Lean Away

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Review: ‘After Birth’ by Elisa Albert.

In 2013, there were murmurs of a new feminist manifesto emboldening women across the nation, reviving a stalled second-wave feminism. You might have heard it whispered by the women leaving book club meetings, heard it from the lips of Sheryl Sandberg herself, heard it from its weeks atop the New York Times bestseller list. Lean in, they said. Forget maternity-leave policies, forget the income gap, forget the corporeal necessities of your children or yourself, and lean in.

Ari, the narrator of Elisa Albert’s “After Birth,” has, effectively, leaned out: sequestered in a dreary upstate New York town with her ineffectual professor husband and year-old baby, she has all but abandoned her PhD dissertation on “Algorithms of Girl.” It’s been a year since she gave birth to her son via emergency C-section, but she is still plagued by the trauma of “effective disembodiment,” the forced experience of being “severed from hip to hip, iced, brutalized, catheterized, tethered to a bed.” Profoundly alone in her “shitbox town,” deep in the throes of postpartum depression and possibly PTSD, relief comes in the form of Mina Morris, legendary ex-Riot-Grrrl rocker turned poet, first nine-months pregnant then a newly minted single mother. United by their isolation and confusion, Ari and Mina form an alliance that exceeds friendship: a partnership, a radical union of shared breastfeeding and generous intimacy, the “raft of women” Ari imagines might have shared in the rearing of each other’s children a hundred years ago.

Ari’s relationship with Mina, and her relationships with all women, is complex. She forms intense, consuming friendships with women she idealizes, only to be betrayed by their humanness. Her feelings towards women are angry, traumatized, shrouded in loss. The same could, in fact, be said of her feelings towards almost everything. Albert roots her narrative deeply in Ari’s consciousness, so her alienation, her anger, her confusion and her pain are profoundly felt. Albert’s prose is carnal, severe, a well of interiority and witty, excruciating truth. It is fiercely human. Her cadences are stilted, disjointed, alive despite Ari’s feelings that she “had died, was dead, only a ghost, not fully gone.” Her sentences breathe Ari’s postpartum trauma: birth is “a nightmare blur of newborn stitches antibiotics awake constipation tears wound tears awake awake awake limping tears screaming tears screaming shit piss puke tears.”

But Ari’s trauma does not exist in isolation: it is descended through the maternal line, from her depressed, “bitch from hell” mother, long dead from DES-induced cancer, and by her grandmother, tormenter of her tormentor, a survivor of brutal Nazi rape in Auschwitz. Ari’s mother and grandmother are omnipresent apparitions, her mother’s voice chiming in to admonish Ari for her failures as a parent or wife, and her grandmother’s repeated rape cleverly conflated with Ari’s—and her own—forced, involuntary C-section. (“You were raped,” Mina tells Ari outright.) Ari imagines her grandmother “strapped down, drugged and thrashing, crying out” in an alien American hospital, “tied to a bed in a different country, begging someone to help her in a language no one could understand.”

Implicit here is the trans-generational PTSD so many Holocaust survivors bequeath on their children. Ari’s third-generation PTSD is borne not only of her grandmother’s savage treatment by the Nazis, but also of the savagery of systematic medical intervention. Ari views the industrialization of childbirth as systematic abuse as opposed to necessary medical intervention, responsible for her postpartum dysphoria, as well as her grandmother’s suicide.

It is evident that Albert, a doula and an outspoken critic of the medical industrialization of childbearing, is writing from a particular theoretical perspective: Ari criticizes second-wave feminism’s “bullshit” calls to “defeat the body and be liberated from it,” and makes reference to both Barbara Ehrenreich’s work on medical intervention in childbirth, and Adrienne Rich’s influential Of Women Born: Motherhood as Experience and Institution. It is easy to see how, in a lesser writer’s hands, this novel could have become a preachy, sanctimonious polemic. But Ari’s close, honest, rage-and-grief-filled interiority saves the novel from becoming a dissertation, replete with academic sources and statements like, “Feminism without focus on the body, the soul, the relationship between the two—biologically female bodies with distinctly female struggles—is of no interest to me.” In Ari’s point of view, these sorts of declarations feel characterizing: Ari is writing her dissertation in Women’s Studies, she’s a feminist, she’s angry and unwavering and as sharp in her insights about everything from menstruation to Jewish summer camps as she is about industrialized childbirth. There is no room for dissent in Ari’s psyche. Either you are with her or against her and, ultimately, all women.

Those who are against her include the women in her family, her husband’s colleagues, the members of women-only groups who inevitably “rip each other to shreds,” and the second-wave feminists, with their refusal to admit that “living in these female bodies is different. More terrible and more wonderful.” These are the women for whom childbearing is a vanity project, or the women pulling their pantyhose over their still-distended bellies, shoving their kids into daycare at three months and rushing back to work, the women determined to “make it to the Oval Office, win, win, win.” These are the women who are leaning in. One might imagine that if Ari met Sheryl Sandberg, she would swiftly flip her off.

Marianne, Ari’s thesis advisor, dismisses novels as “a rehearsal, an avoidance of politics and activism and rage and grief. A way for the writer to remove herself from the real problem.” Albert doesn’t avoid anything: she has created, in Ari, a character who will shout her politics, her activism, her rage, her grief—scream it, spit on it, burn it at the stake. Ari refuses to adhere to the rules of a culture that insists women shut up about their traumatic births and their sadness and isolation. She refuses to present birth as sanitized, mysterious, some sort of gratifying miracle. She is not the woman sending out mild-mannered birth announcements pronouncing that baby and mother are doing fine, resting well, feeling okay. If Ari were to have a birth announcement, it would read: “Why so numb, so enraged, so broken?” She is incapable of glossing over the gory corporeal details—or the gory psychological details—of new motherhood, and, consequently, what erupts from her psyche is refreshing, fierce, piercing truth. “We’re as fearful of childbirth as we are of death,” she says. “Why else do we do everything to try and numb and control it? Why else does no one talk about it?” Elisa Albert is talking about it, and everyone should be listening. ✧

 

Lisa Metrikin is the Editor in Chief of The Brooklyn Review. She is a second-year fiction MFA student at Brooklyn College, where she also teaches. Her fiction has appeared in the Monarch Review, Independent Ink Magazine, and elsewhere. She is a native of Toronto, Canada. Previously, she worked in editorial and marketing at several early-stage tech startups. Follow her on Twitter @LisaSkapinker.

Letter From the Editor

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Since Allen Ginsberg, John Ashberry, Jonathan Baumbach and the students of the Brooklyn College MFA program founded The Brooklyn Review, we have been a place of continual evolution, growth and experimentation. While we originally focused on the poetry, prose and performance pieces of our own students, we soon expanded to include exceptional new writing from beyond our small corner of Brooklyn. For almost thirty years, we published new work by writers including Wayne Koestenbaum, Mac Wellman, Young Jean Lee, David Levinson, Sapphire, and many others.

But as we endeavored to evolve further and plunge into the online sphere, we entered a period of silence. We wanted to honor our storied history while continuing to publish in the spirit of experimentation with which we were founded. It took us a few years to reemerge, but now we are back. We’ll be publishing in a new format—online—in addition to our annual print issue. We look forward to introducing you to audacious and exciting new poetry, prose, and performance art, and to celebrating all forms of telling and creating, experimental and traditional, by curating them in this new space.

We are proud to present the first online issue of The Brooklyn Review.

 

—Lisa Metrikin, Editor in Chief

 

Memoirs of a Post-Analyzed Self

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 Review: ‘Adult Onset’ by Ann-Marie MacDonald.

 

A small crowd assembled at the back of Brooklyn’s BookCourt store to hear acclaimed Canadian author Ann-Marie MacDonald read from her third novel, “Adult Onset.” It was a small enough group—mostly long-time devotees of MacDonald’s first two novels, the 1996 Oprah’s Book Club pick “Fall on Your Knees” and its 2003 follow-up, “The Way The Crow Flies”—that MacDonald forewent the podium and conducted the question-and-answer portion from one of the chairs, speaking intimately with the audience, as if it were her own living room. When one audience member asked if the novel’s frenzied, turbulent style could be attributed to writing a novel while raising children full time, MacDonald agreed that yes, that was absolutely the reason. She realized from the early stages of writing “Adult Onset” that her process would be erratic: she would be lucky to cram an hour of writing in between chores and children and running the household. Her prose was similarly chaotic, but she went with it, because it emulated the real experience of motherhood.

The chaos of rearing children is one of many ways in which the novel, which MacDonald described as a “memoir of a parallel self,” mirrors MacDonald’s real life: the book’s protagonist, Mary Rose MacKinnon, is, like MacDonald, the daughter of a Lebanese mother and a Canadian army officer father, both originally from Nova Scotia’s Cape Breton Island. Also like MacDonald, Mary-Rose lives in downtown Toronto, she is married to a woman who’s a theater director, and she’s taking a break from her career writing bestselling novels (in Mary Rose’s case, young adult novels) to raise their two children. The book takes place over the course of one hectic week in Mary Rose’s life, a week in which her wife, Hilary, is away in Winnipeg directing a play, and Mary Rose, known colloquially as “Mister,” is home alone with the children. Much of the book recounts the minutiae of Mary Rose’s mundane daily life as an “everyday housewife,” a world in which “it-got-better enough for her to be here now at her own kitchen table with her own child, legally married to the woman she loves, feeling like a trapped 1950s housewife.”

The novel follows Mary Rose as she collapses her Christmas tree stand, picks her kids up from school, does laundry, visits the gynecologist, and walks her dog. The pages abound with italicized technology: Mary Rose’s Facebook and her email bing! repeatedly, and Mary Rose deletes a drafted email to her father so many times that it feels like keystrokes begin to replace plot points. There are also long swaths of incoherent dialogue, pages of back-and-forth conversations that often read more like a stage script than a novel. The dialogue is often nearly impossible to follow, especially the conversations between Mary Rose and her elderly, possibly dementia-ridden mother.

But this is a deeply internal novel, and it is Mary Rose’s witty, anxious, and, at times, delirious interiority that saves the novel from becoming merely a tedious narration of daily pandemonium, 381 pages of chores and temper tantrums and ill-fated play dates. MacDonald’s prose is limber and deft, delving into Mary Rose’s psyche with piercing intelligence and palpable, authentic realism. Toronto is a place where “the trees are tight with buds” and “the last crusts of brown ice are trickling into storm sewers,” where Mary Rose, Hilary and their children live in a “shabby chic neighborhood where…higgledy-piggledy hedges and trumpet vines proclaim the prevailing left-leaning sympathies of the residents.” Mary Rose lives a life one could plausibly imagine: she’s reading a real book (Norman Doidge’s The Brain That Changes Itself), she visits real stores in Toronto’s Annex neighborhood, listens to real CBC radio programs, and sees fellow Annex resident Margaret Atwood driving by. MacDonald cleverly edges close enough to reality that one forgets Mary Rose isn’t lurking in cafes in downtown Toronto, dodging the adoring young fans clamoring for her autograph, that she isn’t waiting for her son outside the Montessori school on Bloor Street.

An unexplained pain in Mary Rose’s arm invokes the memory of her childhood bone cysts, propelling the story into a vortex of remembered trauma, starting in her bones then spreading outward into her psyche, into the pain and possible abuse of her childhood, as she struggles with inexplicable rage against her two-year-old daughter, Maggie. In an attempt to explore whether or not Mary Rose was abused as a child, and whether that abuse may have triggered her bone issues, the novel weaves between Mary Rose’s close-third-person narration in the present and a distant, retrospective account of her childhood. The childhood sections mainly explore Mary Rose’s mother’s postpartum depression following the two stillborn babies who bookended Mary Rose’s birth. The distant narration, however, makes it difficult to discern whose point of view is recounting the past. Mary-Rose herself concedes that, although those years are “vivid in her mind, part of the family lore she imbibed from her sister and from her parents’ remiscences,” she can’t possibly recall those particular memories, many of which happened before she was born. The retrospective sections, then, feel like therapy sessions with Mary Rose’s analyst, hovering over the past distantly, fictionalizing her mother’s depression and dissociation from her children in sentimental, embellished prose. Much of what happens in the retrospective sections is a dramatization of what’s already been told in present exposition, and the connections to Mary Rose’s current mental state are heavy-handed and infuriatingly obvious.

Similarly cumbersome are the sections from Mary Rose’s two blockbuster young adult novels, both of which are jammed inexplicably into “Adult Onset.” The connections between these excerpts and Mary Rose’s psychological state are not only exceedingly obvious; they’re also called out explicitly on the page. At one point, Hilary reveals that, like Mary Rose’s stillborn sister, her YA protagonist’s doll was incinerated, though Mary Rose hadn’t understood that particular connection yet. A few pages later, the doll’s incineration is dramatized in one of the excerpted novel chapters. Mary Rose’s subconscious explodes out of the YA passages, dripping with regret and guilt towards the stillborn children. She “does not need to pay a psychologist to know that deep down she is convinced she killed [her stillborn brother] Alexander…it’s right there in the pages of her own book.”

Mary Rose, in fact, doesn’t need a psychoanalyst at all, because her entire narrative seems to have already been analyzed and processed by MacDonald. The prose is too self-aware, too conscious of the connections between Mary-Rose’s bone cysts and her parents’ later rejection of her as an out lesbian, the potential abuse she suffered at the hands of her mother and the way she later repeats that abuse with her own daughter. MacDonald, who is an award-winning playwright as well as a novelist, loads her pages with glaring dramatic irony and heavy-handed foreshadowing. It is implied numerous times by both of Mary Rose’s siblings as well as the retrospective narration that Mary Rose’s mother Dolly had postpartum depression, but Mary Rose doesn’t fully realize it until the end of the novel. In that way, the novel often feels like it’s getting ahead of itself, feeding the audience information before it’s relevant on the page, or alluding to certain topics or themes right before they unfold narratively. For example, several pages before Mary Rose ponders the dichotomy between her tender relationship with her “sensitive, sweet” five-year-old son and her daughter, who is in the depths of the classic terrible twos, Mary Rose’s own brother, Andy-Patrick, points out that he and Mary Rose had entirely different relationships with her parents, that perhaps it was he, not she, who won the “family suffering sweepstakes.”

Perhaps MacDonald, who has spent the past seven years in immersive, three-times-a-week psychoanalysis, has written not a memoir of a parallel self, but instead a memoir of a post-analyzed self, a protagonist who’s too hyperaware of her own psychological underpinnings. There is no room for ambiguity in the novel, nothing left for the reader to discern for him or herself. Even the novel’s humor begins to feel affected, gratingly self-aware: Mary Rose worries her tomatoes are “wrong” because they’re from Israel; she thinks she “could fist-pump for joy, but that would be too American.” The novel feels not like the cathartic journey to self-discovery MacDonald has described, the “open-heart surgery” on herself she’s compared to writing it, but instead like a calculated self-psychology.

Even Hilary, Mary Rose’s wife, who is mostly absent from the page, acts almost as a proxy for Mary Rose’s therapist, discussing her childhood trauma, listening as Mary Rose analyzes her mother’s behavior, whether her subsequent rejection stemmed from some sort of guilt about abusing her as a child. Consequently, Hilary and Mary Rose’s relationship feels clinical, more like a patient-therapist relationship than spousal love.

Where the novel opens up, where it feels surprising and alive and raw for the first time, is when Mary Rose recounts her parents’ rejection following her coming out. “I’d rather you had cancer,” her parents tell her. “I’d rather you were dead.” Mary Rose’s mother issues her rejection of Mary Rose’s “lifestyle,” her choice in partners, “like an edict—a fatwa.” In one of the novel’s most compelling moments, her mother asks, “Who touched you? Did someone touch you? Did your father touch you?” One suspects this rejection is still somewhat fresh, still not entirely processed and worked through in therapy. The writing here pierces; it punctures through newly patched-over wounds, spilling out confused, painful truth. But this breakthrough arrives two-thirds of the way through the novel, and it feels like too little, too late.

And, eventually, even the post-coming-out section is psychoanalyzed on the page, composed in an email to Mary Rose’s father years after she reconciles with her parents. “I wonder if Mum’s problems with postpartum depression,” Mary Rose writes, “informed the fury with which she responded to my coming out years later.” Was her mother still consumed with guilt? Did she believe she’d damaged Mary Rose in early childhood? These are the sorts of inferences that a writer with a subtler touch might have hoped his or readers would eventually reach. MacDonald, instead, instructs the reader on what to think, what to feel, how to properly analyze her characters. There is nothing left implicit or enigmatic; the novel acts as its own emotional instruction manual.

Towards the end, the writing becomes increasingly less lucid. The past and present begin to merge as both Mary Rose and her mother seem snagged in a mass of mystifying dementia, forgetting and confusing things and people and each other. Even language begins to break down: “the day the daytheday the day is toobright.” “This is what you get in the end,” Mary Rose thinks. “Fragments. Parts of speech.” It’s a nice idea, but it’s difficult to discern what’s actually happening in this final section. The novel even abandons its steady, unhurried pacing for a mad dash to the finishing line, whipping through sections the reader’s been waiting for the entire novel, like Hilary’s homecoming. It almost feels like, in an attempt to be more symbolically chaotic, less sterilized by the heavy-handed psychoanalysis that informs so much of MacDonald’s writing, she conflates turmoil with emotional complexity, as if the abandonment of narrative convention will trick the reader into feeling moved by his or her conflicting reactions. Instead, one has the feeling of being jerked into murky terrain by an unreliable narrator and a novel that hasn’t made up its mind about whose dementia is setting in when.

“There was something that’s very intentional about this book,” MacDonald said. “[Mary Rose’s] dark week of the soul is triggered during a time where everything is fine. And that’s a classic kind of psychoanalytical moment.” One wonders what sort of writing would have ensued if MacDonald had abandoned the Freudian polemic and written this entire book with the brutal authenticity with which she wrote the post-coming-out section. Perhaps, then, this book might have felt less like the inexplicable unraveling of an “everyday housewife” and more like the penetrating, incisive self-biopsy MacDonald intended it to be. ✧

 

Lisa Metrikin is the Editor in Chief of The Brooklyn Review. She is a second-year fiction MFA student at Brooklyn College, where she also teaches. Her fiction has appeared in the Monarch Review, Independent Ink Magazine, and elsewhere. She is a native of Toronto, Canada. Previously, she worked in editorial and marketing at several early-stage tech startups. Follow her on Twitter @LisaSkapinker.