George understands that weirdness can only succeed if tethered to the familiar, and she exploits these common moments to load her stories with images that burrow into the reader’s brain. — Benjamin Woodard
Late every semester, as attention spans wane and final project deadlines loom, I treat my Composition students to a day of stress relief by cobbling together Exquisite Corpse stories as a class. I usually write the openings ahead of time and then pass them to one student, who adds his or her own lines, and then carefully folds the paper, accordion style, so that the next writer can only see the most recent sentence of the growing story. This continues until the pieces have circulated around the room and the pages look like tiny venetian blinds. Then I unfold the stories and read the results aloud. The students get a kick out of hearing me say some pretty bizarre things—once they realize I’m going to perform each story, they take it upon themselves to add in a naughty word or two—but what always impresses me is the coherence of these tales. Without seeing anything but a few words written by their tablemates, my students somehow create these Frankensteinish narratives that abide by perfect dream logic, where characters bounce from scene to scene, yet never lose sight of a singular goal. Ideas lost between students sometimes reappear five lines later, as if the air itself whispered a clue to a writer further down the table. The cheesiest way of describing these stories is to say they’re like catching lightning in a bottle, but there’s something true to employing that phrase. The room feels electric as my students and I realize the consistency that threads our crazy tales together, and that electricity vanishes the moment the class is over.
Jen George’s wild, funny debut collection, The Babysitter at Rest, gives me that same electric jolt only the feeling doesn’t fade. Perhaps this is partially due to the form the volume’s five stories take, as they—like an Exquisite Corpse exercise—often contain dreamlike swerves. Yet there’s also a vivid realness at the core of each piece. George understands that weirdness can only succeed if tethered to the familiar, and she exploits these common moments to load her stories with images that burrow into the reader’s brain. For example, the following sequence, from “Take Care of Me Forever,” sees George’s protagonist, a sick woman waiting to die in a hospital bed, deciding to walk to the bathroom:
“In the bathroom, I notice a large hole in the wall. An opening. I enter the opening with my mobile IV. I make my way through pipes, drywall, and rotten wood into what seems to be a strip mall dentist’s office hallway. All of the office doors are locked and the snack vending machine at the hallway’s end is empty.”
From here, the character finds both a bucket of teeth and another passageway inside a janitor’s closet. The passageway leads her outside the hospital and into a football stadium, where a naked painter with a small penis sits on a stool at the fifty-yard line, surrounded by bookcases and a television. The characters know each other and talk about their past love affair—“The great love of my life with whom I wanted to have children left me because of the penis,” the painter admits—and the woman takes a look at the man’s artwork, conveniently displayed nearby, before returning to her hospital room. The progression, one of many found in “Take Care of Me Forever,” is surreal, certainly, and its non sequitur unraveling resembles a language game like Exquisite Corpse, but the unpredictability of the events here keeps the narrative consistently lively. A thousand questions flood the reader: Is this really happening? When were these two characters lovers? And, most importantly, what the hell is going to happen next? This liveliness creates curiosity, and it helps drive George’s stories, shuttling the reader into unique worlds where just about anything is possible. But within these worlds, characters confess their dark thoughts alongside jokes, and the author anchors her stories with just enough reality to never lose her audience.
In addition, George peppers her collection with a brilliant series of inventories and lists that maintain audience interest while also setting rhythm. “Guidance / The Party” relies heavily on this technique while telling the two-part tale of a woman learning how to throw a party from a drunken “Guide” and then following through with its—The Guide is genderless—instruction. When learning how to present herself, The Guide rambles off a series of lists to the woman, including:
“Wear makeup, jewelry, and something you cannot afford, in order to ensure you will not feel like a chubby street urchin halfway through the party. Refer to the manual for information on weight loss via dieting/cleansing prior to the party, taking saunas, eating cotton balls soaked in castor oil, ephedrine use, Epsom salt baths, and salt flushes.”
Then, as she hosts her party, the woman is faced with the revelation that her female guests are pregnant, which results in the following passage regarding the pregnancy-adverse foods the host planned to serve:
“All of the French cheeses are unpasteurized, then there’s the matter of the raw oyster bar, which was the second main spectacular food item, and also the raw egg, the mercury, the shaved mad-cow boar hoof, the tuna, the tonsil stone, and the lorazapam in the 10,101-ingredient mole.”
The baby-related lists continue in “Futures in Child Rearing,” where a woman, hoping to get pregnant, states all of the traits she expects from her child:
“She will look good in clothing and without. She will be adored but respected. She will follow a clear life path, free of too many obstructions, full of loving and successful friends who wear beautiful dresses, have lovely parties in the desert or at the beach, and who have about them an airy lightness. She’ll know how to go about getting what she wants. She will be capable. She will not have crying jags.”
These lists and inventories are equal parts funny and peculiar. They establish a rhythm within the text, yet they also jolt the stories with a sudden burst of prose, adding a new layer of captivation to each story. Like the rambling, zigzag narrative paths already mentioned, George’s lists keep the text active, create charming juxtapositions, and root the reader to the page.
In early press and reviews for The Babysitter at Rest, George’s writing has been compared to the playfulness of Donald Barthelme and Chris Kraus, but the collection’s title story, both in subject matter and structure, also brings to mind Robert Coover. Though George shies away from giving the story a metafictional shade, she does, like Coover, capitalize on the classic Penthouse Forum fantasy of an affair between a man and his child’s babysitter. Also like Coover, the relations between these characters are highly sexual and graphic, broken into short fragments, and it’s here that George ratchets the strangeness of her story to comment on gender inequality. The husband saunters through life wearing cool guy sunglasses, acting as a generic vessel of affluence and depravity, while the babysitter, who lives in a group home with a slew of degenerates, spends nearly all of the narrative prancing about in a bikini—she loses her other clothes—valued solely for her sexuality and youth. This exploration of primal and stereotypical instinct is frequently hilarious—more than once, the babysitter says she’s, “Seventeen. But I might be anywhere from seventeen to twenty-two,” a clever quip commenting on men’s justification of the well-worn fantasy of the sexy schoolgirl—but it also provides the collection with a universal thread of female exploitation, which comes up again and again. “Take Care of Me Forever” contains a sexual relationship between the dying hospital patient and her doctor, as well as a crudely worded help wanted ad that seeks applicants willing to “listen to problems and musings of (all male) staff,” be “flirtatious with all,” and who must “not have boyfriend,” and hopefully live with “cute roommates A+.” And in “Instruction,” the collection’s final story, a young female pupil becomes both the star student and sexual plaything of her professor, known as “The Teacher/older man with large hands.” In his conquest, he feigns interest in her ideas (“‘Welp, cool idea. Really neat.’ He succeeds in stifling laughter.”) to get in her pants, and the explicit results draw the ire of the student’s peers.
What is Jen George trying to say by including so many examples of older man/younger woman exploitation in her collection? It’s easy to argue that the answer is up to the reader, but the author offers up several hints as to her potential mission. The student artist in “Instruction” eventually breaks away from her instructor and wanders the country, sparking artist revolutions and turning “The Teacher/older man with large hands” into a lost soul, who eventually begs the student to explain to him why she abandoned their relationship. Meanwhile, “The Babysitter at Rest” sees the title character, after all of her adventures, holding her charge, a “forever baby” who will never age, in her arms and deciding that he is fortunate to never grow up into his father’s good looks or fortune, that remaining a baby is far more advantageous. If he never grows up, he can never become a predator.
In a way, these two women gain an upper hand in their situations, and while their moments of clarity may be short-lived, this evolution speaks volumes. And maybe this is what George wants her readers to notice. Then again, perhaps the ultimate goal for The Babysitter at Rest is to provoke the reader into considering the ways we all use one another to our own advantage. In any case, the collection is a wonderful experiment, full of electric twists that linger.
— Benjamin Woodard
Benjamin Woodard lives in Connecticut. His recent fiction has appeared in Hobart, Corium Magazine, and Storychord. In addition to Numéro Cinq, his criticism and nonfiction has been featured in The Kenyon Review Online, Georgia Review, Electric Literature, and other fine publications. He also helps run Atlas and Alice Literary Magazine. You can find him at benjaminjwoodard.com and on Twitter.