There’s always a sense of playing catch-up when reading a prolific author’s most recent work without having read any of their previous books. In the case of Dodie Bellamy, who is known as one of the originators of the New Narrative movement that grew out of the experimental writing community in ‘70s San Francisco, she is often cited by other writers I’ve admired as an example of writing that breaks down conventions of propriety, structure, and narrative.
Because of Bellamy’s position outside of the mainstream, big-publisher circuit, her books are hard to come by in Malaysia. As such, a chance to review her latest book, a collection of essays titled When the Sick Rule the World was an opportunity that I did not want to miss.
“A collection of essays” is far from an accurate description, it must be said. If one of the tenets of New Narrative was to eliminate, as much as possible, the omniscient or at the very least objective narrative voice, then Bellamy’s works in this collection can be described as a meld of memoir, prose poetry, fever dream stream-of-consciousness writing, and the traditional essay form. This is an attempt to get the “I” of the author into central position while also attempting a form of direct communication with the reader. From the opening essay, “Whistle While You Dixie”, Bellamy establishes a warm rapport with her audience; the feeling is akin to listening to her speak at the kitchen table over mugs of warm tea.
The opening essay investigates class and gender politics by way of Disney’s Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs and memories of her sexual dalliances with a younger boy during her hitchhiking experiences in 1974. Her description of her evaluation of him—“I took in his cuteness the way I’d take in a cat’s or chihuahua’s”—jars with her inexplicable desire to have him: “My upper mouth is saying no, but my nether mouth is moaning boy meat ... yes ... yes ... now.”
Earlier on in the essay, she talks about Billy Currington’s “You Ain’t Just Whistling Dixie” and the pull of the song’s fantasy that by-passes the Southern tradition of slavery and gender oppression. As Bellamy explains, “Despite my resistance, I feel a pervy twinge of wanting the wrong thing.” This opening essay is an investigation into the structures of desire and pop culture fantasies; that despite knowledge of its complicity in oppression, people often feel a “pervy twinge of wanting the wrong thing”. Whether or not this pervy twinge of desire is built into the fantasies it’s meant to evoke is left to the reader to puzzle out.
Bellamy’s pieces in this book are written in a droll, witty narrative voice that do not attempt to make sense of the conditions its various narrators and interlocutors find themselves in. The fractured narrative of the title essay, for example, reads like poetry, especially the opening passage, which Bellamy describes as “the wall of questions” she has to deal with when seeing a naturopath. By the end of the essay, the reader senses that Bellamy’s tongue is firmly in cheek—so much of life under capitalism has made vast numbers of the population sick and “unfit for living”—but perhaps it is how things are structured under capitalism that are unfit for life. “When the sick rule the world mortality will be sexy”, Bellamy writes, a manifesto for the sick and the dying that we know will never materialise under present conditions.
From talking about her mother’s death and the process of grieving via a wide-ranging and thoroughly engrossing meditation on E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial to writing about the inclusiveness of The Feminist Writers’ Guild, which Bellamy was a part of for a brief period, Bellamy is often erratic, stubborn, inquisitive, and witty in her prose writing. The result is often endearing, and much like the pull of a really good pop song, it’s hard not to get sucked in.
Reading certain essays, like the homage to Kathy Acker, seems to be required of any modern white American female writer these days, and in that spirit the final long essay on Twitter’s corporate presence in San Francisco and its resulting gentrification, is often cringe-worthy, laying bare the author’s insularity via the structures of North American white privilege that mediate her experiences. This is made even more glaring by her constant self-deprecating references to a bourgeois lifestyle. In “July 4, 2011”, for example, wherein political criticism of American-led imperialist wars (though she doesn’t refer to them as such) are interrupted by asides of her memories of being fucked by a Vietnam vet boyfriend.
Perhaps there’s something to be gleaned from this honesty, as Bellamy admits that “my Vietnam vet boyfriend was very sexy, and he fucked with an abandon I have not experienced before or since, I was addicted to fucking him”, which is perhaps a circuitous way of exploring liberal America’s obsession with pleasure and sensation over other things. If an American can’t talk honestly about what her country has done abroad in the name of American values without fondly recalling memorable orgasms, maybe that’s the commentary on American society.
In “In the Shadow of Twitter Towers”, Bellamy talks about a man on the street in flannel pyjamas about whom, she acknowleges, she “thinks meanly” to go put on some proper clothes. She then describes how he shakes out a blanket to make a bed for himself on the street, but also gestures and shouts at an unseen someone. She writes, “It’s not the flannelled guy who frightens me so much as the bleakness of an alley at night—it makes me feel like Alice in Jacques Tourneur’s Cat People, the click of her heels against the soundstage sidewalk quickening as the unseen pursues.”
What exactly is the unseen here that Bellamy is afraid of, after a passage spent describing a homeless man behaving oddly? It’s not a moralistic judgment that one should never be afraid of a homeless person, especially a woman out on her own at night on an empty street. Rather, it’s more about the impulse to aestheticise this fear of the underclass by referencing a movie and rendering the personal experience as an abstraction, even though part of Bellamy’s aesthetic programme is presumably to be honest and eschew what she has referred to as “deadening” sophistication.
There’s a subtle dishonesty at work here, through fractured narrative and stream-of-consciousness theoretical gestures. At the very least, it’s a pretty weird move. “Art lies”, Bellamy reminds us, but to what end?
Bellamy references a hard, working-class childhood and growing up within a white supremacist milieu, factors of her life that she is perhaps trying to come to terms with through her art and writing. For non-white, non-American readers, however, the reading experience might not be as mind-blowing as Bellamy’s writing project is often made out to be in the positive reviews of this book by American critics and reviewers. What this kind of writing is meant to achieve is hard to figure out. Perhaps, in the tradition of much that is considered the cultural domain of propertied North American and Western European white artists—conceptual poetry, avant-garde or experimental writing, for example—it simply exists as art, and should be evaluated as such.
However, if the author insists on inserting herself into the text, as New Narrative is all about, then it also becomes an issue of the particular gaze of a particular white artist in a moment in time. Along with that recognition comes the difficulty of acknowledging that spending time within that author’s particular gaze—seeing the world as she sees it—is not as exhilarating or meaningful as many positive reviews of this book by fellow Americans would have you believe.
Although the New Narrative movement was “new” when it began, its repetitive gestures via Bellamy’s work feel a lot like the self-satisfied writing that litters the online landscape by writers who claim to want to “tell it like it is” by rehashing dominant, hegemonic perspectives. These writers are often funny and smart and perhaps conceptually brilliant, taking risks with form and structure.
However, the kind of writing produced by this particular mindset, owing to their position in the world as white, liberal, formerly-bohemian-now-bourgeois Americans—the mindset that acknowledges the benefits and privileges accrued by the class and race it belongs to, and perhaps even feels bad about it, but also earns fame and a living by making art about it—leaves me, for one, feeling quite tired. It perhaps works as “good writing”, and it perhaps works as honest writing that refuses to indulge in what Bellamy calls “the pretense of objectivity” and the deadening effects of sophistication. Crucially, however, it can also come off as merely a performance of authenticity that forestalls any serious engagement.
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