One of the projects Galchen elided into Little Labors was a book on women writers. Another was a book on Murasaki Shikibu’s Tale of Genji and Sei Shōnagon’s The Pillowbook. It’s from the latter that Galchen borrows the form of Little Labors, its descriptive section titles (“Sometimes It Can Seem Like Many Hours with a Baby”) and its status as a “miscellany” of “anecdotes, some lists, some pronouncements.” Late in the book she offers that “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.” The same could be said of Little Labors.
In writing about a passage in The Pillow Book, Galchen also mentions that it’s suffused with a literary quality known as okashii, which gives it an air of “the amusing and the strange.” It’s worth mentioning now that much of Little Labors is both amusing and strange. When announcing the birth of her child, for example, Galchen tilts toward the knowingly weird. “In late August a baby was born,” she writes in the book’s third section, “or, as it seemed to me, a puma moved into my apartment.” (She then refers to her baby as “the puma” throughout, until she calls it “the chicken.”) Elsewhere, in a wonderfully cutting passage about a woman in her elevator who pathologically refers to her baby’s physical largeness, the writing veers smoothly into comedy.
And like Elisa Albert’s After Birth, one of the best debut novels of last year, Galchen’s Little Labors keeps at least one eye on the slanted tradition of writing, or not writing, about babies. “Literature has more dogs than babies, and more abortions,” she writes in a sharp entry — it could be anthologized by itself — that moves through Shakespeare, Jenny Offill, Doris Lessing, Tolstoy, Judy Budnitz, Margaret Drabble, Kenzaburo Oe, and Toni Morrison, before arriving at Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein. She’s unfazed by what she finds: “One might say that babies in literature, when they appear for more than a moment, tend to be catalysts of decay or despair.” I’m tempted to say that Galchen here hits reset on the literature of babies by humanizing it.
Still, the book isn’t a lament: “But if I seem to be wandering into an appraisal of babies — so underrepresented! — as in need of their own subaltern studies,” she adds, “then I have wandered too far.” In these sections — throughout the book — Galchen maintains the glow of the sane, of a writer who accurately gauges the shifting distance between life and contemporary literature, as when she measures the line that extends from motherhood to literary writing, one she draws from Sarah Manguso to Knausgaard (and Louis C.K.).
This little book is hugely sly. A passage on a Russian Formalist she read in college is used to describe the tornadic mess her baby creates at home; it seems trivial, in a literary critical sense, until you realize that she’s going Viktor Shklovsky by defamiliarizing her own child. Later, she begins a harmless section on her baby’s trendy orange snowsuit that evolves into a critique of what she calls “taste culture.” Not a big leap, until a friend’s remark that the snowsuit is “Guantanamo orange” causes her to wonder about the “bright vision of a radical excess of American power.” In Galchen’s hands — the same hands that position her child in the world — a trivial observation can grow into anything it wants.
Little Labors has range. It contemplates both “the royalty of infants” and the uselessness of babies (compared to other animals). It’s rare to find a work of likewise small stature grow so ponderously into such an expansive, magnanimous, and living thing. Like a child — if you want — or a book with meaning.