PJ Harvey’s Rid of Me still burns with a fever nearly 15 years after its release in 1993. It is an angry, throbbing album, barely containing the ragged voices within it. Those voices belong to women mostly, who by turns mock their lovers, tie them up, and seek out aggressively what or whomever they desire. The album explores dark, largely uncharted territory for its time — female sexual desire and sexual violence against and by women — sometimes doing so by appropriating and inhabiting biblical and other myths, including that of Tarzan (“Me-Jane”). With overtones of BDSM (“Rid of Me,” “Rub Til it Bleeds”) and lyrics and vocals — ranging from thunderous bass to shrill, nails-on-chalkboard falsetto — that seem to parody masculinity and femininity both (“Man-Size,” “50 ft. Queenie”), Rid of Me is rich in sexual politics.
But Harvey’s politics have always been ambiguous, and she has time and again refused to claim feminism or publicly discuss her intentions with her songs. Rid of Me is, then, open to interpretation, and in that sense it’s no wonder Kate Schatz chose to use fiction as a way to dig into the album in her 33 1/3 book devoted to it: Harvey’s songs have just the right amount of narrative backbone to call for fictional reinterpretation.
Schatz’s book is the 48th in the 33 1/3 series of pocketsized books started by Continuum in the fall of 2003. Book by book, the series pays tribute to seminal albums of the past 40 years, in a motion to recognize the legacy of the album as form in this era of digital playlists. The albums chosen range from the expected — giants of rock like Exile on Main Street and Highway 61 Revisited — to the unexpected — Abba Gold and Pretty Hate Machine, to name two. Though the series is, probably inevitably, rockist, Continuum has been pretty broadminded about opening up the 33 1/3 ‘canon’ of noteworthy albums to include basically any work an author can pitch successfully.
Rid of Me: A Story is, according to Schatz’s introductory note, “not about the album — it’s because of it.” The story spawned is a feverdream romance between two women, Kathleen and Mary, who meet in the thick, murky woods that border their small village, after having escaped, finally, from their respective oppressive realms. Mary is older, a tall, sad woman who has just been released from the psych ward, only to return to the abusive husband and father that helped put her there in the first place. Kathleen is small and fragile, with dark hair and a curious, poetic mind; she has been confined to taking care of her mysteriously ill father day in and day out. Whether by telepathy or some kind of unspecified voodoo, Mary guides Kathleen through the murder of her father, then leads her out to the woods where Mary ‘kidnaps’ Kathleen, who is more than willing to be kidnapped. Together, the two women are able to find peace.
That Schatz takes the album into queer territory is surprising but makes absolute sense, given the album’s exaggerated dramatizations of heterosexism and internalized misogyny. The idea of two traumatized women finding utopia — “ecstasy” — in one another sits well with the album’s trajectory and gender politics, while at the same time introducing a departure through which Schatz makes the story her own. That Schatz directs her characters’ rage towards men so directly, so unambiguously, is not so surprising but reads at times, without the support of Harvey’s bruised, firebreathing voice or a fitting substitute, like an outdated version of The Color Purple, where men are scum and women must choose between oppression and segregation.
Alternating between Mary’s and Kathleen’s narrations, the book is structured in chapters that mirror the album’s song list, with each chapter beginning and ending with lyrics from its corresponding song. As might be expected, this technique leaves the lyrics sticking out, throwing a wrench into Schatz’s otherwise smooth prosody. Harvey’s often fragmentary lyrics work in song because they are outfitted with a tension provided by strictly regimented percussion and lurching guitarwork. Lines like “He should not be hid. He was just too big.” (the opening to both the song “Missed” and the “Missed” chapter) do not an effective story beginning make: they’re choppy and don’t quite make sense out of the context of song.
This problem with the use of lyrics is perhaps inevitable: How can one write a fiction inspired by an album without incorporating some tie to that album? My instinct, for Rid of Me, at least, would be to do so by attempting to replicate the tension of the album, leaving the lyrics where they belong. While Schatz unfortunately does not leave the lyrics alone, she does manage, if intermittently, to recreate the album’s weird push-pull tension, notably in her suspenseful characterization of Mary and Kathleen’s mysterious woods.
The story is not set in a specified time period, and Schatz makes attempts to give it the kind of ominous mythology that would match the album’s: Mary and Kathleen’s woods — “those dark forbidden woods” — feel haunted and sinister, alive with who knows what evil. Later, their cabin, found abandoned in the woods, begins physically rejecting them. But the dose of gothic surrealism is too underdeveloped for a slim volume that’s already weighed down with two narrators, their separate but equally complicated and somewhat confusing back stories, and a few different halfhearted prose techniques (e.g., a chapter of fragmented narratives, and a paragraph that breaks off into a kind of poem) that do little for either the prosody or for character development. Though Rid of Me: A Story reaches for grandiosity — the book has the sweep of tragedy that characterizes a Wuthering Heights — the story is simply too big for its spine to contain. It’s a 200-plus-page book that’s been squashed into 112 pocketsized pages, and it reads in the end like a novel whose carcass has been picked apart by vultures.
If the fog that surrounds the pasts of the main characters works to add to the story’s sense of timelessness and mystery, the numerous gaps left behind are dissatisfying, especially when accompanied by contrived lyric tie-ins and unnecessary experiments in the prose. In the end, I’m left missing the more familiar breeds of music criticism that characterize the majority of the other books in the series. I’m glad to see support for a project like Schatz’s, but Rid of Me deserves a canonization that Schatz chose not to perform. Of course, that may well be for the best: the voices that populate Harvey’s album are probably better left in the realm of the imagined, where even the best kind of criticism cannot defang them.