The Book of X: A Novel
(Two Dollar Radio, 2019)
In Sarah Rose Etter’s weird and wonderful new novel The Book of X, our protagonist Cassie is afflicted by a medical anomaly. “I was born a knot like my mother and her mother before her,” it begins. Each of the women in her family have their stomachs twisted into bulbous masses of flesh and muscle. As she’s growing up, her father and brother find gainful employment in a meat quarry, at least for a while. The strangeness and the estrangement are central to considerable authority of this novel. In Etter’s world, a simulacrum of Philadelphia that recalls David Lynch’s vision of the city in Eraserhead, the imaginary and the real are often indistinguishable.
The literalization of the figurative is of course a classic narrative device. See Gregor Samsa, for example, or the Grinch, whose small heart grows three sizes that day. Etter claims that trope all for her own, however, and freshens it up in order to revel in a kind of feminist surrealism. Though entirely original, The Book of X sometimes calls to mind Kathryn Davis’s stunning debut novel Labrador. In that book, the arrival of the protagonist Kitty’s first period is treated as kind of magic ritual even though it presages, according to one character, “the curse of all womankind to go through their lives at the mercy of their bodies.” Here, Cassie’s experience is not afforded the same attention from her family:
‘We don’t have time for this,’ my mother says.
She pushes a thick wad of cotton at me.‘Figure it out,’ she says. ‘And you better watch out. Things are going to start changing for you now.’
“X” marks the spot indeed. To Etter’s credit, The Book of X cannot be pinned down to one easy-to-consume moral. Instead, it raises necessary questions about mother/daughter relations as well as bodily autonomy and the challenges to it, especially in places where meat is so prized.
Etter lives in San Francisco, but I used to bump into her from time to time when she was still in her native Philadelphia. The last time I saw her was one summer night when we caught a Replacements concert alongside the Delaware River. We said goodbye at the start of “Unsatisfied” and have kept in touch since then in the usual social media ways. We did this interview via email in April while she was hit with the flu. Even if—as with her mythic namesake—few people listen to Cassie’s prophecies, it would be a huge mistake to ignore Sarah Rose Etter’s.
Andrew Ervin (Rail): What are the ways in which surrealism allows you to get at some truths that you might not have found using mimetic realism?
Sarah Rose Etter: I’ve always been drawn to surrealism. My writing ideas come to me as a bit coded even to myself, and I’m constantly uncovering meaning from them, just like I hope the reader might be. Sometimes, I’ll read a story years later and realize exactly what I was trying to say or it feels like it was a prophecy. There is some kind of magic in that—the unconscious or subconscious revealing itself. I don’t really mess with Freud, but surrealism appeals to me because it allows us to create layers upon layers of meaning. It’s a form of displacement—if you think about some really great works of surrealist art, they are often placing everyday objects in strange environments, so the objects take on more weight and the meaning becomes multiplied and magnified.
This novel aims to do the same—it creates room for us to consider our world in a different way. By creating a new world full of meat, office jobs, and bad men for Cassie to experience the same challenges we face in this world—having a body, pain, pregnancy, miscarriage, trauma, jobs, relationships—those challenges take on added weight and dimension. One of the most important parts of making this work, though, was having a strong female character with a lot of heart and sadness who could hold the through line in a novel full of fragments, facts, visions, and surrealism.
Rail: How did this novel begin? How did it end?
Etter: I knew I wanted to write a novel that juxtaposed a character’s day-to-day existence with a system of daydreams throughout. Then the first line was in my head for a long time, sort of humming there. I imagined this woman shaped like a knot. I started to consider what her life would be like in our world, and how hard it would be to live that way. I’d also had a very intense spinal surgery, so the issues of the hurt body, the invisibility of pain, and being physically unable to move the way other people did were really close to the surface for me. I think Cassie carries a lot of that in her story.
Then I was awarded a writing residency in Iceland, and I decided to run with it. I was alone in a cabin in rural Iceland for about 30 days, and I wrote the bulk of it there. I was so lucky for those 30 days—they gave me the chance to just toss myself fully into the world of the book in the middle of all of these Icelandic storms.
I came home with a very messy first draft. It took a long, long time in terms of editing after that, about a year and a half of just revising and moving things around to make sure they flowed correctly. You could call The Book of X two novels, probably—my goal was that if you stripped out all of the visions throughout the book, they would have their own arc, and they would make sense by themselves.
The way the book ended was sort of spiritual. While I was in Iceland, I saw the Northern Lights by myself, unexpectedly, in the middle of the night. The sky just cracked open and it was so beautiful that I thought I had misunderstood life and death. Up until that point, death had always been a dark, terrifying thing lurking in my mind at all times—and then for some reason, when I saw the Northern Lights, I understood it might be beautiful, and it might be a light that blasts out all suffering and replaces it with warmth. I knew that was my ending.
Rail: What happened in between the beginning and ending of the novel that you didn’t expect?
Etter: The early drafts of the book were so full of trauma and darkness that it was truly unbearable—people have said this version is hard to read at times, but the earlier drafts were just ... god, I would read them, and it was like holding up a terrible mirror to my brain. I had a few weeks of severe depression over how fucked up the book had turned out. I had to grapple with these questions: Is this who I am? Is this really how I view the world? Why did I write this?
I really scared myself in the first drafts. So during revision, I lightened her life up a bit—I gave her a friend, I let her fall in love, I put in a little warmth. Her earlier life was honestly so devastating that even I was like “Jesus, Sarah, relax!” The warmth helps balance the weirdness, I think. But the core hard truths in the novel remain. It does portray what it means to be a woman in the world right now, to be different, to have a body, to try to exist in a capitalist society post-trauma. In the end, I realized I can’t be afraid of that. I’m not afraid of it.
Rail: The interior of the book is designed beautifully and I know you like to champion a lot of contemporary visual art. How did the look of this book come about?
Etter: The exchange between visual art and writing deserves a lot more exploration. Constantly, I was asking myself how the scenes in this book would look if they were painted or made into a movie, then aiming for something more wild, new, and true. I love going to art museums and just zoning out on Louise Bourgeois or Dario Robleto or James Turrell. The challenge is that writing is so rigid! Words can be so boring and limiting! I get jealous of visual artists all the time—their work exists and people can respond to it gutturally pretty quickly. For writers, we have to sit around while people finish reading our work, which can be agony. The cover art was done by a surrealist collage artist I love named øjeRum. We looked at a lot of different options, but once I saw the current cover image, I knew it was mine.
Rail: What music did you listen to while writing this?
Etter: There was a lot of moody music. The playlist I went back to time and time again was mostly Grouper, Chelsea Wolfe, Sigur Rós, Emma Ruth Rundle—music that left a lot of room for space, with really sparse lyrics. Grouper, especially, is almost not music but air or a lack of music in some ways. With Emma Ruth Rundle, there was this desperation in her voice that resonated with me. Sigur Rós just kind of kept Iceland and its landscape in the back of my head so I could keep building on what I’d been inspired by while I was there.
But at some point, it just got too sad. So I’d try to go hike or work out and listen to a lot of rap—Kendrick Lamar, Young Thug, Jeezy, early Lil Wayne, Future, ODB—and I think that was because I needed some swagger to keep going back to the book. Whenever I felt really bad, I'd listen to "Put On" by Jeezy and it would rally me. Maybe when the book got too heavy or sad, these songs would ground me so I could go back to the soft hell of writing and editing.