Katie Jean Shinkle’s stirring novella, Ruination, presents the reader with an iconographical ecosystem of American sorrow. I consider it to be among the most necessary books of our time, for its channeling of contemporary psychic horrors and its candid treatment of potential societal fallout, as it documents the perennial violence stamped on the bodies of women and girls. Their bodies are distended, with dystopian speed, by vegetation and aggressive flowers. Young women exposed to this epidemic are quarantined or otherwise found dead, their sisters’ sorrow stopping short of muted panic within a town’s somnambulant timescape. They practice syncopated rather than synchronized swimming, and the movement here not only warps temporality, it evokes fainting; a collective retreating into blurred consciousness. What is done to the body? Shinkle, to me, has asked this throughout her work, and throughout the literature of her interactions within the work.
Shinkle begins with “Rolling weather: a superstorm in-wait” and in so doing, asserts the tone of contemporary news-language, apt for describing and installing a distant force, full of looming energy; forever approaching. Paula, the narrator’s muse, tells her, “the real enemy, the real terrorist, is time” as the blossoms, branches and buds come on, claiming girl after girl (“Our girls,” says a diplomat among The Men, “are dying in flowers”).
The Men, incidentally, are foregrounded as both protectors and insidious threats. The two roles are entwined, and in this way, paternalism is unpacked. The Women have gone off to fight a war, and The Men are left behind to delegate their vacant roles. As the narrative progresses, we learn via sinister details how “protective”, in the absence of The Women, eventually becomes “predatory.” In contrast to the other Men, the narrator’s father is dissenting and introspective. He privately pursues–is enriched by–dressing in his wife’s clothes, the narrator states: “The only thing I believe in is the Holy Spirit because I have seen it. I have seen it when my father puts on a lacy dress, a choke chain, high heels, struts around the house like the Queen of the World.”
And in this realm of otherwise hazardous men, and the mythologies via which formal (and invisible) hostage situations are constructed, Shinkle posits hope in the form of Summer love. Paula, whose figure tentatively migrates between lover and PAL (whose befitting initials the narrator etches above her knee) pulls the reader through and out of the weeds of a dangerous future. Paula is eventually claimed by the epidemic, which in her body appears as Queen Anne’s Lace; flower of the carrot, a blossom difficult to tell apart from poisonous Hemlock– the historical antidote for betrayal of the self.
In Ruination, Shinkle is formally and conceptually in conversation with the current social climate. There are unavoidable parallels between The Center for Eradication, a federal clinic that “wants to figure out how, in a land of total decimation and destruction, these girls manifest vegetation in their bodies” and current American institutions. There are echoes of systemic jargon in the Eradication list of the government mandate, which details the types of vegetation determined aberrant. The mandate, in a perfect legal lyric, “includes and is not limited to:” a scroll of plants and flowers that grows like a meandering vine across the pages of this book.
In the world Shinkle has created, as in our own, “Everyday that there is nothing is a better day than the last.” We too feel that “It is light outside” even when “there is no sun” because in this contradictory quality is a global symptom we’ve come to understand. In this book it seems there is no sun and there are no sons, there are only daughters swimming and drowning in foliage, bisected by dogwood branches and then torn from the grey landscape. Deliverance from the violence of paternalism comes, ultimately, from a father clad in his deceased wife’s pantyhose, a father who says, “We have to get out of here.”
by Katie Jean Shinkle
Spuyten Duyvil; 94 p.