In the opening story of Jen George's debut collection The Babysitter at Rest, released last month from publishing project Dorothy, a woman of 33 falls under the influence of The Guide, who offers stark critiques of her life and advice of dubious value.
"You must now claim to enjoy things, learn a lot, and know yourself—this will heavily influence others' assessment of your objective beauty and worth. Be aware that too much proselytizing may date you, so don't go overboard. Your life may fall apart around you while you're putting on the act of radiating positivity, but you will not realize it for some time."
The Guide, however, isn't a person but a label for at least two entities that break into the narrator's house uninvited and start rearranging her priories. The Guide serves as a metaphor for all kinds of things: traumatizing criticism from childhood, warped body image sensibilities on television and the seductive allure of self-advertised success on social media.
It is the voice in our head that tells us we are failing. At preparing lunch. At making friends. At life.
The Guide convinces the narrator to throw a party and disaster ensues. Nevertheless, The Guide is often funny the way a band saw is sharp. When the narrator confesses that when she was a child she desired to be a nun, The Guide replies, "The idea is still very appealing, but one does not simply become a nun at 33, especially if one is not at all religious and always horny."
If the tone of "Guidance/The Party" is bleak, the mood in the title story is downright disturbing. "The Babysitter at Rest" tells the story of how a young girl of 17 comes to serve as the babysitter for Tyler Burnett, one of the wealthiest men in town. Although he is 30 years her senior, they become lovers. It is not a healthy relationship. He refers to her as "Child" and, when he is not sexually demeaning her, treats her like one.
"At times I forget if we're lovers or if he's my father. He does not feel like a father."
The characters in George's stories are mired in depravity and dissolution disguised as desire. Beautiful figures languish while violence lurks. Like Donald Barthelme and Stanley Crawford, George marries impossible situations, gallows humor and fondness for preposterous catalogs with a radical edge.