The Book of X

Saturday, 22 February 2020

Sarah Rose Etter's Book of X has a serious body image complex. 

In this gore, inverted world where meat is mined from the ground like goldthe unmet need for love and connection is a physical condition. Cassie, our narrator, was born with her stomach in a knot. Throughout the novel, she struggles with intimacy and self-acceptance because of this. The touch of her mother is a rare occurrence. Her affairs, loveless. And every night, she sucks on a rock in hopes of waking up with a flat, unknotted stomach.

Cassie feels that bodies, as a whole, are a burden in her relationships. They stand in the way of telling her brother she loves him,

“In the low, low light, across the table, I love him. I want to say it, but it gets trapped in my throat, a motionless red lump, worthless as a heart. ” 

of getting to know her mother,

“I reach over and touch her hand. She squeezes mine and we both let out small awkward laughs. It is easier, at time, to touch her rather than to know her. ” 

while sex, the most intimate of acts, is this thing she can put on auto-pilot,

“Once I caress his neck, there is a quick cut to the apartment. ” 

While reading The Book of X, I thought of the knotted stomach as a manifestation of anxiety and eating disorders and the meat farm as a literal representation of the biblical phrase “all flesh is grass”. How 'spirit of the times' it is to have such a book obsessed with the idea of living in the abstract. It reminds me of a remark Zadie Smith made about writers of our digital age:

“How many times in these books the character, usually in the first person, will say – something emotional will have happened – and instead of responding, either in the narrative, or vocally, as you would in a ‘traditional novel,’ the character will pinch a bit of their skin until it bleeds, or do this, or hold their jaw. It’s so strange.  … As if the body was a dissociated thing, you know? … They don’t have…the idea of verbalizing an emotion is quite distant. And the body is treated like this strange thing you have to drag around, after you’ve finished your text messages, and emails, your virtual life. Like, why have I got this flesh bucket that I’m carrying around? ”

      Zadie Smith. Louisiana Channel

A small tooth to pick: the pared-down story-world seems so obviously chosen to hide the stitches of a debut. The rural setting and small cast of characters feel more like cardboard-landscape than real places and people. The detached, chain-smoking mother seems cut out of an archetype handbook, the isolated farm cut out from Grant Wood’s American Gothic, white house, red barn. And haven't I met this barefooted Wolf child before? She was running unsupervised in The Art of TaxidermyThe Faerie Devouring and Le Vertige des Falaises last time. 

Overall, however, I found The Book of X charming and thought-provoking and plan to read more books from the same author and press. 

Cover art: Chantal BonnevilleTraitée inutilement avec un noeud. 2019. Private collection.

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