AS AN INSTITUTION, the family is in the curious position of being regarded as both crucial to human survival and inimical to human freedom. It bears a note of bondage down to its root; family, that wonderfully warm, nourishing-sounding word (it’s the echo of mammal, mammary, mama, I suspect), derives from the Latin familia, a group of servants, the human property of a given household, from famulus, slave. Since its beginnings, family has carried this strain of being bonded—and not just in body but in imagination. “In landlessness alone resides the highest truth, shoreless, indefinite as God,” says Ishmael, setting sail in Moby-Dick. On shore, we are to understand, our minds remain manacled, too absorbed with the hearth to look up at the stars. The first thing the Buddha did in pursuit of enlightenment was to leave home (after naming his newborn son Rahula—“fetter”). For writers, the family has been posited as an especially hazardous pastime; as Cyril Connolly’s lugubrious forecast goes: “There is no more somber enemy of good art than the pram in the hall.”
But a swarm of recent books have been freshly interrogating the family as experience, institution, and site for intellectual inquiry: novels like Dept. of Speculation by Jenny Offill and 10:04 by Ben Lerner; memoirs like The Argonauts by Maggie Nelson, Ongoingness by Sarah Manguso, and Making Babies by Anne Enright; essay collections like 100 Essays I Don’t Have Time to Write by Sarah Ruhl; and cultural studies like On Immunity by Eula Biss. In each, the arrival (or the imminent arrival) of a child prompts a constellation of questions about selfhood and artmaking and the ethics of care. Many of these books adopt a copious, fragmentary form and gesture, some a bit shyly, toward radical possibilities for the domestic. On canvases big and small, they test out new answers to ancient questions: How best can we live this life and how best can we write about it, to what ends and with what compromises?
We can detect familiar DNA throughout, echoes of defining memoirs like Adrienne Rich’s Of Woman Born (1976) and Rachel Cusk’s A Life’s Work (2001), both controversial in their time for addressing the tedium and isolation of caring for small children. And if there’s a presiding spirit, it’s gentle, generous D. W. Winnicott, the child psychotherapist who reified the power of “the ordinary mother in her ordinary loving care.” (Winnicott’s ghost also hovers over Alison Bechdel’s memoir Are You My Mother?) The books couldn’t be more diverse in tone, though: Ben Lerner’s metafiction is sweeping; Jenny Offill’s is stiletto-sharp. Sarah Manguso’s memoir is elliptical, and Sarah Ruhl’s and Anne Enright’s share the cozy chaos of Shirley Jackson’s recently reissued Life Among the Savages (1953). Eula Biss approaches the tinderbox of the anti-vaccination movement with every possible safety precaution in place—the carefully neutral tone, the extensive research. And Maggie Nelson’s book is a lava pool of shifting selves—she becomes pregnant while her fluidly gendered partner, the artist Harry Dodge, takes testosterone and has top surgery.
These books are committed to a kind of candor that surpasses confessionalism; there is an ethos of radical transparency at work, an interest in revealing just how the book we’re reading was produced, to out the kinds of labor that usually remain invisible. Rachel Cusk set the tone in A Life’s Work: “The issue of children and who looks after them has become, in my view, profoundly political, and so it would be a contradiction to write a book about motherhood without explaining to some degree how I found the time to write it.” She details the arrangements she made, how she cared for her daughter for the first six months while her husband worked, after which they moved from London to the country, him quitting his job, her writing full-time, a domestic experiment with very mixed results. Anne Enright follows suit in Making Babies: “I have flexible working hours, no commuting, I have a partner who took six weeks off for the birth of his first baby and three months for the second (unpaid, unpaid, unpaid). He also does the breakfasts. And the baths.” And Ben Lerner merrily shows his whole hand. His novel 10:04, which hews close to life, and also hinges on the birth of a child, contains descriptions of everything from how the book was conceived, pitched, and sold to how the author cannibalized his other writings to create it. There is no fantasy of a book’s immaculate conception here, just the good, grubby details.
If child care is, as Cusk writes, “profoundly political,” so too is the labor of writing, so too are the questions of who writes and what about—and how can they afford to. In Dept. of Speculation, our narrator, a thwarted writer and new mother, recalls her early ambitions: “My plan was to never get married. I was going to be an art monster instead. Women almost never become art monsters because art monsters only concern themselves with art, never mundane things. Nabokov didn’t even fold his own umbrella. Vera licked his stamps for him.” These books reveal the rigging behind the art monster: Who licked the stamps on the applications for grants? Who minded the children? Who paid the bills, and how?
“The form our creativity takes is often a class issue,” wrote Audre Lorde. She was praising poetry, the most “economical” art form, the “most secret, which requires the least physical labor, the least material, and the one which can be done between shifts, in the hospital pantry, on the subway, and on scraps of surplus paper.” Toni Cade Bambara was fond of the short story for the same reason—its “portability”: “I could narrate the basic outline while driving to the farmer’s market, work out the dialogue while waiting for the airlines to answer the phone, draft a rough sketch of the central scene while overseeing my daughter’s carrot cake, write the first version in the middle of the night, edit while the laundry takes a spin, and make copies while running off some rally flyers.” (One can’t help but think of Karl Ove Knausgaard; would his avalanche of prose—those six volumes of minutely detailed domestic life—have been possible without Scandinavian social services, the day cares to which he and his poet wife were able to entrust their four children?)
Offill, Ruhl, Manguso, and Enright take to the fragment and to short bursts of prose for reasons aesthetic and epistemological, certainly, but also, one feels, out of some deeper exigencies—“I cannot hold my baby at the same time as I write,” Nelson writes. Enright says she wrote Making Babies in a frenzy while her babies slept and later assembled the book from her notes. The narrator of Offill’s Dept. of Speculation composes on grocery lists in the car, and scribbles on the backs of credit-card receipts. (Offill herself wrote her book on index cards.)
These aren’t the fragments—or the kinds of emotional fragmentation—made famous in the ’70s by Joan Didion, Elizabeth Hardwick, and Renata Adler, whose nervy, slender sentences evoked the chic ennui of women coming elegantly apart. This is a different kind of drift, a more painful unmooring. These shards are jagged—but they’re less a performance of alienation than a passionate effort at reconciliation. Continue reading