Reviewed: The Babysitter at Rest
by Jen George
Published by The Dorothy Project
Last month, The Dorothy Project published the collection The Babysitter at Rest by debut author Jen George. The Dorothy Project, based out of St. Louis, Missouri, is a small press known for focusing on fiction by emerging female authors. George’s collection is divided into fie stories, each long enough and substantial enough to be a novella on their own. Each story reflects the growing anxieties of finding ones personhood and womanhood. Her collection is the latest in a genre referred to as “confessional literature,” or more recently titled “slut lit.” Confessional writing, popularized by writers such as Anne Sexton and Sylvia Plath is often written in first person and reveals the writers’ deepest desires and motivations. Recently, emerging confessional works have been dubbed “slut lit” by the LA Review of Books. Rather than using this term to shame young female authors, it is used to identify writers who are “wise beyond their years and [who] know a thing or two about the price women pay for constantly pleasing others.” After devouring The Babysitter at Rest, I am moved to add Jen George to that growing list of writers.
The eponymous story sets the tone for the entire collection. The nameless narrator, a young woman if indeterminate age (“I’m pretty sure I was supposed to have a birthday, but it has not come. It was supposed to be some time ago, but some time has passed and I definitely did not have a birthday,” she says), lives on a beach, works as an administrative assistant, and babysits an infant called a “forever baby,” meaning he will be a baby forever. She begins a sexual relationship with the baby’s father, who refers to her as “child.” This piece, like the ones that follow it, unfolds in a dreamlike state. She, as the narrator, is entirely unfazed by the oddities that surround her. She doesn’t question the baby, which Jen George uses to express anxieties about parenthood and aging. The other stories follow suit. The collection opens with “Guidance/The Party,” wherein the narrator (another nameless woman) finds herself under the direction of a corporeal entity known only as “The Guide,” who tries to usher her into adulthood y helping her in planning a party. This story in particular defines the struggle of becoming an adult—wanting so badly to grow up but not knowing what to do once you’re there. The most resonant story comes in the middle of the collection, “Take Care of Me Forever.” Its nameless and ageless narrator wakes up in a hospital, unsure of how she got there. Similar to the previous story, she has a sexual relationship with a much older, more domineering teacher figure. As she is wheeled through different wings of the hospital and given new diagnoses with corresponding treatments, the reader considers their own mortality. “Futures in Child Rearing” tackles fears about fertility and motherhood with an ovulation machine that acts as the narrator’s conscience, which is filled with self-doubt. The last piece, “Instructions,” bookends the collection nicely when considered in conjunction with the first piece. It follows the same structure as the stories that preceded it—full of non-sequiturs and a non-linear narrative. The narrator, along with her fellow students, follows the guidance of a Teacher as he instructs them through the milestones of young adulthood. For the first time, the narrator has a name, though she never refers to herself by it. By not giving her first-person narrators any names or identifying physical characteristics, Jen George forces the reader to become the narrator. We are placed in the stories—her anxieties are our own. It is incredibly easy to lose yourself in the five stories. Her prose is otherworldly and the plots surreal. But to everyone on the beach, or using the ovulation machine, or learning how to grow up, everything is entirely mundane. Finishing the collection is like waking up from a dream that moves swiftly from pleasant to nightmarish and back again, without realizing that you ever fell asleep.
Short stories have the possibility of being far more personal than longer works of fiction. I often wonder why—perhaps because most Introduction to Fiction courses, where first-time writing students tend to be far more autobiographical in their writing, focus on the short story, or maybe because the writer has such a short space to tell their tale that they pack it with as much of themselves as possible. I gravitate toward short stories for their intimacy, and The Babysitter at Rest is as intimate as they come. I know nothing about Jen George besides her name—what she looks like, how old she is, where she grew up—but I know what she fears, and what she wants. George’s narrators make no fuss over their sexuality, relationships, or occupations. This is true confessional writing—unapologetic and rife with feeling. Though given few physical details, her characters are fleshed out in every other way. They represent the anxieties of growing up—motherhood, finding love, heartbreak, sexuality, and financial responsibility. The best art acts as a mirror to society, and in these anxious times it’s nice to know that not only are we not alone, but that we have the ability (and the right) to share those parts of ourselves in whatever art we see fit.
Cassandra Baim grew up outside of Chicago and earned a BA in English from Syracuse University. She has previously been published on Medium and The Flexist. When she’s not selling books at New York’s most famous bookstore, she enjoys biking across the Brooklyn Bridge and teaching her cat to play fetch.