- Familiarly Strange
For her first collection of short stories, Jen George disregards all of the rules of basic storytelling to give us these five explorations of the modern Western woman's psyche. The result is surreal, uncanny, uncomfortable, indulgent, comic, and compelling. These stories tackle almost all the problems women begin to face as teens and continue to face in various forms throughout life—and they don't pretend there are simple solutions to any of those problems. They also don't sound like a whiny, woe-is-me diary or television drama, nor do they pretend the protagonist must overcome her issues in order to fulfill a higher purpose and become the nowclichéd heroine who is "not like most women."
Instead, they demonstrate the perpetual nature of problems like sex, money, social expectations, appearances, reproduction, aging, and insecurity as they function inside the female mind. Readers feel alongside the narrators as they experience the need to fulfill adult expectations, the pressure of navigating the career world, the dependence and vulnerability of illness, the desire for motherhood, and the relationship between sex, love, and creativity. As serious as these themes might sound, the bluntness and impossibility of the storylines make them just funny enough to laugh at all of these issues while acknowledging their truth and universality.
Each story is certainly about a woman, as most of the point-of-view characters openly discuss their vaginas (no pun intended), but whether or not it could be the same woman narrating all the stories is for the reader to decide. None of the women are named except Lee in the final story, "Instruction," and while the stories clearly do not progress chronologically through a single character's life, they are not entirely unrelated and could simply be out of order. All the narrators have similar voices, are of only slightly varying ages, and mention little about themselves beyond that they are insecure and have generally failed at life up to the current time, making them perfect canvases upon which any female reader could easily paint herself. This quality undoubtedly adds to the overall effect of the book as familiar and relatable despite its intense difference from anything else available for popular reading.
Well-fitting for the titular story, "The Babysitter at Rest" is representative of George's surrealism as it is told through the eyes of the young woman who has been "reborn, but without birth and childhood," into a new world. She describes her age as "Seventeen. But I might be anywhere from seventeen to twenty-two. I think I have a birthday soon. I've heard talk of a cake at work. I may know more then." We follow her as she attempts to navigate her new, already failing career and hobbies, as she babysits a child who doesn't age, and as she sleeps with a much older, married man simply because he requests it and he's handsome. Wearing her bikini everywhere because her clothes have disappeared and because she looks good in it anyway, she learns not to ask questions that make "everything here fall apart." Although nothing seems to be within her control, she seems perfectly contented, as if she has achieved the common wish to leave behind all the complications of reality for a simple, straightforward way of life.
Juxtaposing reality with vivid dreaming, George gives each story its own brand of surrealism and creates painful sores we like to touch. None of the stories are simple or quite like real life, but they're real enough that we want to keep figuring out what's going on, so there's plenty to keep both the heart and the brain occupied throughout subsequent readings. There are no neat, predictable endings, no comfort zones, and no need for either. We are glad to see that what is wrong with us also affects someone else, or at least one other person, and in the form of multiple short stories, we can believe that most people have...