Rachel Levy - 'A Book So Red'’s linguistic singularities, formal contractions, and world comprised of the existential non-sequitur coalesce into an astonishing aesthetic teratoid: the vacuum-packed denarration
Rachel Levy, A Book So Red, Caketrain 2015.
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“A Book So Red’s linguistic singularities, formal contractions, and world comprised of the existential non-sequitur coalesce into an astonishing aesthetic teratoid: the vacuum-packed denarration. The narrator’s skewed, oblique, and painful relationships teach us the only real comedy is the sound of laughter in the dark all the way down.” - Lance Olsen
“Rachel Levy is a wizard—gory, tender and wickedly funny.” - Noy Holland
“It’s as if Rachel Levy put the carcass of the novel on the butcher block: choice language cutlets remain.” - Sara Levine
“Heartbreaking, horrifying, beautiful and ugly, the narrator of Rachel Levy’s A Book So Red explores her world from the inside out with the precision of a mapmaker. From Munich to an American farm to Berlin and through a cast of characters, the one constant is her miraculous and astonishing voice.” -
“Rachel Levy, here in what might at first appear to be a pint-sized collection of fractured miniatures, offers us instead heaving-with-feeling fictions that are elliptical and driven by suggestion, though what is most fully and singularly revealed here is a world where much is said—too much, this too might be true—so that what is left unsaid, what the speaker chooses to tell just us—her listeners in this sequence of most private tellings—takes on the heft of a bedside confession.” - Peter Markus
The best metafiction tells story as competently as it supplies the usual imperatives to reconsider the act of reading fiction (by which I mean, what that act is good for, if anything) and the ideological ramifications (political, aesthetic, and so on) of certain modes of literary representation. Rather than confine herself to mixing a new bag of old tricks or verbalizing a schematic diagram of how the old tricks work, the author devises a middle way, combining traditional storytelling elements with fresh self-awareness, reaching for a new genre of storytelling or rhetoric when the one in use loses its edge. In other words, the best metafiction says no to nothing but instead remains open to everything.
Some recent examples I know include Susan Steinberg’s Spectacle, Amber Sparks’s May We Shed These Human Bodies, Gabriel Blackwell’s The Natural Dissolution of Fleeting-Improvised Men, Joanna Ruocco’s Another Governess/Least Blacksmith: A Diptych, Blake Butler’s There is No Year, and Tim Horvath’s Understories. I am not attempting to form a “best of” list (my reading is nowhere near up-to-date) or to be exclusive but to give a sense of the kind of fiction I mean, fiction where story mixes freely with narratorial self-study.
Rachel Levy’s very short, sad, and funny novel A Book So Red (Caketrain 2015, Paper) is another example. As a novel, the object looks and feels light, presenting about a hundred pages and perhaps ten thousand words. Further challenging formal expectations is the book’s narrative organization into seventy-eight brief chapters, some as short as half a page. The writing, frequently dialogic, is parceled into discrete episodes that occur chronologically, though these episodes are themselves grouped into (roughly) four larger sections, which are neither titled nor marked off by breaks but signaled by shifts in setting, character, and storytelling. The book’s conflicts and comic set pieces dramatize this same problem of formal expectation. The novel opens with the nameless first person narrator attempting to romance a recently divorced man (named, it turns out fatefully, Horst) who responds by articulating his disappointment and irritation with the narrator’s supposed inadequacy as a woman. While Levy plays this arrangement for laughs (Horst’s first words, about his recent divorce settlement, reveal a bloodless and unimaginative vision of life: “I have taken her ostrich”), she makes it clear that the imbalance in their partnership favors Horst (a bar late in novel, perhaps representative of the wider world, “bustle[s] with Horst-like men”). Horst may prove a selfish and cold-hearted lover with an emotional dependency on a nasty little lapdog, but it is the narrator who endures loneliness, unsatisfying sex, frequent insults and snubs, a lost foot (this is, among other things, a portrait of a fallen woman), and finally banishment.
Subsequent sections take place on a farm where the narrator’s father maintains a chilly distance from his daughter; a country estate where the point of view and storytelling shift to somewhat destabilizing third person fable of chambermaid violently taking her lady’s place (is the narrator this chambermaid? is she an imposter on this count, too?) and where Horst lies ailing after an accident; and finally Berlin, where the narrator feels old and unwanted (“Soon I would die and leave no sexual partners to mourn the loss of me”) and finds short-lived hope in a relationship with a woman named Mitzi. Having embarked on this journey toward the next disappointment, the narrator describes what will be a doomed attempt at eating a holiday cookie:
In the beginning I tried to eat a human-shaped cookie left out on a plate. There were three circles of icing between the face and the groin. I started at the bottom so I could eat the head last. That way it could experience everything. (109)
This comical and unsettling image pulls together much of the foregoing material. It suggests the pain of loss (seriocomically, for the cookie) and the pleasure of sweet spots (for its eater), which reflects the narrator’s arrangement with Horst. But the metaphor is more complex than that, as anyone with a body and sharp eyes has by now noticed: the erotic language of second sentence suggests the three most prominent erogenous zones on the female body between groin and head, which, when “eaten,” deliver pleasure to the female body as well as giving excitement to the owner of the operative mouth. Also contradicting any supposition that the eater will claim all the pleasure are the prepositional phrase and subsequent noun-predicate combination that open the paragraph: one senses eating will be work for the narrator. The act of eating, in any sense of the word, requires effort. Any act of eating will require an encounter of resistance. The act of eating cannot exist without the state, for something, of being eaten.
Perhaps, then, it would prove useful to consider eating-and-being-eaten as a single phenomenon: one cannot exist without the other. The same might go for taking-and-being-taken-from, as well as for writing-and-being-read. In all of the above, a two-way exchange of pain and pleasure maintains. Further, the processes above have the effect of disorganizing states or quantities. One moves food; another possessions; the other meaning. The baker cannot put back the flour and sugar the customer has chewed up and digested; the robbed cannot generally reclaim what has been taken; nor can a writer or storyteller restore the first arrangement of unread written material after a reader has made new sense out of it. Like anything else in life, writing depends on a transactional counterpart for its existence. In this world, it seems, one must not only eat or be eaten: one must eat while being eaten. One hopes to outlast the others, or to at least enjoy a lion’s share.
The cookie image is charged with this meaning by, among other things, a description from earlier in the novel–one in the chapter sharing the novel’s title–in which the narrator’s father refers to the stomach of a slaughtered bull as “[t]he book… When he slit open the stomach, the folds fell apart like pages.” This description calls the reader’s attention back to novel’s unusual formatting, its composition of many short chapters. The reader becomes aware of the text as the cuts of the butchered (sometimes literally) narrator; the reader sees a novel or story as the butchering of life-experience, the cruel necessity of the trimming away of certain parts; perhaps the novel (this is a book so read, after all, using such literary materials as fairy tale images, proverbs, the fallen woman figure, and the marriage plot) has been in need of a good butchering. Beyond the formal issue, there is the matter of interpreting or making sense of any free-standing being or thing as an act of butchering. We cut people to bits to make stories of them; we do the same thing to ourselves, choosing what to tell and what to omit. This book, whether imagined as a series of cuts or bites, presents a character, itself an artificial band of consciousness, as more accurately imagined as a frequently broken and crooked line as opposed to a continuous straight one. Turns out the self is a kind of fiction, too.
***A Book So Red asks to be read as much a platter of the most select cuts as it does an account of a woman’s undoing by (sometimes sexual) takers (though, yes, uptight male reader, she is a taker, too, just like everyone). A consequence of this formal execution is the invitation to read the book as one wishes to, just as one might be invited to act as one wishes on another’s body in certain kinds of romantic relationships–especially those in which women might be considered a kind of chattel (however consciously or publicly). Making the text a dare to be bad reader is, I think, a gambit that succeeds for Levy in the end. The reader reading this book takes measure of its narrator’s suffering, and in taking measure, looks for what she has overlooked: all the losses this story leaves out, all the slings and arrows a ravaged storyteller–who might be anyone–never even bothers to remember, never supposing a reader–or a listener–might ever care to know. This novel is not merely a book about fiction but a challenge to listen, to look, and to read more closely. - Hugh Sheehy
There are many ways to go about breaking realism; perhaps to get it where it would most feel it — the bitterest of cuts — would be in its marriage plot; that’s one of its major guts! Rachel Levy, in A Book So Red, lays this gut out on a barn floor and gives it 88 new notches, one for each page of this short but powerful novel.
Literary critic Naomi Schor defines realism (particularly in the 19th century) as “a representational mode wedded to the marriage plot and the binding of female energy.” To rewind, Descartes wrote, “I think, therefore I am” — Cogito ergo sum — in 1637. This is logic that invests in the contained and progressing consciousness of an “I,” and it also implies that language can represent experience. Seemingly seamlessly, ergo the oily tentacle. Though Barthes warns, “[T]here is no antipathy between realism and myth.” Myth being intrinsic to these representations — myth being problematic, to say the least, for Barthes, in its oily simplicities, its pretense of natural order. Marriage being full of this pretense, presented often as a completion of the plot, end to all confusion, the completion of people. You complete me. What is at stake? Our enjoyment of complexity, opacity, difference, different lives, lesbianism . . .
A Book So Red begins with divorce — “We were in Munich, celebrating his divorce.” The speaker interacts, in a series of short exchanges, with a male-pronouned thing who later becomes the name “Horst.” They dialogue in brief bursts — the pages fly — about divorce, about damp sausages and the brightness of Germany’s sun, though as these conversations proceed they are interrupted by new names — the appearance of things like “Bethany,” and “Lizbethitis”—“because she was one who begged for a cure.” Speaker plus Horst cannot complete anything. They put each other down. They think about other things. They aren’t in causal communion. Levy’s rhythm is one of undercutting, and what she undercuts most is the ergo, the smooth logic of realism (she does this manually, with blunt negation):
It’s called a penis.The speaker hopes Horst will come with to Auschwitz — “‘You know what?’ I said. ‘We have so much in common. I’ve never been to Auschwitz. You’ve never been to Auschwitz. Let’s go together!’” What to make of this desire? This interest reads actually as earnest: “To Auschwitz: would he come?” It is the I-thou-iest question. In a book that takes things and cuts them with such constant ferocity, levity, and delight, this desire sounds real — Will you come with me to Auschwitz? Can we share in this sign of total obliteration? Will we together understand the world as gone (The world is gone, I must carry you, Paul Celan)? Hope in co-mourning, in co-horror, I want to touch you through Auschwitz, through this end.
It was hard. I had no idea it was there.
“I’m coming,” he said, and it had nothing to do with me.
The “I” constantly triangulating its desire . . .
Love was painful: a stapled nipple.Levy torques, tortures, cliché — “I have so much to give,” like a line unspooled by machine from a bachelorette on television, now fucked in its pronoun, something we give, this love, staple and I, I and thou staple, to Horst. Changing the automatic language of cliché, of rote representation, of reality television, changes — explodes, opens — the possibilities for desire. Desire expands, complicates (to staples, to other women) when you fuck with clichés.
Love was tender: a warm washcloth to the nipple.
Love was generous, and we had so much to give to Horst. We had so much to share with Horst, the staple and I.
Levy’s style harkens back in content and in form to Flaubert, for whom there is always something else, outré-desire, outré-horror, très-Bataille, on the outskirts of plot, Madame Bovary’s marriage plot — but then, he does inskirt these things with meticulous clausal insertion. Surgeon. In this example, Flaubert paints a scene of pastoral charm, only to inskirt this oozing shit:
Rouault must be one of the well-to-do farmers. There was with him only his daughter, who helped him to keep house. In the stables, over the top of the open doors, one could see great cart-horses quietly feeding from new racks. Right along the outbuildings extended a large dunghill, from which manure liquid oozed, while amidst fowls and turkeys, five or six peacocks, a luxury in Chauchois farmyards, were foraging on the top of it.This paratactic mixture of manure and peacocks undercuts F’s theme of a pastoral romance. He slices some shit into his plot, if to fuel then also to soil, to foil, the desire. The middle of A Book So Red extends a series of farm fragments involving, like Madame Bovary, a farmer’s daughter who is ripe for marriage, as was Emma: “I want to be clear. I was raised on a dairy farm. I was old enough to marry. At nightfall, Father gave me a mug of warm milk.” Where F performs the adulterous content of his text with sentences that also philander, clauses unbeholden to each other, tones akimbo, L undercuts the marriage plot with other, extremely otherous, content. Her farmgirl does not advance in romance but toils in thoughts of the Holocaust:
cat·tle, n. Property.A Book So Red evades capture by marriage and divorce plots, both, both of which are traps, false choices — (“First capsize the bathtub. Then, as if trapping a beetle beneath a cup, place the tub directly over the marriage bed.”) — landing perhaps on an out, a lesbian partnership — “And then there was a woman.” But this, too, is unstable — the love, like any word, slips, triangulates, activates something altogether else: a staple, a shoe, a glass, an emberous nub of lipstick. I find this text hopeful, as hopeful as its visit to Auschwitz. Hopeful in what it acknowledges is gone, and if it evades old modes, in what it evades towards — often to sound and texture, a writing that is alive to the slowness, the a-romantic ardor, of its objects, a stew “held to bright chunks of carrot like aromatic glue,” a realism flayed — manually, with guts — of its many myths. - Caren Beilin
deer, n. Woodland animal.
The God of Adam cleaved deer and cattle, forest and farm. He is a deer let loose, he gives us our words. The herds of cattle are perplexed! He makes my feet like the feet of the deer and sets me on high places. He was driven away from men and fed grass like cattle.
I practiced good penmanship.
The Yiddish word for “deer” is “hirsh.” The men of that name were fated as cattle, corralled, slaughtered.
It was impossible to be precise.
But one must choose a side. I must choose.
The lightning-quick flash fictions that make up Rachel Levy’s A Book So Red read like skin blistering: before you become aware of your delicious discomfort in such daring prose, there’s a bubble, erupting. Each section ends, leaving you a little sore, perhaps wishing for someone to hold your hand. Readers of Levy’s work are dazzled and humbled, made aware that life has more bite than we’ve acknowledged. This writer teaches us that, as one of her characters accuses another, we are bad tourists—we are reticent, and not nearly so capable of swallowing a stapled nipple, a beheaded horse, a dismembered, plastic foot, as Levy herself is in her lacerating sentences and knife-like forms.
It was impossible to be precise.
But one must choose a side. I must choose,Levy writes. And she delivers; she chooses snippets of the most unsettling paroxysms, the most cutting images. She borrows from the conventions of fairy tales, 19th century marriage plots, and the spare realism of the late twentieth century—and ultimately overturns each of those forms, proving them insufficient for our time, capable only of partial truths. Levy’s own language is one that says partiality is truth; language is the only through-line. And she offers us language unfettered by fear or stupidity or the need to comfort or explain:
Some people move like they’re hugging the ground. They are bent at the waist, or they drag their bellies in the dirt.
What are they?
A. buckling beneath the weight of an outrageous labor
B. concealing a weapon.This is the bed-time story your mother would have told were she as able to live within misery as Levy’s narrator, as unapologetic to admit: “I used to believe in the wholeness of things.” But the wholeness of things, be they narratives or characters or histories or relationships, Levy insists, is a myth we can no longer afford, a position none of us should be obsequious enough to take up. This is a bed-time story for the initiated and the unafraid among us, a bed-time story we can confront only when we are quite certain of our aloneness.
All the solace Levy has to offer is this: if we pay endless attention, if we give to our experience all the scrutiny it deserves, perhaps, in a lifetime, we too can generate a language to mediate it. Perhaps, we too can learn the resounding truth that:
Some wounds are best left untreated.
Some daggers should remain in the flesh, for removing them would serve only to drain the patient of blood. - Jaclyn Watterson