With her new novel, After Birth, Elisa Albert has already demonstrated a genius for concision. At under two-hundred pages, the book is fiercely brief, a breathless psychodramatic tour that begs to be re-read immediately. This is to say nothing of its perfectly clipped sentences — lines hijacked from a generation of men who seem not to know how to use them — that privilege clarity, precision, and rhythm above all else. And then the paragraphs: I’m convinced that Albert is among to the two or three best paragraph writers we have, mostly because, in their pithiness, they never sacrifice momentum.
But the most startling act of concision might be the title of the novel itself: After Birth. A vacuum-sealed triple-metaphor, the title performs so much labor that it renders other titles lazy by comparison. To begin with: the book tells the story of Ari, a mother of one year, in the time following the birth of her son, Walker. On another level, it is an anti-bildungsroman that reveals what Ari has not learned in life — what no one told her about pregnancy, depression, childhood, marriage, whatever — in the years after her birth. Best of all, the novel’s unabashed viscerality, its raw newness in the world, conjures up the image its author’s wry mind (probably) intends. After Birth is the literary equivalent of afterbirth.
The novel is so fully itself, in other words, that it’s hard to believe it didn’t already exist. Plot-wise, it’s straightforward. It opens (and pretty much stays) in Utrecht, New York, a college town with ruin-porn Victorian houses, a “shitbox” where Ari lives with her gently annoying husband, Paul. From there the book unfolds as a series of reflections precipitated by a couple of events. After Ari’s friends go on sabbatical, they sublet their house to Mina Morris, a poet and former bass player of The Misogynists, a band pitched somewhere between Le Tigre and Sleater-Kinney. Ari quickly admits that she is “obsessed” with Mina, whose presence gives her an “obscure little thrill.” She sets out to become friends.
Mina, Ari learns upon seeing her, is very pregnant, which brings us to the second event. It is Ari’ son’s first birthday, or, as she calls it, surgery day. “I have trouble calling it birth,” she says. “Anniversary of the great failure.” The anniversary, Ari points out, is as much the non-celebration of her C-section as it is the celebration of Walker’s entry into the world. And it’s hard to imagine such a surgery rendered more perfectly in prose:
They cut me in half, pulled the baby from my numb, gaping cauterized center. Merciless hospital lights, curtain in front of my face. Effective disembodiment. Smell of burning flesh. Sewn back up again by a team of people I didn’t know, none of whom bothered to look me in the eye, not even once of them, not even once. Severed from hip to hip, iced, brutalized, catheterized, tethered to a bed, the tiny birdy’s heartfelt shrieks as they carted him off somewhere hell itself.
If it’s not already clear, Ari is “brutally” honest about her pregnancy, her son, her husband, her close friends (“I like Betsy, really I do, but she is jittery as fuck, and she says everything twice”), her town, and her family. Her own depression and estrangement is tightly swaddled in the memory of her mother, who was not exactly a nice person, and who died when she was fairly young.
The novel navigates Ari’s depression, although her emotional doldrums come across more as a sane response to an insane world. Albert refuses to infantilize readers who are already infantilized — especially on subjects like pregnancy, child-rearing, and female friendship — by bored journalists and TV hosts, who are paid to eschew novelistic depth. When it comes to her infant son, for example, Ari’s emotional reflections are manifold; they incorporate a range of human thoughts without which a person might seem sociopathic:
“The world so hideously perilous and the baby a raw egg, only of its kind.” “I’m not going to pretend my kid is special, like other kids who starve and freeze and get reaped and beaten and have to work in factories and get cancer from the fumes…Fuck that myopic bullshit. He’s going to suffer. He’s going to get mauled by some force I can’t pretend I can predict. We all live in the same fucked-up world.” “But the baby. The baby. I am not saying enough about the baby. Walker Him: a person! My son. His own person. Swell little guy. Sunny super-lovely love of a guy. If I kill myself, maybe he’ll grow up to be a poet.”
About a quarter of the way through After Birth, I became radically astonished by its newness. I felt diminished and enlarged. Obviously on the subjects of pregnancy, child care, and female friendship, I am a know-nothing. But it seemed wrong that the book did not already exist. It was almost as if I had been slighted by its previous non-existence. “No one,” I thought, “had told me this.” In a small way, I was mirroring Ari’s position in the world: “The baby books said nothing about this. Days became nights became days became nights. The baby books said nothing!” Albert’s novel is a hilarious, sad, elated, and, yes, brutal testament to the fact that the Socratic genius of contemporary American fiction is the domain of women writers who unlearn in order to bring something new into the world.