Some of the essays in this volume resonate more than others — some feel more like amuse-bouches — but they all made me want to keep reading, to keep listening to the subtle quality of the author’s voice: her irony, smarts, unexpected associations...I adore Galchen’s quiet, and the bravery of this book’s fragments. You get the sly sense reading this book that you are not seeing the whole writer; there is a sleight of hand — something only partially revealed — so that the fragments glow more.
Indeed, the voice of the memoir is muted, reflective. Sentences unspool slowly, following the shape of a thought. The spare prose is punctured by cheeky humor and by the occasional, lovely simile..Wrestling with contradiction is a hallmark of the writing process—Little Labors suggests it is also a feature of modern parenthood. Perhaps this isn’t something to fear or reject but to recognize, accept, and, simply, express.
And as I read, at first I felt wrapped up in Galchen’s prose, comforted by her self-awareness of her place in the 'bohemian-brooklyn-bourgeoisie,' her acknowledgment of the complicated layers of emotion and experience babies bring about ('boredom, or hostility, or love'), how she was someone who had not before been interested in babies. There was, I’ll even say, an almost swaddled feeling. And yet, as the sections accumulate, the swaddling begins to feel tighter, constricting, in moments suffocating, reflecting, again, the pendulum swing of the baby-presence experience.
The book is cyclical and sideways, structured in the loosely associative manner of actual thoughts rather than in logic or argument. I get the sense that it does not aim to please or appease — not because it is brash or defiant in any way but because it is quiet, queer, on the sidelines examining the grooved soles of its sneakers rather than running the race ... Galchen's implicit proposition — that babies can be the subject of serious art, that we may coo and think simultaneously — feels surprising, even radical, in a world where motherhood and intellectualism are still placed instinctively at odds. It may be a little book, but it is not a small one.
Little Labors has range. It contemplates both 'the royalty of infants' and the uselessness of babies (compared to other animals). It’s rare to find a work of likewise small stature grow so ponderously into such an expansive, magnanimous, and living thing. Like a child — if you want — or a book with meaning.
...Galchen is keen to establish herself as a person whose interests, to date, have been wide-ranging and gender neutral. Her rejection of 'babies, or mothers' formed a significant element of her sense of herself – and she is wryly mortified to discover that the arrival of her own child on the scene has blown that identity out of the water ...as with the whole of this brief, knotty book – its apparent simplicity is itself a construction: a comment on the complexity of finding yourself knocked sideways by the magnitude of an event that is both unique and utterly commonplace ...fragmentary nature of Little Labours perfectly evokes the state of new motherhood, in which moments of reflection are fleeting; bright flashes that are chased away almost as soon as they arrive.
[Galchen's] investigations shoot off from her subject like finely-pointed spokes from a hub. The book’s split-up structure fits her purpose well. On the one hand you can occasionally imagine these short chapters as the immediate and authentic jotting-downs of a new mother reporting from the front. On the other hand, the book’s loose form also gives room to Galchen’s commendable analytical mind ... Galchen breathes decided life into her topic. And her writing is so good that her observations double as arguments for her choice of subject ... The result is that this quietly revolutionary little book is extremely difficult to qualify.
I found Galchen’s brief book accurate, poignant, and wry. But occasionally, in reading Little Labors, I was quite sunken, quite despondent, and not in a playful way ... Galchen’s small volume concerns interrelated experiences of difference, exceptionality, and precariousness, which can seem ineluctably (and sometimes frighteningly) entailed by one’s status as a female human ... Beyond the general problem of being female and having reproduced, there is, in Little Labors, also the specific problem of being a professional writer — a slightly different, though equally inconvenient, problem of production ... We are being asked to share in Galchen’s apparently genuine surprise, and this invitation, along with the astonishment that inspires it, feels not only genuine but important.