This month’s books newsletter is a bodily affair. In an interview with Laura Barcella about her new book Dead Blondes and Bad Mothers, Sady Doyle discusses the body horror of womanhood: “reproductive horrors,” of course, and “the horror of being in a body so heavily controlled, penalized, and stigmatized,” naturally, but also the horror of violence against women; the grim spectacle of dead American wives piling up like soldiers:
I return over and over to the metaphor of war. We’re allowed to say that war is hell, but what does it mean when we lose fewer U.S. soldiers between 2000 and 2012 than women killed by their own husbands?
Whereas in her interview with Jonny Auping about Savage Appetites, Rachel Monroe presents an inverted vision of dead women: “so many of the murders that we consume in media — the murders that make up the bulk of our cultural imagination — are with female victims,” she says. However,
I ask people, “What percentage of murder is a male perpetrator and a female victim?” People invariably say 70 percent or 80 percent. It’s actually 25 percent. That’s shocking to a lot of people because so many of the murders that we consume in media…are with female victims.
Seen through this prism, our obsession with female death is politically out of joint. But that’s exactly Monroe’s point: women’s deaths — a specific kind of young, white woman’s death, that is — are depoliticized, and thus more easily consumable as media. Which actually does end up tying in neatly to Doyle’s thinking; in Dead Blondes, she analyzes how women are made monstrous in the cultural imagination — specifically she focuses on horror films — because of all the monstrous things that are done to them in real life. This kind of state of exception that swirls around the subject of women and death, in both authors’ view, seems to breed a unique sort of narrative monstrosity that bleeds back into real life. In fact, Monroe’s book, rather than focusing on horror films, centers around four women who have developed an obsessive relationship with true crime and murder.
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Bodies, of course, don’t just belong to the dead. In her review of two recent novels — Ocean Vuong’s On Earth We’re Briefly Gorgeous and Nicole Dennis-Benn’s Patsy — Morgan Jerkins writes, regarding the mother and son at the center of Vuong’s novel, that “survival, the physical endurance of their bodies, is what binds them no matter where their family settles.” The body becomes a very particular site of meaning for young people affected by migration and displacement — and for the literature of migration:
Survival is a steady theme throughout immigrant literature, but what is most striking in Vuong and Dennis-Benn’s work is that they concentrate on the intimacy of their subjects without bombarding the reader with cold and calcified historical detail; instead, we learn about their countries’ histories — and about the consequences of the characters’ movement across vast spaces — through the living, breathing reality of the protagonists’ bodies.
And not all bodies are the same. There are sick bodies and bodies with disabilities, both of which require their inhabitants to navigate different landscapes than the ones encountered by healthy or abled people. Anne Boyer talks about being a body circulated through space by the logic of cancer capitalism in an excerpt from her memoir-in-essays The Undying; Keah Brown talks about her committed loving relationships (and brief flings) with the chairs in her life in an essay from The Pretty One; and in an interview with Naomi Elias about her memoir I’m Telling the Truth But I’m Lying, Bassey Ikpi describes the different approach she had to take to writing about her memories since Bipolar II had affected how she experienced own life: there were periods where “I just didn’t feel connected to myself, where I didn’t feel like I was in my own body.”
In all this body-talk, I can’t believe I haven’t even touched yet on Erik Davis’ High Weirdness! It’s a deep dive into the strange experiences of the psychonauts — those fabled far-out white guys of the early seventies who took a lot of drugs, got into the occult, and connected with a higher being. As Terrence McKenna wrote regarding an incident involving his brother Dennis during the famous Experiment at La Chorrera,
Dennis gave forth, for a few seconds, a very machine-like, loud, dry buzz, during which his body became stiff. After a moment’s silence, he broke into a frightened series of excited questions. “What happened?” and, most memorably, “I don’t want to become a giant insect!”
There are all types of bodies to inhabit in the world: sick and ill, placed and displaced, about to turn into an insect or not, etc. May you and your body go on to read many good books this month!