(New Directions, 2023)
Throughout Olga Ravn’s latest novel, My Work, protagonist and new mother Anna repeatedly says she wants to write a “normal book.” It’s a brilliant refrain, because of course Ravn’s book is anything but normal, though it is an ambitious one. In some ways, it is less an attempt to write a novel and more an attempt to create a body of work around a central question: who is a writer when she is also a mother? Or as Ravn asks, “must she kill the writer inside to become a good mother?”
Ravn’s protagonist, Anna, is a writer and poet who lives with her playwright partner, Aksel. She is alternatively pregnant, has a baby, or is mother to a toddler, because the novel—not a normal book!—jumps around in time, with chapters labeled “continuation” or “beginning” depending on where they fall in the narrative, rather than where they land on a linear timeline. Anna suffers from depression and anxiety, both of which have worsened after giving birth. She is struggling to write, struggling to bond with her baby, struggling to connect to her partner, and struggling most of all with her new identity. Ravn accomplishes this with a structure she acknowledges is borrowed from Doris Lessing’s Golden Notebook—she has even named her protagonist Anna in homage—and incorporates lists, journal entries, patient notes, therapy sessions, letters, and Anna’s interior conversations. This structure feels organic, recalling both the spiraling of anxiety and the circular, unmoored quality of early motherhood. At the same time, Ravn is using that structure—while also in textual conversation with other writers—to interrogate the writer/mother dichotomy.
There is of course, the question of the physical, which is inescapable during pregnancy and after birth. Anna is used to living in a precarious truce with her body, due to mental health issues, or the “flaw in me,” as she calls it. But now she is forced, in the earthiest sense, full time into a body. Writers have been tackling this subject lately with a frank honesty; you see it in Kate Zambreno’s close attention to the mother’s body in The Light Room, or the literal animal transformation in Rachel Yoder’s Nightbitch. Ravn’s Anna makes frequent wry observations about her reduction to a body, a particularly humiliating plight for a writer who’s always lived a life of the mind: “I am a 29-year-old state-owned milkmaid.” “I am a container and what I’ve always been: a soul.”
But like the protagonist in Nightbitch, Anna often delights in her new animal status. “While she nurses,” Ravn writes,”she can sense that Aksel is afraid of her. A rush of triumph courses through her with the milk and the blood. She is an animal. She is pre civilization, preschedule.” And later Anna asks, “What kind of book am I writing? A monstrous book for a monstrous feeling.”
But Anna cannot linger in the animal kingdom long. Much like her earlier novel, The Employees, one of Ravn’s main subjects here is also labor and consumerism—or as the book refers to it, work. Throughout the book Anna struggles with the desire to make difficult art, almost ashamed of it. “Life,” she thinks, “was hard enough as it was, there was no reason for inaccessible art.” But Anna also finds that the experience of being a writer and raising a child are so deeply incompatible that the writing needs, as she puts it, a new form. “So she kept on breaking the forms, even though it wasn’t destruction she sought … no available form could contain her.” Anna is writing her book in many forms, but the work of motherhood constantly intrudes. “When Marx wrote that work should be outsourced to machines so the worker could instead write poetry in the morning, who did he imagine changed the diapers?”
Since the work must be extraordinary—despite the circumstances in which it is produced—Anna seeks comfort in consumerism instead. But even here she is thwarted by her own anxieties. “Voluminous hair, a signature perfume, a beautiful tan, sly skin, and eye-catching makeup,” Ravn writes. “The world is full of products to pamper yourself with. But these products may contain toxic chemicals that are hazardous for the environment and for you and your child's health.” Anna’s worries about the child have screwed up her attempts to separate herself from the child.
And indeed, it is during these interrogations that Ravn’s book displays its greatest power. She writes to her other self, attempts to kill her other self. The aspects of mother, of intellectual, of wife—they take on nearly physical form under Ravn’s lens. Anna becomes a sort of holy trinity, selves scattered and desperately trying to come together again, or to jettison each other for good. “When a mother gives birth to her child,” writes Ravn, “something radical happens to her…she could neither be with nor without the child and also be Anna.” The self is forever split, and the new creature that emerges must be renamed, their relationship with the world renegotiated. And for Anna, who has always been split from herself in another way by her depression and anxiety, this task is both more familiar and yet also more fraught than it is for others.
At times, the societal and political polemics become banal; though it’s clear Ravn means these observations to be Anna’s. But including them here may be an intentional banality, another facet of mothering and work where we are forced to have the same conversations about who does the work, over and over, with only the echo chamber of our peers and the inability to be heard outside it.
In the end, Anna ends up needing to fracture herself to accommodate these new forms of storytelling, because the work of being a mother and a writer does require reinvention. And in that way, Ravn has created a truly unique project which is not so much a story as it is an accumulation. It is all the selves, shed and grown, that mothers and birthing people encounter in the slippery aftermath of childbirth; it is the documentation of the mother/art monster problem, a problem that in Ravn’s telling, is as much about addition as it is subtraction.