Once in a while a book comes my way that I can’t easily classify. What is Little Labors? A memoir, an essay in fragments, literary criticism? All of these, I conclude, and much more. This slender 96-page book—appropriately titled—is Rivka Galchen’s third after a 2008 novel, Atmospheric Disturbances, and a 2014 story collection, American Innovations.
Ostensibly this book is about babies. Galchen recently gave birth to one. As part of the “bohemian-brooklyn-bourgeoisie,” Galchen admits she’s an unlikely candidate for such a book. She doesn’t really like babies, especially those not her own, but life takes us down strange avenues, and it’s refreshing to witness how she handles her topic.
So what do babies have to do with the life of the mind? Why must we read about other people’s babies? That is one of Galchen’s points. They matter and they don’t. But if that’s the case it’s also a privilege to choose to have them. The choice is the privilege. And babies are kind of weird. Even Galchen doesn’t know what to make of them. She grasps for metaphors. What is her infant daughter to her? “A very sophisticated form of plantlife.” No, that doesn’t stick. A wild animal, she thinks. “A previously undiscovered old world monkey,” whose mysterious presence, the nonverbal communication they share, is likened to “black magic.” In the end she settles for “the puma” and later “the young chicken” and often simply “the baby.”
The book takes on many different forms. It’s fragmented but controlled. The pieces range from child-like musings to scholarly examinations of art and culture, particularly Japanese literature. All of the pieces are interesting, and there isn’t an apparent arc, per se. We are dropped in amidst sections with intriguing titles: “Children’s Books”; “The Crystal Child”; “A long, long time ago, in late August”; and so on. Each section circles around the idea of babies, adding to and parsing the mythology surrounding them.
One recurring idea, especially noteworthy to me, discusses how Galchen’s baby has affected others. Most everyone is taken with her baby, from homeless men to shop keepers to “pretty much all women, everywhere,” who at the least smile at the little tike on the street. Though there is one conspicuous exception to this rule: “the young-ish, white, well-employed, culturally literate male.” They just ignore her and her baby and Galchen has a theory as to why. Babies, to Galchen, represent either a “royal catastrophe” or a symbolic “redemption.” When those grinning onlookers see a gurgling baby, what their brain is processing is a kind of “hope,” as embodied by that pudgy little shitter. Babies as harbingers of brighter days. But if you have “nowhere to go but down,” as she puts it, a baby is too chaotic to consider. It becomes an obstacle better not to notice, a veritable speed bump on the path to glory. All of this is likely unconscious, of course, and Galchen doesn’t fault them: “There is nothing inherently commendable, or deplorable, in liking, or not liking, babies.” These are some of her people, after all, part of the circles in which she runs.
That Galchen writes in this seemingly random and roving way isn’t accidental. The book takes as its inspiration two one-thousand-year-old books from the Heian period in Japan: The Pillow Book, written by the Empress Sei Shōnagon; and The Tale of Genji by Murasaki Shikibu, a noble woman and “lady-in-waiting.” Galchen explains: “The Pillow Book is difficult to characterize. 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.” The same can be said for Little Labors. Herein we find discussions of “Babies in Art”; Godzilla and other movies; Frankenstein and other books; and especially other writing by women. We get meditations on maternal ambiguity, head shapes, and the political implications of the recent proliferation of the gender-neutral and urban-chic color orange. We get euphemisms and Lucille Ball. Sometimes Galchen makes bold, sweeping claims: “Most of the great women writers of the 20th century who write or wrote in English were or are writing from England.” Other times she waxes personal and confesses: “I have historically had little tolerance for finicky children. I try not to judge such children, since they are children, but in the end I find I do judge the children and I judge the parents as well.”
Surely by now there must be a term for works inspired by and imitating other works, something more than homage. I’m thinking now of Lorrie Moore’s wonderful story, “Referential,” a take on Nabokov’s story, “Signs and Symbols”—both published in the New Yorker. I’ve read these stories and I see the connection, but Lorrie’s is all her own. Perhaps let’s christen them call and response books. But like homage, that seems too rosy too, because sometimes the aim is to attack its predecessor, like Algerian author Kamel Daoud’s Meursault Investigation does to The Stranger; and Jean Rhys’s Wide Sargasso Sea’s treatment of Jane Eyre. Call and slap in the face.
But that latter kind of book isn’t Galchen’s purpose here. Little Labors is indeed an homage and an imitation and a new thing in itself, like Lorrie Moore’s story. I think she wants us to realize this. And she wants us to understand that perhaps having babies and talking about babies and writing about babies is one of those in-group things that is hard to explain, internally narcissistic (not unlike writing), and at the same time universal—the “life” part of life and death.
Jason Christian was born and raised in Oklahoma. His work has appeared in Atticus Review, Burningword Literary Journal, The Collagist, Oklahoma Review, This Land Press, World Literature Today, and elsewhere. He was recently accepted as an MFA candidate at Louisiana State University and will begin this fall.