Loves, I haven’t written in a while. I know. There you are, sitting around waiting patiently, in quiet desperation, for me to tell you what to read. And here I am, barely able to make it through a page before I have to get up out of my chair and rush with great urgency to feed, rock, hug, wipe, play with, or find something for one of my kids. Here’s my advice–if you would like to spend the rest of your days in uninterrupted reading, do not have children. If you can deal with going through the same paragraph over and over and over again, by all means, reproduce. And for godsake, get a spiffy bookmark and use it with the gusto of a drowning man grabbing a life preserver.
There is a strange quiet to the stories in this collection. They wade through an environmentally devastated dystopian future and give off whispered warnings rather than roaring doom. They are uncomfortable, uneasy, but in a way that emulates the fairy tale, chock full of timeless mythic secrets, shrouded in mystery.
This collection of stories follows a fantastic (in all senses of the word) novel The Beautiful Bureaucrat and it feels very thematically and stylistically linked.
The genius of Phillips is the way she constructs a premise and sees it through. You never really seize the meaning until the end of the piece and even then you will doubt whatever it is you think you have understood. We never really distinguish what is metaphor and what is plot. (All are both, but let’s leave it at that…) To each strange circumstance there is in the background a kind of hanging “It’s as if…” that we hope we will see realized when we reach the end of the story. No, it’s not a story about bearing and raising extraterrestrial children, the story is about a woman who feels “as if” she has born alien children. It is not a story about young girls disappearing into thin air but only about a world that feels “as if” young girls are disappearing into thin air. The whole collection is haunted by this ghost simile, moaning like or as…
I was not expecting to love this novel.
I’m not totally sure why I picked it up in the first place, except that someone from my Book Riot crew had mentioned it was pretty good and that the main character is unlikeable.
Me, I don’t mind unlikeable women characters. Usually the reason that women characters are unlikeable is that a) they are not what we think they should be, or b) they are not what men think they should be. I always give myself permission to drop a book that has a truly unlikeable character at its center (spending too much time with someone you don’t like is a sure way to incur psychological damage) but I will usually pick them up because, often enough, an unlikeable woman is a very interesting woman. In fiction. As in life.
In some reviews, this debut novel by poet Jill Alexander Essbaum is cited as part of the new breed of housewife/mommy books, including recent works like After Birth, Eleven Hours, American Housewife, and Little Labors. But, of course, while there seems to be a surge of women writing about what it’s like to have too many brains and too little time to use them (spoiler alert: it’s like a bottomless jello cup of melancholia), this theme has a long and very rich history.
Boredom is not an invention of the 21st century middle class. Like one of those viruses that have existed since the days of rats hopping hopeful ships to the New World, we seem to immunize it into submission until one day it rears up again. Probably the boredom most famous to our generation is 19th century ennui, that abiding existential syndrome of being a European male. But the boredom of women in the home is something different. Dark and passionate.
In the early days, people asked us questions like how long we would take off from work and had we researched daycares in the area. Had we read about attachment parenting? Would we let our baby cry it out?
But other recent parents asked nothing about parenting at all.
Instead, they asked us which television series we had lined up to watch.
At first, I did not fully grasp the significance of the question. But. Today, after countless barely conscious feedings interspersed with anxiety dreams, thousands of loads of laundry, a million cups of tea, endless periods of semi-solitary confinement with a tiny tyrant for a cell mate, never knowing what to do, never knowing what to say, and experiencing a limit state of humanity in which I am no longer able to form sentences in a recognizable language…I understand why they asked.
To new parents, those people inside the television are everything. They take on more emotional significance than most of us are willing to admit. They become our friends. They become our strength.
Appropriately, a helpful list of books covering the subject of motherhood was published the other day…on my due date, in fact… (Which has now past. Clock is ticking people. And seriously, don’t get me started…) I was in the middle of drafting my own list (assuming I am blessed with the kind of magic baby that sleeps every once in a while so that I can keep up with my current pile of novels…) and though there was some overlap, I wasn’t terribly interested in non-fiction. To be fair, I am very rarely interested in the world of non-fiction as it is. But it’s also worth considering how little motherhood makes it into fiction, in any way that is not purely metaphoric. The Oedipal relationship, the Ogresse in the woods, the Wicked Step-Mother, the GoodKindMother who is usually killed off fairly soon…
Very few people seem to really explore things like ambivalence, terror, passion, yearning… That is to say, things that mothers themselves feel rather than things that mothers represent to everyone around them.