From the author of Blackfishing the IUD, a darkly hilarious novel about familial trauma, chronic illness, academic labor, and contemporary art.
In the tradition of Rabelais, Swift, and Fran Ross—the tradition of biting satire that joyfully embraces the strange and fantastical—and drawing upon documentary strategies from Sheila Heti, Caren Beilin offers a tale of familial trauma that is also a broadly inclusive skewering of academia, the medical industry, and the contemporary art scene.
One day Iris, an adjunct at a city arts college, receives a terrible package: recently unearthed letters that her father had written to her in her teens, in which he blames her for their family’s crises. Driven by the raw fact of receiving these devastating letters not once but twice in a lifetime, and in a panic of chronic pain brought on by rheumatoid arthritis, Iris escapes to the countryside—or some absurdist version of it. Nazi cows, Picassos used as tampons, and a pair of arthritic feet that speak in the voices of Flaubert’s Bouvard and Pécuchet are standard fare in this beguiling novel of odd characters, surprising circumstances, and intuitive leaps, all brought together in profoundly serious ways.
The explosive latest from Beilin (after the memoir Blackfishing the IUD) is at once a multilayered satire and an earnest depiction of personal pain and loss. Thirty-six-year-old Iris, an adjunct professor at an art school in Philadelphia, receives a package from her estranged father containing letters he wrote her while she was a teenager, in which he blames her for the family's many troubles. Re-traumatized by receiving these letters and suffering from rheumatoid arthritis so intense the pain speaks to her ("When you are the scapegoat in your family, your body becomes your family. When you get sick, your body begins talking to you, too"), Iris leaves her house and her drug-addled husband, taking off in a friend's sputtering old Subaru. She ends up in New England with a job as a cowherd at a rural museum where the cows were shipped over from the site of a German concentration camp. It's a world of art and artifice, where the museum's husband-murdering benefactor also lives on site. Meanwhile, Iris attempts to forge an understanding of her historic role as the family scapegoat. The author lands on an infectious and perfect blend of cultural criticism, wry writing advice ("Don't bother writing a character since people change"), and magnificently weird storytelling. Belin's account of reemergence manages to be both hilarious and deeply moving.