The Babysitter at Rest, Jen George’s audaciously good debut collection of fiction, opens, significantly, on the occasion of a birthday. At the beginning of the first story, “Guidance / The Party,” the unnamed narrator, newly thirty-three, is visited by a figure she only knows as The Guide. Spectral and robed, of indeterminate gender, The Guide is part guardian spirit, part abusive life coach, launching into unbidden advice for the narrator and protagonist: “Though you’re visibly aging, you’ve failed to transition properly and now it’s the last hour.” Every aspect of the main character’s life is subject to The Guide’s withering snark, from her personal relationships (or lack thereof) to her professional accomplishments (ditto), and even the quality of her literary references in small talk (trite, undeveloped).
In short, subtitled blocks George flashes to excerpts from a manual The Guide provides, which put words to the haze of anxiety running throughout this and the other stories in The Babysitter at Rest:
From the manual: Q&A III
Q: Was there a particular point at which I should have done something different: gone to school for something specific, made professional advances, interned, taken a risk or leap of faith, asked for help, called people back, shown gratitude, applied for a job with a salary and benefits, saved money, gotten insurance, built a community, resigned myself to a relationship with someone for financial stability, had a baby?
The idea of time lost or wasted, of some original grain of ambition or promise squandered, haunts the various protagonists of this collection, all of them women, all in their late twenties or early thirties, all involved in or peripheral to some kind of arts scene. While gender and vocation are significant here—George’s surreally slapstick narratives highlight the sexism and economic inequity undergirding much of the contemporary art scene, both in and out of the academy—the live wires exposed in these stories will feel utterly relatable to any reader undergoing, or recalling, the fraught transition from the wide-open possibilities of one’s aimless twenties into the closing doors and angst-inducing pragmatism that loom just past thirty. But don’t let this psychologizing give you the wrong idea about George’s bizarrely skewed, utterly original stories, which might be likened to the silly and occasionally somber qualities of the early work of George Saunders; I can’t remember the last time I read something quite this funny that also managed—like the best comedy—to feel so true.
In “Guidance,” the only remedy for the narrator’s wasted potential, The Guide suggests, is to host a dinner: “The party for your adulthood is mandatory. The occasion must be marked,” they instruct. The list of preparations in The Guide’s manual, channeling everything from self-help texts like the popular Adulting to the consumerist fetishizing of magazines like Kinfolk, includes “Aspirational dress (credit card)” and “An extravagant, impressive main dish that takes a long time to prepare,” as well as “Adult-appropriate tables, chairs, and other furniture (no milk crates—consult catalogs, window displays, and lifestyle websites for how an adult person’s home should look)”.
Throughout these lectures and readings the narrator finds herself increasingly drawn to The Guide, whose beauty seems to increase in proportion to the self-consciousness they induce in the narrator: she steals glances at The Guide’s flawless skin, which glows “so that they look somehow more than alive,” and approvingly notes The Guide’s “toned ankles” and floor-length hair, even if her attempts to peek up their robes prove unsuccessful. The Guide drinks all of the booze in the narrator’s house, falls asleep in the bathtub, and says simply, “No thank you” when the narrator tries to kiss them on the lips. In this The Guide establishes a dynamic that repeats itself in each story of the collection: an older figure of authority—usually male—offers a younger female character a mix of bracing critiques and unsolicited advice, bestowing an attention that, in the antic strangeness of George’s satirical delivery, takes on an erotic charge both horrifying and hilarious.
This lineup includes Tyler Burnett, in the collection’s titular story, who tasks the narrator with babysitting for him and speaks to her as though she is still in school, buying her ice cream, asking about her homework, and saying things like “Child, I would like you to suck my dick.” The narrator finds this befuddling but sweet. Meanwhile she finds herself demoted at work, then eventually let go, and seems to grow more and more confused as Tyler Burnett’s infantilizing flirtation takes hold. All of this takes place in a surreal oceanside town that seems part TV reality show, part fever dream. One reviewer has astutely likened the setting of “Babysitter” to a game of The Sims, which captures perfectly the pointed artificiality of George’s fictional worlds, as well as the listless automatism of the characters who live there.
The heroine of “Take Care Of Me Forever,” for example, finds herself similarly trapped, this time in a hospital: she is the seeming captive of a rotating crew of doctors who alternately diagnose her with infertility, pregnancy, depression, “prolonged sexual fantasy,” bulimia, and lethargy. During her internment she encounters a former lover, known only as “the artist/doctor,” who blames her for his sexual frustration and lack of creative success: “You were not one of the greats,” he tells her, “partly because your looks are average, but primarily because you did not bed other great artists—painters or writers or sculptors or anyone great. That may have affected my ability to become a great artist myself.” She neither objects to this treatment, nor seems to mind it all that much, but this seems hardly the point. Like the dancers in a film the artist/doctor is attempting to produce, the harsh gift of the maestro’s attention is all that matters to her. After all, the narrator muses, “He provides them with work. They are forever devoted to him for giving them this purpose.”
The final story in the collection, “Instruction,” offers George’s most sustained exploration of this fraught dynamic, this time focusing on a cryptic guru who leads The Warehouse, an experimental art school in deepest Queens. When classes begin, the narrator admits she has the good fortune to be thought sexually desirable, “which is highly valued in college and art circles, as well as other hierarchical scenes mimicking the structure of capitalism wherein older men with large hands finger younger women who read novels and possibly write or paint or play an instrument.” Despite—or owing to—this seeming clarity about the nature of her newfound milieu, she makes great sacrifices in order to gain the favor of the instructor: along with her classmates, she participates in elaborate rituals to demonstrate loyalty, laying prone on the floor for hours at a time, or helping her classmates renovate the decrepit Ridgewood horse track that houses the school. She even gives up her name after The Teacher, as he is known here, christens her Ranchera, and considers herself lucky, along with her cohort, to enjoy even the gift of his disparaging critiques: “We wait for him to look at us. We wait for him to see our work. Everything depends on The Teacher. I love him, in a way.”
“Instruction,” at first, seems like a simple continuation of the formal play and comic hysteria of the other stories, one more depiction of the same troubling dynamic, but then it takes on a more ambitious scope as, fascinatingly, George sets Ranchera free from the claustrophobic confines of the story’s premise: just after she has presented her most successful piece (an elaborate wall of giant mirrors, helicoptered into place to offer Manhattan an unobstructed view of itself), The Teacher abandons The Warehouse—possibly threatened by the magnitude of Ranchera’s accomplishment. The spell broken, Ranchera and her cohort leave The Warehouse and stumble out into the world, experimenting with other sorts of lives and the uncertainties of agency. Some students drift upstate to subsist off the grid, while others assume workaday lives in the uninspiring places they came from before. It is this sense of movement and possibility, however fleeting, that sets “Instruction” apart from George’s earlier stories, offering the hope that perhaps, at long last, the oppressive order of this hierarchy might be shaken.
Ranchera, however, doesn’t get very far. She reverts back to her former name, Lee, and ends up taking a job as an administrative assistant at an office in Midtown. She is no longer an artist, insisting, “That was another time. Now I like stability and routines and schedules and office supplies. I like ordering lunch for everyone. I like going home at night and watching television.” Lee lives, in short, a life The Guide might approve of, a thoroughly “adult” existence that apparently comforts her. Notwithstanding the story’s tonal ambivalence about these developments—George’s prose, throughout the collection, remains ice-cold, detached, as uninflected and numb as Lee herself, even at moments of high comedy—it is possible that Ranchera’s plodding independence is what gives her the strength to gently rebuff The Teacher when he reappears. What we are to make of this rejection isn’t entirely clear: in a certain light she has merely traded The Teacher’s capricious tyranny for the seemingly benign, but perhaps more insidious control of the modern workplace. Ultimately, George seems to suggest, we all end up serving one master or another, and true adulthood may mean simply recognizing the world and its cruelties as givens. Maybe the strongest or smartest of us are those, like Lee, most intimately acquainted with this cruelty: if we all must serve someone or some set of rules to get by, at least Lee seizes the opportunity to choose for herself.
The Babysitter at Rest, by Jen George. St. Louis, Missouri: Dorothy, a publishing project, October 2016. 168 pages. $16.00, paper.
Matthew Phipps has written for BOMB, The Millions, Blackbird, and Broad Street.