Labors Galchen is recognizably the writer of the masterful short story, “The Lost Order.” Language like “random emperor” and “unserviceable” are the brilliant norm.
In interviews, Galchen has cited Sei Shōnagon’s 11th-century The Pillow Book as an influence for her work’s fragmented and miscellanea-driven structure. Shōnagon’s text gets room here, in summary form, if not thanks to what it offers on motherhood than as good evidence for the artistic worth of daily domestic life. (If an empresses’s court indeed counts as daily domestic life.) But Little Labors might be too tightly wrought, too self-conscious to really call back the flowing, pure diary feel of that book. Observations here more frequently have the ring of Susan Sontag or William Vollmann than dashed-off notes-to-self. And even the vivid glimpses of quotidian life with a child — the comments provoked by a trendy orange snowsuit, the comical tribulations involved in obtaining a passport photo for an infant, a child’s eerily suspicious fall among playmates — give the cumulative effect of toes cautiously dipped into water. Does this count as literature? the book seems to be asking itself. And this?
The result is that this quietly revolutionary little book is extremely difficult to qualify. I found myself thinking of it as a metanarrative on the genre of parenting novels: a genre, in other words, that does not yet fully exist. That is not Galchen’s fault; nor does it detract from the book. The way she writes, you feel she is onto something, as if she were peering down a long pathway of New Yorker issues to a literature ahead.
Little Labors ends as inconspicuously as it began. The child’s grandmother totes her to a senior dinner at their synagogue, where the child charms the crowd, “carrying her winter pants here and there, offering them to diners, rescinding the offer.” Couldn’t you charge $1,000 a day to bring a baby to a nursing home? the grandmother jokes afterwards. Couldn’t a family charge 20 bucks an hour to babysitters, adds the father, for the privilege of being with the baby? “Everything they said was true,” Galchen concludes, “and yet also, we know, not the case.”
Given what’s come before, it’s nearly impossible not to read this final note as a mordant analogy to the ambivalent place that the baby occupies in literature at large. After all, if novels are investigations into the workings of human existence — shouldn’t a baby, and a baby’s arrival, provide a useful key? Isn’t a baby a good place to start? In life, in literature, to borrow Galchen’s phrase, a baby should be a goldmine. And yet we know it is not the case.
When I was 21, three weeks after I’d moved to San Francisco to live with my boyfriend Stephen, his lung collapsed on the way to a party. He was casual about it — he had cystic fibrosis, and though he’d only had one health crisis before this moment, he wasn’t surprised. I panicked and went into a coughing fit. The next morning, we headed over to the hospital at UCSF, and began the part of our life together for which there was no map. That evening, home alone, I wandered around our living room. We were sharing an apartment with two of Stephen’s friends, both English majors at Berkeley. I browsed through their books, looking for good end-of-the-night-on-the-day-your-life-has-changed reading. Unlike most of the books I’d brought with me from the University of Chicago, the books on these shelves were written by living authors. (I remember feeling jealous: my roommates had gotten to read these books for school?) I crawled in bed with a book my roommate Steve had raved about, Marilynne Robinson’s Housekeeping. In the morning, I woke up with the light still on, my face pressed into the book’s pages.
Hospital time is funny — both heart-quickening and slow. You know you are at the center of life, that what’s happening right where you are matters, so you feel a constant sense of urgency, and at the same time, the hours themselves are vacation-like, stretching out long, not much to do. In the evenings when I visited Stephen, we’d lie on his bed, talking, watching movies, and reading. He didn’t want to read any of his favorite books in the hospital, on the grounds that they’d carry the aftertaste of the hospital once he got out. He stuck to magazines — the current issue of Rolling Stone, or something football-related. And there’s some truth to his theory — the characters and the landscape of Housekeeping are somehow connected to the hospital in my mind. But the reverse is true too, which was what made it worth reading the book while sitting in a beige chair eating chocolate pudding. The hospital became infused with Housekeeping. I looked forward to diving into its world those evenings. It offered an escape unattainable from a football magazine — or maybe escape is the wrong word — it offered a depth of experience that was part-escape, part-reckoning. The two sisters in its pages, whose mother had died, faced a loss much larger than any I’d ever gone through, but I was dipping my toe in, glimpsing the loss that likely lay in my future. And more, the story evoked a strange state that I was newly experiencing and had no words for — the sudden awareness of how little control I had over life, which left me both at sea and sharpened, helpless and purposeful. That hospital visit, which was longer than expected, I moved from Housekeeping to Beloved to A Personal Matter. And though these three books are so different that their authors might be surprised to see them all appear in the same sentence, they are linked in my mind, for the broad understandings they offered me of suffering and joy, and the complications of love.
After that first health scare, Stephen and I lived a double existence. He was healthy for the most part, and we were kids in our 20s like the rest of our friends, and yet we knew he’d be lucky to live until he was 35, so we were sort of in our 80s, too. It was an unusual existence — no one we knew had gone through it — and you’d think this would have sent me straight to the psychology section, or at least the illness memoir section, of the bookstore where I worked. But the closest I ever got to reading a book that directly addressed my circumstances was when I braved the “issues” shelf in the children’s section, and picked up The Tenth Good Thing about Barney by Judith Viorst, in which a family grieves over the death of their cat. It was partly denial, but it was also the same force that had driven me to fiction since I was kid — I didn’t want to read about my own life. I spent enough time in my own life — I wanted to read about all the lives that I’d never have. Though occasionally, a glimpse of my own life snuck in without my asking. I remember reading The Sheltering Sky, and feeling my stomach drop when the main character dies halfway through the book, and his wife takes over the story. I also remember reading Jack Kerouac Is Pregnant by Aurelie Sheehan, thinking, yes, I know that feeling, Kerouac but tied down, the road trip and the responsibilities all taking place at once.
By the time we were 27, Stephen’s health had begun a dangerous decline. We were living in Cambridge, where he was attending grad school, and we had to admit that we couldn’t pretend to be normal anymore — he needed to quit school and get on the list for a double-lung transplant. At that time, the risks of a transplant were huge, as were the possibilities. If Stephen survived, his lungs would be free of CF for the rest of his life. But the operation was at the cutting edge of modern medicine — half of the people who underwent the surgery died in the first five years. It was a big decision, and we made it together (so sweet, Stephen’s doctor joked, young couples, deciding on everything together — the couch, the kitchen table, the transplant). We packed everything we owned into our 1976 green Volvo and headed back to California to make this next move. This was the first time I ached for nonfiction, for someone who’d been there ahead of me to tell me what to do, or if not that, how to go about living with the unknown. My friend Caitlin was a poet and she gave me Mark Doty’s Heaven’s Coast. I recently looked back in my journal from that time, and there are pages devoted to notes for the letter I planned to write to Doty after reading his book. (I never got around to writing the actual letter.) Reading them now I feel a little embarrassed. Why would this stranger want to know about all the small and large ways I felt connected to him? And yet I did — more so than I did to the other partners of transplant patients, even to our friends and family who loved me dearly. He’d written intimately about his life with his partner who’d died of AIDS, offering observations that you’d never hear buzzing around a support group, admitting feelings and thoughts I shared but had hardly admitted to myself, much less to Stephen. I was grateful for Heaven’s Coast in a way I can still feel, even though it’s been over 15 years.
Still, in the eye of the storm, when the midnight call for the transplant came, I reached for fiction. Packing hurriedly for the hospital I grabbed Amy Bloom’s Love Invents Us and Ethan Canin’s Blue River. The adrenaline rush of the day of surgery, the euphoria of seeing Stephen breathe with new lungs, it was all mixed up with the stories I read, sitting by his bed. Usually when I read, the story I’m devouring is more dramatic than the events of my own life, but for those weeks, the lives in my books felt calmer and slower than my own, digestible, the authors offering subtle reflections on complicated relationships when there wasn’t room for me to do any reflecting myself. And somehow this allowed me to slow down, too, to sink into the daily events of the transplant a bit. Even if I couldn’t quite reflect, I could observe, and this in itself made the days less harrowing.
I reached for fiction again when Stephen went into the hospital for the last time. I didn’t know it was the last time right away, but he’d landed in the ICU with a ventilator, which was as worrisome as things had ever been. I’d been reading Birds of America by Lorrie Moore, so I brought it along, and sank deep into the stories that first morning, sitting by Stephen’s bed, waiting for him to wake up so we could decide whether we needed to call our families. I read for two hours straight, and kept laughing out loud. A nurse asked me to write down the name of the book for her. She didn’t care what it was about. “If it’s got you laughing in the ICU,” she said, “I have to read it.”
When Stephen died three weeks later, I was reading Platte River by Rick Bass. And while soon I’d read C.S. Lewis’s A Grief Observed, and find deep, specific solace in its pages, I also found solace in Platte River, if less personal, maybe more expansive, too — an acknowledgment of the mysteries in living, of all that we can’t know. It was partly the characters in Platte River, with their bottomless and invisible longings that drew them together and kept them apart, set against the sudden hole in my own life. And it was partly the landscape of Montana, both physically and personally too large for any frame. Montana was the place where my father’s family was from, holding everything I’d never know about his childhood, his parents, why certain family events unfolded the way they did. And its sky and plains were coldly soothing, as endless as the ocean, and offering a similar sort of comfort, with their indifference to my own ups and downs.
Still, when I’m grappling with my life, I reach for fiction. In the years of emerging from grief, of falling in love and marrying again, of having kids and being a part of several families cobbled together, I’ve been up late with The Deptford Trilogy and A Gathering of Old Men, with The Sea, the Sea, and Olive Kitteridge and Sum. I am lost in worlds far from mine, and yet grateful for what they tell me about my own life, too — that it’s only a variation on a theme, that maybe it’s unusual to lose your first husband at 29, but so what — love and loss and grief and more love are out there for all of us, unremarkable in the human scheme of things.