This month, I’ve been devouring San Francisco writer Rita Bullwinkel’s Belly Up. This short story collection is like a house with many stupendous rooms built from spare sentences and subtle obsessions that spiral into the best kinds of existential questions.
The result is a strange and masterful collection with a patina of what I would call dark humor, were it not so otherworldly. One woman tries to halve herself into two identities; a boy heeds the impulse to test the limits of his body; an employee at a fancy furniture showroom corresponds with an inmate about a house from his imagination; and another woman saves her hair in jars to see if she can document grief.
Belly Up is definitely your next read. Bullwinkel and I corresponded about her influences, the alluring strangeness of the body and the limiting power of symbols.
To begin, I wondered about your process. How did this book of stories come together?
In 2014, I began to realize that nearly all of my writing was circling some of the same things. I wonder, Ingrid, if you too have felt this strange feeling? It happens in large and small ways in people's writing. For instance, I appear to be smitten with grocery store lighting, as many of my characters find themselves in grocery stores, and quite like it there. But it happens thematically, too. Belly Up has many ghosts and many couples eating. The boundary between death and life is often unclear. And so, in 2014, when I realized that many of my stories were circling some of the same things, it was then I knew that I had a book.
I have a close friend, who is also a writer, whose characters always seem, to her dismay, to find beetles in their houses. And James Wood, in his wonderful book, How Fiction Works, notes that Cormac McCarthy, three times, all in separate books, describes the image of blood filling up boots. Do you have these small and large things you've only later realized you are circling, Ingrid?
I do. I find I circle around the possibility of unheard voices, unseen things or unheeded messages. Curtains too! I think I once watched as a curtain filled up with wind and it left me with an unshakeable feeling about my own temporality. What are some of your influences, either of the visual experiential type or the literary kind?
I lived with a dancer for five years, who danced for the Metropolitan Opera. She danced for other people, too, including a choreographer named Shen Wei, with whom she did an installation in the New York Armory. My favorite piece she performed in was Nico Muhly's Two Boys. It got mixed reviews by critics, but it was brilliant. It was about two young boys falling in love over instant messenger. My roommate's role was to embody, with a large group of dancers, the physical feeling of the Internet. It was amazing watching her weave in and out of the characters like mold or steam. I'm not sure if I am influenced by this performance, but I certainly enjoyed it, which is how I feel about my favorite authors, and the books I keep returning to to reread.
I was struck by the routine, delicious surrealism of your stories. In Belly Up you give a lot of attention to personhood and the question of the body: can personhood be halved? Can it be made whole by another? Can it be cheapened and become furniture? Can the body document grief? They're mesmerizing questions. What do you think it is about the body that draws you to write about it?
I find the experience of having a body to be supremely bizarre. I think this is partly because I am a woman, and women are continually asked to account for, and be defined by, their human forms. Women walk through the world having their gender continually thrown at them. Sometimes I feel as if all the world is saying to me is, "Woman, woman, woman." This feeling is intensely present when one is yelled at on the street, but it does also happen in conversation, which can be even more dismaying, because you've already committed to talking to the person who is dismaying you, and it is very disappointing to try and engage with a person, and a person with whom you hoped to have a good conversation, and then discover that all they have to say to you is, "Woman, woman, woman." However, I do think that having a body, regardless of the gender people assign to you, is a universally clunky and strange thing with which to reckon. The limitations are so great and so infinite. I think athletes also feel this. There is truly a very small spectrum of things we can do with our human forms.
As a girl, too, what you know about your body can be so gory—you hear that at some point you will shed your insides and bleed them out, that at a later time you might be able to grow baby bones inside the darkness of your own belly. I also have to ask you about “Black Tongue.” This one’s a story where a young boy puts his tongue into an electric outlet. It is not often that I am riveted and glued to a story while simultaneously having to hide from it and read through the crevices of my fingers. Your imagery in this story is so stomach-turning, but so expertly conceived—I was repelled, fascinated and couldn't get enough. You write about a mystifying human desire in this one—the impulse to hurt oneself or to ruin the body. What led you to that idea in particular?
I was a very serious athlete for a large portion of my life, which was immensely destructive to my body. I don't think "Black Tongue" is about the impulse to hurt oneself. I think it's about testing the limits of what a body can withstand. Children do this often. We are all doing it in small ways all of the time. There is an ecstasy in pushing your body to the limit of something. I recently went swimming in the San Francisco Bay, with the beautiful poet and essayist Kate Greene. Swimming in forty degree water was painful, in many ways, but it was also electrifying. It was delightful to genuinely not know for how long my body could endure the cold. You know that feeling of when you're arm goes to sleep because your lover is laying on it? And you can see your arm moving on the other side of your lover, but you can't feel it? That's what swimming in the winter San Francisco Bay, sans wetsuit, felt like. I could see my arms and my legs moving, but it felt like they were asleep.
The strangeness of seeing your own body move while it is numb to you is the kind of observation this book is built on, and one of my favorite things about reading this work. I loved your story "Arms Overhead," where two young girls have an academically rigorous and yet childlike discussion about their desire to be plants. Many of your characters navigate their realities via structures of symbols, sometimes seeking to become them. Do you feel that inhabiting a symbol is a way to achieve freedom from the body?
I think so. I think it is one avenue out. It's so hard in fiction. Everyone is a symbol of something. Or their desires are symbols of refracted, mirror desires from real life that only exist in the author's mind. I think it can be comforting to be a symbol, but also limiting. I am thinking of the maiden, mother, crone symbols, as particularly unfortunate symbols to be forced into inhabiting. I'd much father be forced to inhabit the symbol of the fool. But fools in literature, are almost always men. Where are our foolish women? We need a VIDA count for women fools.
I completely agree. Perhaps this is a void we can write into! I was also very excited to see Taryn Simon in the acknowledgments! She's one of my favorite artists. I saw her photo exhibit A Living Man Declared Dead and Other Chapters in New York—it is a work where Simon maps bloodlines and their related stories to a degree that I would call high literature. I'm so curious to know, is she an influence?
I am thrilled to learn that you, too, are an admirer of Taryn Simon's! I think she is one of our most brilliant living artists. I, too, first discovered her work form the A Living Man Declared Dead and Other Chapters show at the New York MOMA. I also believe her work to be high literature. I think that show could have been, or is in fact, a collection of stories. I am usually very suspect of work that makes use of text. Language can be a crutch for visual artists, something they employ to fill in the gaps of where their images are deficient, but this is completely the opposite with Simon's images. In Simon's work, the text is inextricable from the image. The sterility of her language, combined with the juxtaposition of her startling, beautiful images, elicits a profound emotional reaction from me.
My favorite aspect of her work is her presentation of life as both mundane and extraordinary. You experience her work as a routine grid of data, but as you look closer, you are surprised by infinitely arresting details and you can never look away. I have similar feelings when reading your work.
Your drawing of this parallel is a huge gift to me! Thank you.
Rita Bullwinkel reads from Belly Up on June 13 at E.M. Wolfman Books in Oakland. Details here.
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