After her baby was born, novelist and essayist Rivka Galchen noticed something curious: “The world seemed ludicrously, suspiciously, adverbially sodden with meaning.” At the same time, she observes, “my thoughts had become unprecedentedly interrupted, as if every three minutes I had fallen asleep, curtailing any thought, morphing it into dream… What I mean to say is that I wasn’t working. This even though my plan had been to work. And to think. Even after the baby was born.”
This is one of the central paradoxes of her essay collection “Little Labors“: it is the finely wrought product of a time when Galchen stopped working. The essays in this collection, like their author’s thoughts, are curtailed, short but concentrated and profound. They revolve around a single fact: their author has recently had a baby.
And yet most of the revelations in this book are not about babies but about the world that surrounds them, starting with the adults in it. It is these revelations that make “Little Labors” a must-read for both bleary-eyed new parents and those who want to understand them.
Galchen starts with her own mother, describing how the arrival of the “puma,” as she calls her newborn daughter, drew out the new grandmother’s unexpected susceptibility to theories about the occult powers of children. Then there is Galchen herself, whose enchantment with her infant daughter runs so deep that it becomes an embarrassment, “a reason to apologize to friends.” And yet her friends are also transformed by the baby: they are inspired to admire her perfectly shaped head, to become foster parents, or to seek out accessories that resemble her child’s bright orange snowsuit.
Galchen’s essay on the color orange is one of the book’s standouts: it follows with unflinching wonder the route by which a shade linked to Guantanamo prisoners’ uniforms became a fashionable choice for babies’ clothing. In the writer’s devastating analysis, infantile accessories serve as a means by which Americans’ collective guilt gets “emotionally laundered in plain sight.”
Motherhood also affords Galchen some new insights into literature and culture, worlds that suddenly appears to her to be haunted by babies. Diving into Mary Shelley’s “Frankenstein,” Sei Shōnagon’s “The Pillow Book,” and even the 1954 film “Godzilla,” Galchen re-enchants these classics by drawing out their repressed babies.
And yet, she observes, writers with first-hand knowledge of babies are thin on the ground. Babies are a subject shunned in literature and reviled by many self-identified thinking people, including her previous, non-baby-having self: “I had never been interested in babies, or in mothers; in fact those subjects had seemed perfectly not interesting,” she writes; “and so, after I had the baby, I found myself in the position (now interested in babies) of those political figures who come to insights others had reached decades ago only after their personal lives intersected with an ‘issue,’ like, say, Dick Cheney, with his daughter, who married a woman.”
Galchen’s book is, among other things, a confession of sorts, an unstinting record of the failings—not just a failure to appreciate babies, but a preference for the company of men—that the puma’s arrival helped to cure her of.
If the literary world still suffers from these failings, writers like Galchen are its best hope. “Little Labors” brings motherhood out of its confinement by sketching an entire world of ideas linked to the experience and using them to illuminate the world at large. Its bright orange cover belongs on every bookshelf.