Frisky Reads: After Birth By Elisa Albert
To get this out of the way from the get-go, Elisa Albert’s After Birth is going to offend a lot of sensitive people, some for the following reasons:
Some mothers won’t like the fact that the novel takes place in the depths of post-partum depression and will claim that they got through birth just fine, thanks, so why whine about it? Meanwhile, of course, completely missing the point. They will give it one-star reviews on GoodReads that misspell the narrator’s three-letter name.
Some mothers won’t like the narrator, Ari, for her scathing vitriol about fertility treatment, formula-feeding, in vitro fertilization, Caesarean sections, and the general medical conquering of and interference with the female body, because those are choices that they made and will stick by whether or not they have doubts about those choices.
Some lefty-progressive types will not appreciate Ari’s ruminations on what it means to have a female body, as well as those scathing passages about medical intervention, because at no point in the novel does she acknowledge the construct of gender, and at no point does she address her feelings about trans* individuals. They will read it as Elisa Albert being transphobic rather than Elisa Albert creating a character who speaks to the experience that she has, that being the experience of a cis woman who has a female body.
Those lefty-progressive types will also become terrifically offended at some of the passages about victimhood.
Many (but certainly not all) men will not like this novel, because they are not the subject. At all. Not for one moment. If they read it, they may not like it, because Ari is not the kind of woman that shows up in books written even by men who are good at writing female characters, and they will not want to entertain the possibility that Ari’s experiences are common among non-fictional, real-life women.
There’s a passage about a woman surviving the Holocaust in what many people will consider a less than noble fashion that, nonetheless, is not necessarily inaccurate to the experiences of some Holocaust survivors.
Many readers will become uncomfortable with it, because it is extremely honest and open about subjects about which one should not speak in public: Childbirth, female bodies, female sexuality, female libido, menstruation, female emotions, post-partum depression including suicidal and unironic homicidal ideation, inter-female hatred.
So, be forewarned. I think that if you fall into any of the above categories, you should just prepare yourself, buckle up, and read it anyway.
Emily Gould blurbed After Birth by saying: “This book takes your essay about ‘likable female characters’, writes FUCK YOU on it in menstrual blood, then sets it on fire. Then sets YOU on fire! Then giggles, then makes s’mores over your smoldering corpse.” I don’t think this is accurate, actually. It makes Ari out to be genuinely insane. What I like to say about people who are born chemically, biologically pretty normative but wind up feeling broken and helpless after trauma is that their brains are reacting normally to a terrible situation, trying to adapt when something has happened to which the brain can’t exactly adapt. That’s not insanity, that’s sanity. That’s the human brain at work to create a new normal. That’s predictable and OK. So no, neither the book or the narrator are depictions of lunacy.
It takes place a year after Ari gave birth, or a year after her son was born, or, truly, a year after she “fabricated and surgically evacuated a human being” — tepidly agreed, in the midst of extreme worry about her long and difficult pregnancy, to have a Caesarean section that wound up haunting her. And Ari is a haunted woman: Her cold, verbally abusive, cancer-wracked mother died when she was 10-years-old. Her ghost shows up to lecture and abuse Ari intermittently without offering very good or very much guidance about how to be an adult woman. Ari is left to puzzle it out herself, through a string of friends to whom reader is introduced, who come and go through Ari’s life.
Readers are saying that the novel is about motherhood or birth or some such, but it’s not. Albert herself told the Internet that she was writing a novel about “the impossibilities of female friendship” in a review of Sheila Heti’s novel How Should A Person Be? It’s a mistake to think that this novel is about childbirth or motherhood for many reasons, but this one in particular: Childbirth and motherhood do not render a woman’s entire past life experience obsolete; childbirth and motherhood do not make a woman a mother and a mother only; after birth, a woman is still a whole human woman, not just and only a mother, and must navigate her womanhood in a new way. That is a crucial part of the point of the novel.
So, rather, After Birth takes place, well, after birth, because it’s a particularly female part of a woman’s life. If an author is going to explore female friendships, placing that exploration in the context of new motherhood is smart, because it’s a time that is complicated and loaded with possibility. It’s a time when women have to reckon with their womanhood, especially their womanhood in comparison to other women who do or don’t have kids, and their womanhood in comparison to their own womanhood before they got pregnant. Birth is the context, friendship is the subject. I won’t tell you where Albert goes with it, because that would count as a spoiler, I guess, and it’s way more fun to read the novel and take the ride yourself.
There was a thing Albert did with Ari’s narration that I liked: She really mulled over the multiple meanings of words. In this novel, “Okay” is an obsession; mothers tell their crying babies that “it’s okay,” or “it’s going to be okay,” and to Ari that feels like a lie when she is distinctly not okay herself. So what is she telling her son when she soothes him by telling him it will be okay? What is “it,” and what is “okay,” and how will that be accomplished? “Love” factors largely into the novel; Ari is free with the word love, not bothering to qualify it with words like “platonic,” “sisterly,” “motherly,” “romantic” — it’s just love, all the same thing, and not worth labeling. “Ready” is discussed, and what it means to be “ready” for something, especially parenthood — if, in fact, it is plausible to ever be ready for something you could not possibly even conceptualize before it actually happens. And “birth,” of course: Because Ari does not believe that “birth” is the correct word for what happened to her body. She did not, technically, “birth” her son; he was “surgically evacuated” from her. It was a passive act and it almost killed her, physically and spiritually.
There are structural quirks about the novel that I enjoyed as well – the narrative takes place over three chapters, three numbered lists of anecdotes that jump around in time until the reader has a full picture of Ari’s relationships with her mother, grandmother, friends, lovers, husband (Paul), son (Walker), father and mother-in-law, extended family, neighbors, and colleagues, all of which inform the main narrative, the story of Ari’s burgeoning and intense friendship with a former punk rocker, Mina, who Ari idolizes and who has temporarily rented a neighbor’s home and given birth in their hot tub to her own new son. The list format gives structure to what would otherwise be an unreadable timeline. But as well, there are passages that are downright elegant — one that sticks out is a Skype conversation between Ari and her cousin about her cousin’s fertility, during which Ari is folding laundry; the descriptions of the clothes she’s folding (“A tiny green sock in need of a mate”) constructing a subtext to the Skype conversation. Passages like that are so easy to savor as a reader.
Also easy to savor is Ari’s total forthrightness about her opinions — not out loud, not to other people, but to the reader. Her narration doesn’t read like a diary, exactly; more like a conversation with herself. It’s her unfiltered thoughts, which are by turns poetic, insightful, and deeply troubling, but always, always very honest. This is where Gould’s hyperactive enthusiasm for the novel originates — this brutal narration, which is refreshing when in our own lives we might think things about other women that are cruel, condescending, or just plain angry, but we tiptoe around saying them in the name of solidarity. The novel isn’t saying, “FUCK YOU, LIKEABLE FEMALE CHARACTERS!” Rather, it’s saying, “FUCK YOU, SOLIDARITY!” And maybe that’s the only way (it is at least a way) for women to move forward, to be very, very genuine about our own feelings about everything, including other women, including feminism, including children and childbirth, including our mothers, including our shitty friends and our shitty friendships. That is sort of the thesis, here: We don’t have to be cruel about being honest, but we should at least be honest, especially about our cruelty. That may just be liberation.
After Birth will be available from Houghton Mifflin Harcourt on February 17, 2015. Cover image via Amazon.
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