Rita Bullwinkel’s debut collection, Belly Up is as exquisite as it is absurd. The real glides so closely against the imagined that when a grieving widow hears her neighbors through their shared wall, she finds it necessary to check that they are real people and not younger manifestations of herself and her husband. She wonders whether she has invented them, and, as readers, we are not quite sure. We’re never entirely certain where these stories of recognition and reinvention are going to go, of what the rules are. What keeps us here is the intelligence and precision of Bullwinkel’s prose, which allows her to mine the deeply strange and deeply intimate with abandon and exactitude.
In a recent tweet, award-winning author Victor LaValle posited: ‘The last word of your first book was the theme of the whole thing…” If that is the case, the theme of Belly Up is “thread.” That seems apt. Belly Up is woven together with thick, peculiar strands. In the hands of a less-assured writer, these threads might feel loose, disconnected—under Bullwinkel’s guidance, they pull together to arrive at moments of profound revelation.
These stories are bound by their unwillingness to conform, by their insights into the human mind, by their wicked authenticity. Belly Up is full of reckoning, full of curiosity, full of characters attempting to pull themselves out of the mundane, out of what is expected of them. This feels akin to yanking a plant out of the soil from its root; the experience is intensely odd and simultaneously invigorating.
Belly Up is perhaps best described by a moment in one of the collection’s best stories, “Arms Overhead,” in which two adolescent girls imagine themselves as plants:
As Mary read from several psychology journals that posited theories about why one might have the desire to eat oneself, Ainsley put her head in Mary’s lap and listened.
At the close of the collection’s first story, “Harp,” about a woman whose day, and perhaps, life, is upended by having witnessed a car crash, I jotted down the word: curious in the margins, followed by a cascade of my thoughts: unexpected, unsettled, unusual. Then I paused, indented my pencil and wrote: But, something opens, something begins. All of Bullwinkel’s stories unlock something. The strongest pieces fling the whole thing open. Burn the house down. Others are a mere suggestion of what lies outside, a hint that things are not as they appear. That is like life. Sometimes blaringly loud and other times alarmingly silent.
That silence was most deeply felt in the collection’s shorter pieces, which serve as interludes between the more traditional narratives. In their brevity, the often dreamlike vignettes create a gulf between the reader and the work. This may be, in part, because they pulse with intelligence, which can make the text feel inaccessible, or for the reader to feel unwelcome. In their condensed form, the stories were darker, the fantasies more unusual, the phlegm, phlegmier, but they lacked the emotional depth that is so propulsive throughout much of the collection. I was reminded of the ferocious Lydia Davis, whose Varieties of Disturbances dips into philosophical introspection that resists traditional narration. Reading Bullwinkel also called to mind the work of Diane Williams, specifically, her most recent collection, Fine, Fine, Fine, Fine, Fine, in which the prose is equally poignant and exacting.
These stories are populated with the strange: a child with a black tongue, an insatiably hungry church, the commingling of the dead and the living. It is in this strangeness that we are reminded of our humanity; while we are enchanted by the elaborate conceits, we become vulnerable to Bullwinkel’s talent for emotional wounding. She crafts unexpectedly tender scenes that are ripe with revelation.
Bullwinkel finds herself in a lineage of authors who won’t conform. To borrow the title from Lydia Davis’s most recent collection: they Can’t and Won’t. Perhaps what sets Bullwinkel apart is her willingness to fling her narratives off a cliff and to have her characters land, not on stable ground, but on something closer to hot lava than to dirt. The surrealism that floats through these stories feels in conversation with Carmen Maria Machado’s Her Body and Other Parties, which transcends genre and vibrates with emotional intensity.
Belly Up’s standout is “What I Would Be if I Wasn’t What I Am,” an epic narrative of marriage, of identity, of grappling with whom we become in the face of both marriage and loss:
It is difficult for me to distinguish which parts of myself are the original me, which parts of myself predated [my husband], and which parts were developed while I was with him. And, for those parts of me that were developed while I was with him, how am I to tell which parts I would have developed on my own, without him, and which parts of myself never would have come to pass if I had never met him?
Embedded within all of these surreal narratives are similar moments of contemplation, of reckoning, that sting with incredible precision.
In the collection’s opening story, the narrator muses: “I wondered if maybe I should suggest that my husband and I stop talking. Perhaps we should only communicate through touch and feel. Maybe that is a truer way to be with someone.”
At their most profound, the stories in Belly Up name and subsequently interrogate states like adolescence, marriage, self-identification, motherhood. When a mother stares at her son who has just arrived home after driving drunk, she is unable to separate the possibility of what could have happened to him, from what actually did: “…All I could see was a corpse, [my son] dead, an alternate history that had been so close to happening that it drove me mad. People should be driven mad, temporarily, when they see things like that, their son in a near-miss state.”
By the time we are two stories into Belly Up, when the dead return, we are expecting them; if we flinch, it is not from disbelief, but from the thrill of finding out what it is they’ve come to tell us.
In thinking about Bullwinkel’s debut, I found myself returning to the work of the great writer Augusto Monterroso, particularly his collection, Complete Works and Other Stories. Monterroso’s stories venture similarly into absurdity, joy, and exuberance, while also being wedded to philosophical rumination. The juxtaposition of the surreal and the introspective strikes a remarkable a balance that is alive and well in Bullwinkel’s collection.
The characters in Belly Up demand our attention, they demand to be seen, to be recognized. What is perhaps most moving are the moments in which these characters learn to know themselves better. Throughout our reading, we accompany them on their journeys for truth and in the wake of each discovery, we begin to question our own lives, our own interpretations of reality.