Art

Jen George Explores Identity, Technology, and Womanhood, to Devastating Effect

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Each time a reader clicks on a story, she tells a piece of her own. Anything bought, sold, watched, stalked, or mindlessly logged on the internet may contribute to this algorithmic narrative, and many socially awake writers (David Eggers, Cory Doctorow, Gary Shteyngart, etc.) have proved themselves capable of articulating through their fiction how the web works in concert with corporate profiteering to wreak havoc on our private lives and capacity for authentic communication. In her debut short-story collection, The Babysitter at Rest, Jen George demonstrates that she is the rare satirist who, rather than lecturing self-consciously, writes deadpan into the subtext of these interactions, particularly how they inform the lives of female creatives in their twenties and thirties (the demographic, roughly, of each of her narrators, and prime recipients for messaging across all platforms, IRL or otherwise). George writes with an ear for raw thought patterns; her renderings of characters reproduced by their preferences and reduced to sad adulthoods are exquisite.

Imagine if every cleared history and Amazon cart you’d ever filled came back in your mid-thirties to tell you how irreparably you’d trashed your life, and you’d have the basic premise of the first of the five stories in George’s collection, “Guidance/The Party.” In the beginning half of the story, an omniscient, robed figure of indeterminate gender known as “The Guide” advises a “visibly aging” 33-year-old woman on how to get her shit (what little she has left) together in order to throw an extremely normal dinner party. The Guide acts as a specter of life’s accumulated humiliations. It has access to transcripts of what the woman said to a friend at a bar about karmic destiny one time when she was 24, and comes to her home equipped with reams of prefigured remedies (“wear makeup, jewelry, and something you cannot afford”; “take up yoga, pilates, or zumba”).

The story establishes certain aesthetic and narrative motifs to which George returns throughout the book. It is laid out in subheaded sections — with titles such as “Things that can be done,” “The foundation you’ve built,” and “Taking stock” — which riff on George’s most popular topics: dating, adultery, being a bad artist and a good hostess. Most of her stories are, like “Guidance,” physically confined to a single closed space. Time and geography are only occasionally specified, but the stories are loaded with signifiers of relatively young, hopeless, cosmopolitan life, which in “Guidance” manifest as a socially lubricated slide into outmodedness and dejection. “Regret should be ignored or at least left unexamined from this point on,” the Guide tells the woman. “If you are granted a deathbed, you may think about it then.”

It is difficult to find any information on the internet about Jen George, except that her book was published by Dorothy Press (the same small press that published Nell Zink’s debut, The Wallcreeper) and, based on a photo on her Goodreads page, that she is maybe in her late twenties. It seems fitting that a reader might have more to say about her life, or at least her life’s work, than a search engine, which is incapable of mustering much beyond “young” and “female” and “debut author” (the men in her stories often find themselves similarly short on information). She is the kind of writer who is bound to make reviewers sweat in more ways than one.

In “Futures in Child Rearing” a woman asks some sort of computer screen called the “ovulation machine” (I pictured an airport check-in kiosk) to grant her permission to have a child. The woman makes many valiant attempts to formulate her case, in the hopes that she’ll hit upon the correct combination of qualifications, but the machine denies her request at every turn with a different dismissive quip. “You Have Reached Your Destination is a strong name [for a child],” the woman insists. “He will not be lost. He will feel at home in the world. His arrival and his presence has always been.” To which the machine responds, with dream-curdling double entendre, “Coordinates not found, rerouting.” The woman pivots to a different angle without batting an eye, as the machine continues to charge her.

The contents of George’s fictional creations often scan as randomly generated, expressing patterns akin to an a.i. machine learning where new, apparently irreconcilable rules of the story’s world are learned and integrated seamlessly into the narrator’s telling of it. This also happens to be the law that governs improv, and George shines as a comic of the surreal. For instance, this bit, from a house-party scene in the collection’s title story:

People leave their dishes on the floor. Someone breaks the toilet. Jimmy from work comes and plays the guitar and sings in the front yard. The oven catches fire and the fire department is called. Everyone goes outside. A female firefighter comes in with a hose and puts out the fire. “Recklessness,” she says.

George’s crowning comedic achievement (and the best story in the collection) is her final tale, “Instruction,” which is told mostly from the perspective of a “sexually attractive” female art student who has an affair with her instructor. He is much more experienced in both ass-play and art, and the two quickly form an emotional bond that is rarely able to transcend its trite, transactional beginnings. He calls her “Ranchera” and makes her his star pupil. She calls him “The Teacher” and makes a painting entitled Your Unceasing Fantasy Will Not Conjure the Desired Into Being. Meanwhile, her less fortunate classmates are forced to spend their time in school building Cinnabon vendor stalls and digging horse graves.

In a scene subheaded “Notes,” Ranchera and the Teacher have sex and fall asleep in one of his own, very professionally done, horse graves. This is a formative moment in the young woman’s romantic and artistic development, the kind that is not well suited to a social-media post, but which language adheres to stubbornly nonetheless. “I want concrete to be poured on top of us,” she says, “so that we can stay this way always.”

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