little labors

Feministing Reads: Rivka Galchen’s Little Labors

Before Rivka Galchen’s Little Labors (May 2016, New Directions), I had never read a book explicitly about babies and literature. I soon learned that this was likely because babies have historically occupied a marginal place in most books—and in most art generally. As Galchen tells us, “literature has more dogs than babies, and also more abortions.”

Her slim book is styled after Sei Shonagon’s Pillow Book, the collected observations of an advisor to the emperor’s court in Heian Japan in the early 1000s. “It’s not a novel and not a diary and not poems and not advice, but it has qualities of each, and it would have been understood at the time as a kind of miscellany, a familiar form,” Galchen says of the Pillow Book. She may as well be describing her own little book, too. With paragraph-length chapters, Little Labors jumps quickly across themes—from reflections on Japanese literature to descriptions of what’s it like to roam the streets of New York with a baby in tow (spoiler: people are a lot nicer).

little laborsHer first novel, Atmospheric Disturbances, similarly comprised of quick sections, shot through with the darkly comic reflections of a classically unreliable narrator. Galchen’s prose is loved for its miniature revelations—what the critic James Wood calls her “knack for taking a thread and fraying it, so that a sentence never quite ends up where you expect.” Her passages are full of okashii—a Japanese word, Galchen explains, that describes an aesthetic at once amusing and strange. “Children are pregnant with themselves,” she muses in one short section. “In some of Lydia Davis’s short stories, a baby often interrupts a thought, or is a thought,” she reflects in another.

Galchen admits that her endless fascination with babies, after having one of her own, is a fairly recent phenomenon and even out of character. She compares herself to Dick Cheney and other “political figures who come to insights others had reached decades ago only after their personal lives intersected with an ‘issue.’”

A little later in the book, Galchen describes another personal-political realization. It’s one that so many women writers, even those allergic to the qualification, have at one age or another. Around the age of twenty-five, Galchen realizes her bookshelves are filled by men. Confused and a little ashamed, she sets out to rectify the imbalance, and starts, accidentally, with a book by Denis Johnson, a man she mistakes for a French woman.

Miniature situational comedies like these abound. Sometimes they unfold on a sentence level. Of I Love Lucy, she writes: “When Lucille Ball was pregnant, her character on television was also pregnant, though the word pregnant, like a swear word, could not, at the time, be said on television: Lucy was, instead, expecting. She carried bags, and stood behind chairs and sofas, so as to protect viewers from a full visual sense of what was expected.”

Writing about parental ambiguity and anxiety, Galchen wonders what she would do if she found that she had unknowingly carried, through IVF, someone else’s child. Would she flee the country? “We were already so in love,” she writes of herself and her newborn, “wasn’t love its own validity?” She acknowledges the unreality of her fears while also admitting their psychic persistence: “Maybe I was just working through my problematic inability to hand the child over to another caretaker.”

In their easy stitching of memoir and analysis, Galchen’s slim passages recall other recent little labors: works like Jenny Offil’s Department of Speculation and Sarah Manguso’s Ongoingness, which she mentions by name. It also cannot avoid being compared to the most acclaimed book about babies and literature written this century, Maggie Nelson’s The Argonauts. Where Nelson writes an auto-theoretical polemic (that is also, at once, an anti-polemic in its adoration of specificity), Galchen writes a more conventional essay, one that appears depoliticized, even apolitical, in the shadow of Nelson’s thickly descriptive meditations on normativity. The excitement of each work, though, lies in their distance; each, in its own way, reminds us how desperately we need an even more expansive literature of babies, of care and mothering, of matriarchy.

Galchen does not name the patriarchy outright in her work, but perhaps she does not need to in order for her work to take on political dimensions. Writing about Shonagon, the author of The Pillow Book, she reflects on the court lady’s obsessive attention to taste throughout her musings: “This area of tiny decisions was a kind of politics, and the only kind available to her.” Babies may be tiny, but they are, of course, a kind of politics too.


Ava Kofman is a writer and researcher living in Brooklyn. She is a guest contributor to Feministing.

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