#30Authors is an event started by The Book Wheel that connects readers, bloggers, and authors. In it, 30 authors review their favorite recent reads on 30 blogs in 30 days. It takes place annually during the month of September and has been met with incredible support from and success in the literary community. It has also been turned into an anthology, which is currently available on Amazon and all author proceeds go to charity. Previous #30Authors contributors include Celeste Ng, Cynthia Bond, Brian Panowich, and M.O. Walsh. To see this year’s full line-up, visit: www.thebookwheelblog.com/30authors or follow along on Twitter @30Authors.
30 Author’s Book Review
“Bitch, I mean, come on: do you think I don’t know I’m wearing enormous pants?”
Reading Elisa Albert’s After Birth
When I don’t know what to read next, I usually turn to Rachel Fershleiser, who is a unique personage in the online book world. She is part taste-maker, part cheerleader, part guardian-angel of authors trying to find an audience, and she is one of those people who has found her power in being absolutely herself, by which I mean she is a fucking delight. She reads everything, and if you want to read something about kick-ass women processing their shit, she is the person to ask. (You should follow her on Twitter immediately is what I am saying.) So I asked, and she recommended After Birth by Elisa Albert.
I hadn’t heard of it, and I usually read this kind of thing. It didn’t have that many reviews, but it did have some impressive blurbs from Karen Russell, Emily Gould, Lydia Davis. The cover was sort of ugly in an interesting way. I didn’t know what to expect. Before I was thirty pages in, I had already texted my mother, my best friend, and my sister-in-law that they had to read this book.
Part of After Birth’s allure is its humor. The narrator, Ari, is scathing in a way that is particularly appealing, a kind of Dorothy Parker naughtiness, a willingness to be mean. “Yes, clearly I am not as lithe as before I fabricated and surgically evacuated a new human being. At any opportunity my stepmother will still give me the Scan, let’s call it, that classic down-up as common to the female of the species as is the vagina— and offer a specious don’t worry, sweetie, you’ll get back to normal soon. Bitch, I mean, come on: do you think I don’t know I’m wearing enormous pants?” (p. 15)
But part of the book’s allure is its philosophical insight, which is as furious and cutting as its humor. Ari is willing to say things that are unlikable, unfashionable, questioning our relationships to our bodies, our fear of death and birth, women’s place in the power structures of the world, and this gives the book an intriguing force and freshness. Ari is not fundamentally likable, and she is not always right, in fact often she is stubborn and stuck. But this is hardly a fault in a book that is questioning, among other things, why women have to be so fucking likable all the time.
After Birth tells the story of what happens to one woman, Ari, after the birth of her first child. I want to say it simply like that, because it makes clear one thing: I don’t think I have read another novel that takes this stage of life as its chief plot. There is no love interest in this book. (Ari’s husband is neither the solution, nor the problem; he is a good guy doing his best.) Subplots are scarce, and the major arc of the story follows her friendship with another woman who has just given birth.
If there is a major critique to be made of the book, it is that its internal nature, its psycho-spiritual subject matter, are not the stuff of traditional plot, and the effect can at times be claustrophobic. To create movement, Albert skillfully interrupts the current action with flashbacks which account for Ari’s relationship to her own mother who died when she was young and who was a bitch even before she died, and her grandmother who survived the Holocaust. (“Exactly what primal torments did she endure and escape? Everyone always wants to know. They ask around it. But you can’t un-know, okay? She survived by sucking Nazi cock. Nineteen years old. Survived with her mouth full of throbbing Nazi sausage. All righty?” p. 140)
The narrative is also constantly interrupted by what becomes a litany of failed female friendships: Molly with the clear gray eyes, Jess from Jewish summer camp, Rachel the “ano-fucking-rexic,” Shira the beautiful idiot with the sweetest gap-tooth grin, and of course, Mina, whose friendship Ari is desperate for, and who carries the bulk of what little current-action plot there is.
The book makes a commentary on its own lack of plot, asking serious questions about whether plot, which revolves around a series of decisive actions set up almost as an alter to cause and effect, a painstaking diorama of the forces of action, is in fact a male cultural construct which is of little use to a woman wanting to write about having babies.
Ari ruminates: “Adrienne Rich had it right. No one gives a crap about motherhood unless they can profit off it. Women are expendable and the work of childbearing, done fully, done consciously, is all-consuming. So who’s gonna write about it if everyone doing it is lost forever within it? You want adventures, you want poetry and art, you want to salon it up over at Gertrude and Alice’s, you’d best leave the messy all-consuming baby stuff to someone else. Birthing and nursing and rocking and distracting and socializing and cooking and washing and gardening and mending: what’s that compared with bullets whizzing overhead, dazzling destructive heroics, headlines, parties, glory, all that Martha Gellhorn stuff, all that Zelda Fitzgerald stuff, drugs and gutters and music and poetry pretty dresses more parties and fucking and fucking and parties? Destroy yourself, says my mother. Live it up. That’s what makes for good stories. She should know. Nurturance, on the other hand . . .The time it takes to grow something . . . BORING.” (pp. 185-186)
It is a stubborn book. It is an important book. It is a glorious and flawed and incandescent book. And you should go read it right now.
Find Rufi Thorpe
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About After Birth
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Thanks again to Allison for organizing 30 Authors and Rufi for her fabulous review! After Birth wasn’t my cup of tea when I read it, but Rufi’s written an excellent review. What about you, Reader?