Riot Grrrl, Interrupted

After Birth BY Elisa Albert. Houghton Mifflin Harcourt. Hardcover, 208 pages. $23.

The cover of After Birth

Several years ago (five, to be exact—my youngest had just taken her first steps) I became obsessed with questions of mothers and literature. I wanted a full accounting: mothers who wrote literature (and the logistics), literature about mothers and motherhood—not just books with mothers but books in which mothering is the point. I was particularly interested in archetypes of mothers in fiction, in whether there were any dramatic structures inherent to motherhood that could make or had made great complex stories. My questions were entirely self-interested. I wanted to find the trajectory from my purse full of baby wipes and crayons to the Sublime, and I wanted to cling to it—a lifeline.

Motherhood—the most complete cleaving of heart and body, a transcendent love that undergirds the total colonization of the brain and emotional spectrum by noisy, insipid, parasitic concerns. Is there some kind of higher conflict, a rift in the human condition, that can be diagrammed in the dynamic between divine love, inchoate tantrums, and lost mittens? If so, can its modern expression be legendary, like Medea, or must it instead be necessarily and diminutively domestic?

Jenny Offill, author of the exquisitely sallow domestic drama Dept. of Speculation, recommended I read Rachel Cusk’s dystopic mothering memoir A Life’s Work and anything by Paula Bomer. She was dead-on. In these women’s work, and in Offill’s, too, I felt a visceral jolt of connection to the human condition, and the startling headiness of a great literary project under way. The maternal paradigm had depth and teeth, and a distinctly unsqueamish and unflinching boldness. As if having children, birthing them and then parenting them, bestowed gladiator status. Or, to be more precise, after childbirth, there was clearly nothing left to lose.

With her new book, After Birth, Elisa Albert joins the ranks of poleaxed, pissed-off, ultraliterary riot grrrls beached on the sublime skanky shores of mothering and middle age. Ari (for Ariella) is a graduate student in women’s studies on hiatus from her thesis to be a new mom in a small college/factory town in the Hudson Valley where her husband is a professor. She works at the local food co-op, goes to faculty parties, breast-feeds, chases squirrels out of the walls of her gigantic (emphasis on not-Brooklyn-size) Victorian home, flirts with the handyman running the squirrel op, fends off her motherhood-spurning thesis adviser, philosophizes with her husband about why he ejaculates like a teenager who doesn’t want to knock up his girlfriend, eats peanut butter from the jar, analyzes all her past female relationships—especially the one with her angry dead mother—and tries to be less lonely and hormonal.

It’s actually more complex than that. After Birth is the story of a woman trying to regain her footing after having a baby. In an interview, Albert described it as a “war novel about the female experience.”

Ari finds her lifeline in Mina Morris, once a Pacific Northwest girl-band idol and now a poet, who is the new visiting writer on campus. Mina takes up residence in the house next door, subletting from the gay couple who were Ari’s only real friends and saviors in the year after her baby was born, but who abandoned her to go on sabbatical in Italy. Before even meeting her, Ari has decided that Mina will be her friend: “I’m a little obsessed with her, by which I mean a lot, which I guess is what obsessed means.” Mina, it turns out, is ten months pregnant by the time Ari meets her in person (an instant bond), and in no time at all she’s a brand-new single mother, whose celebrity midwife won’t return her calls and whose infant son has a bad latch.

Successful breast-feeding is all about having a good latch. Ari, after a year of practice, is an expert, and in a revelation of female bonding she steps in to emergency-suckle Mina’s starving baby, and to allow Mina to vent:

Doctor says “give him some formula if you’re concerned.” But I’m not giving him fucking formula, fucking prick! He nursed for nine hours yesterday. I kept track. I was sitting in that chair for nine fucking hours, on and off! Nine hours! I had no idea my nipples could hurt this much! . . . I am not giving this fucking kid a fucking bottle! I just birthed him in a fucking bathtub! I am not giving him fucking powder poison cow sugar processed fucking gross Nestlé Africa atrocity sludge!

Ari observes: “You can’t mistake a new mother holding a baby this way, swaying, bouncing on the soles of her feet, babbling like a brook, for anything else. She is speaking in tongues.” But it’s not babble in After Birth, this particular kind of Mom talk—the idiom of modern, neurotic mothering. And Ari herself, who narrates the book, often occupies the same frequency. Having children is isolating and debilitating in the most unexpected ways, from the physical ravages to the mental toll. In a single moment you’re unalterably a different woman than you used to be. It’s difficult not to feel broken and a little lunatic. How is that not a literary paradigm?

There is vitality in Ari’s vitriol—a psychological candor that at once illuminates an extreme individual response and gives way to a sheltered aspect of the human condition. She achieves truth telling, as the great Norwegian novelist Knut Hamsun once cast it, in “unselfish inwardness.” Afterbirth is all the gross stuff that comes out after the baby—especially the life-giving placenta, which is vile, as you’d imagine a temporary self-ejecting organ might be. Albert’s novel has a similar quality: spewing out all of the dark confusion. Her brash inner monologue is in constant motion—sometimes funny, sometimes electric, sometimes piteous but companionable—as she bulldozes through her day, making soup, glaring at other mothers in Starbucks, prowling the Internet for proof that her emergency C-section has destroyed her son’s chances to thrive. “No one gives a crap about motherhood,” she concludes, “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?” This is the point of the book. Defy the entropy of motherhood. Make art in the moment when most of us mothers can’t even remember to take a shower.

Minna Proctor is the editor of The Literary Review.