Skip to main content
book review

Riva Galchen's new book delves into motherhood, positioning babies as mystery and as myth.

Alice Walker's 1988 collection of selected essays, Living by the Word, begins, "This book was written during a period when I was not aware I was writing a book." Likewise, Zadie Smith's 2009 collected non-fiction, Changing My Mind: Occasional Essays, gets going with an air of bewilderment. "This book was written without my knowledge," Smith proposes in its foreward. By which she means, Changing My Mind is a consequence, more so than a book; an inadvertent, somewhat random, piling up. First published in 1991, Geoff Dyer's preface for But Beautiful, the author's genre-evading, rhapsodic book about jazz, starts, "When I began writing this book I was unsure of the form it should take."

These collections are, then – for the sake of this argument – not only a mystery to their authors, but accomplished, as Smith puts it, phenomenally. They are the result of not writing a book. Or what happens when one is writing another book. Or even the doubts accrued over time about publishing this book. Basically, these collections are the result of life. Dissociative prose immaculately conceived. Like Marguerite Duras's Practicalities (1993) – transcribed and toned down from conversations with her friend Jérôme Beaujour – these are books where "none of the pieces deals with a topic exhaustively." In her coolly intense, near-flip Duras-way, she kicks off Practicalities by saying: "This book helped us pass the time." She posits her flotilla of meditations, this "sort-of-a-book," as without substitute: "The only alternative is to say nothing. But that can't be written down."

The notion that these brilliant collections are fluke is, I'll admit, maddening. Books don't all of sudden materialize. Perhaps what makes them indistinct in form and focus, especially to their authors – "a map," writes Walker – is how these collections are all at once dynamic hybrids with total disregard for our culture's obsession with closure; depositories of breakthroughs, unpredictable and roving, and sometimes deceivingly slim despite being autobiographical. It's what happens when the discursive invents. Freed from a sense of duty to obvious categories, a writer might not conceive ending what he or she hasn't yet fathomed. Paragraph-length anecdotes can be just as prodigious as telephone-book prose. Take, for example, Rivka Galchen's third book, Little Labors.

Inspired in part by Sei Shonagon's Pillow Book – whose observations during the Heian period in Japan as a court lady serving Empress Teishi are part diary, part prosaic olio – Little Labors is Galchen's clever, plainspoken tiny-tome about mothers and babies. About writing and women who write; positioning babies as mystery, as myth, as "nothing," as interruptions. As meaning-benefactors. Ever since "the puma," everyday objects and experiences have been "re-enchanted." She describes the world as "ludicrously, suspiciously, adverbially sodden with meaning.… 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."

Little Labors is, too, a book about the language of pregnancy. The anticipatory optimism – or veneer – for example, of the word "expecting." Supporting characters include Lucille Ball, Tolstoy, Galchen's mother, as well as contemporaries such as Sarah Manguso and Karl Ove Knausgaard, the latter of which Galchen anoints, along with Louis C.K., the most distinguished "mother writer" today.

Galchen's voice is not "new mother" so much as her style is Galchen accounting for, appraising and decoding newness. This book is a feeling around. What particularizes her point of view is not the universality of motherhood, but just the opposite. There's been a shift in her environment, sure, and while it has sloped her observations toward a different focus, this new variable doesn't occupy all of her focus.

She considers the depiction of Mary in paintings, for instance, and how her head is often tilted. How odd and unlike real life. Soon enough, Galchen identifies this tilt. It's particular to babies when they are beginning to develop strength in their neck muscles. Is Mary's tilt, Galchen wonders, a reflection of the baby developing pint-sized powers?

Similar discoveries include how the "talismanic" or "hunting cap" orange of her baby's snowsuit – I kept imagining Maggie Simpson's star-shaped snowsuit – and a proliferation of orange products everywhere (in her home, notably: the crib, a stuffed fox, a baby spoon) can be directly traced to another orange: Guantanamo. "The timing of the orange baby object marketing … followed plot-perfectly close on the wide distribution of photos of detainees at Guantanamo. And those images, instead of being straightforwardly repressed, avoided or addressed, had been emotionally laundered in plain sight, so that any bright vision of a radical excess of American power was hidden by being visible everywhere, among what we collectively deemed most innocent and sweet (babies) or more superfluous, a brief season of fashion, a folly."

Some observations web less wide. "Babies in art," she notes, "mostly look nothing like babies in life." Their proportions are off. Parts have been omitted. Baby Jesus is often missing a penis. I thought immediately of Keith Haring's Radiant Baby, also known as Radiant Child or Radiant Christ. In a 1985 interview with Yale professor Robert Farris Thompson, Haring spoke volubly about babies: "[They] represent the possibility of the future, the understanding of perfection, how perfect we could be. There is nothing negative about a baby, ever." The baby as beam, according to Haring. Radiance uncorrupted. All a baby can do is transmit baby vibes. A sentiment Galchen might agree with. Or not.

It's clear from the book's onset that motherhood comes with its shadows. "It's true what they say, that a baby gives you a reason to live," Galchen writes in one of her three-sentence spurts. "But also, a baby is a reason that it is not permissible to die. There are days when this does not feel good." The construction of "It's true what they say," systemizes the book's thinking. A good number of Little Labors' anecdotes are reliant on what's been said about motherhood. The paradigm. The stories passed down. Another short reflection is titled, "Things That One Was Misleadingly Told Were A Big Part of Having A Baby," wherein Galchen lists diapers, bottles, Cheerios (among other new-motherhood iconography) that haven't overcome her life as was communicated to her prior.

In one section, Galchen considers her aversion toward the term "women writers." She catalogues writers who didn't have children – Flannery O'Connor, Eudora Welty and Virginia Woolf, to name a few – and those with children – Toni Morrison and Alice Munro. In the last two examples, Galchen includes how old these writers were when they published their first books: 39 and 37, respectively.

Galchen writes on an incline. She's getting there, I would think to myself, excited as to how she might draw a connection between Frankenstein's monster and babies in general; what James Wood calls her "knack for taking a thread and fraying it, so that a sentence never quite ends up where you expect." Like Walker, Dyer, Duras and Smith, Galchen didn't set out to write this book. "I wanted to write about other things. Mostly because I had never been interested in babies, or in mothers; in fact both topics had seemed perfectly not interesting to me; I almost hated the 'topics.'"

As Jamaica Kincaid writes in Autobiography of My Mother, "Observing any human being from infancy … the natural loosening and unfurling … must be something wonderful to behold; to see experience collect in the eyes … the pleasure for the observer, the beholder, is an invisible current, which is in many ways a definition of love." In Little Labors, Galchen's invisible current is her reluctance and fascination, both, with motherhood but. Motherhood and. The preoccupying nature of a baby, but only to a point. Love as it's expressed with curiosity. With humour. It's a book determined to, as the title suggests, "work" atomically. Little Labors ends before it begins, mimicking time's elapsing speed and, in its way, mimicking, too, how mothers – especially this reader's – often note how simply out of control life races past, arranging itself as anecdotes and revelations that spark, and books that were never intended to be what they've become.

Durga Chew-Bose is a Montreal-based writer. She is currently working on her first collection of essays.