The Book of X by Sarah Rose Etter is a new book by Columbus-based independent press Two Dollar Radio. If you are actively reading literature online these days, you should be aware of both Etter’s work and the press, and are probably already be excited for this book.
The novel is about Cassie, who grows up with her mother, father, and brother. Her father and brother make their living by harvesting meat in the meat quarry that exists behind their family homestead. Though her father and brother work in the quarry, Cassie has an interest in it, bordering on obsession. But this buries the lede of the novel, or rather it’s central conceit, which is that Cassie, like her mother, and her mother’s mother before her, was born with her stomach twisted into a knot.
In one way, The Book of X mirrors a conventional coming-of-age/life story – we get our protagonist struggles growing up, and a confrontation with death. However, Etter’s novel is anything but conventional. She takes this structure and subverts it, twists it around, much like the knot in our main character’s stomach, and produces a new kind of narrative. It’s riveting, it’s hilarious, it’s sad, it’s beautiful. It’s one of my favorite books of the year, and it was an absolute thrill to correspond with Etter about the book.
Can you talk about the origins of The Book of X? When and in what ways you started writing it.
I wrote most of the first draft while on a writing residency in Iceland. I was alone for 30 days, and I wrote the majority of the book in a cabin at the edge of Iceland’s National Park. I’d wake up and write, then hike this mountain behind the cabin in the snow or rain or sleet, just to get out of the space. The best part of that was how much daylight there was – the sun was only going down for about five hours a day, so I had so much time to work and then go outside.
In reality, though, I had come up with an idea for a book that would have this structure probably five or six years ago. It started as an Excel spreadsheet that I used to start to map certain stories to each other based on their themes and visual elements. I just found the initial spreadsheet the other day and was sort of cracking up about it – this idea that I had started it so long ago and now it was finally done. I guess we can never know when our ideas are going to stick and pay off.
How did you decide the structure of the novel? There seem to be three things going on: the narrative sections about Cassie, the visions, and the sometimes-bulleted lists of facts. How did you arrive at the final sequencing or ordering?
The structure was the hardest part. I keep telling myself I will just write a novel straight through next, though I’m not sure how true that is.
I really wanted to create a life that was also a series of images and a blur of facts and daydreams. The facts and daydreams were really intentional – I turned to those as a way to give the reader relief from the trauma of Cassie’s life. During initial drafts, I realized how hard this book would be to read – there was almost no relief from her torment, her body, her sadness.
For me, the visions were always going to be part of this. The facts came a little later, as a way to ground her narrative in something familiar for the reader. I did want this book to read as a blur with a heartbeat that maintained the throughline. Cassie is meant to be that throughline, with the visions and facts adding depth and relief.
Can talk about how, in what ways, Cassie maybe sees the body as a machine or engine, maybe more than most because of her condition? Or can you talk about how her condition might color her world view to see things that way?
Oh absolutely. Cassie is reduced to being a machine because of her body and her pain. That felt true to me – at some point, when you’re functioning within trauma and with pain, the world stops being a beautiful place. Instead, it becomes a place where you’re just getting by. I think she begins to machine through the world, truly, after she is assaulted. In a lot of research I did about the impact of trauma on the brain and body, this isn’t an uncommon response – we begin to machine our way through the world instead of being present in our bodies. In many ways, she is just trying to survive. Brian Evenson said in his thoughts about The Book of X that Cassie was trying to survive in a world that actively wanted to destroy her – I hadn’t considered it that way, but it felt really true to me. She’s a character for whom life is never going to get better, and whose body and mind will never forget the trauma she’s endured. It felt important to me to be true to that experience, rather than try to turn this into a redemption narrative.
Where did the meat quarry come from? Where did this slightly other version of our own world come from?
The world Cassie inhabits is a world a few dimensions over from ours in my mind. I wanted it to be a warped place where some of the rules didn’t apply so there would be some elasticity, and the flexibility to get weird and surreal. My hope was that by displacing the reader but maintaining core issues from our real world (sexism, capitalism, the body, trauma), we could look at those issues in a new light.
I wish I had some fancy story for where the meat quarry came from. I was really just in Iceland thinking about how this family could make money and I didn’t want to write something normal that bored me. I wanted it to be visceral and of the land and about money at the same time – and this seemed like a way to do that. It wasn’t even a conscious decision, so I think with that, I feel a little Donald Barthelme about it.
Can you talk about the VISIONS sections? How do they differ from dreams, or how are they similar to them, too?
The VISIONS fluctuate – at times, they offer her relief and an escape and a chance to reimagine her day-to-day life. But eventually, they really turn on her – they become increasingly violent and tense and warped. In this way, I wanted to capture the idea of her brain sort of turning on her – the idea that any form of escape eventually becomes a trap.
In terms of dreams, I feel like the VISIONS are different – to me, they are the scenes you imagine when you’re riding on the train home from work and you’re bored or hopeful or sad or lost or excited. They’re the relief we offer ourselves from our day to day existence.
Can we talk about cake? It seems to show up often and in important or celebratory moments.
Ahhhh cake! Haha. Well, it’s just such a fun symbol to use! It’s sweet and beautiful and pastel and rich, but then it also has this kind of downside. I’ve definitely been inspired by visual art around cake – the scene in the movie Matilda when one of the children is forced to eat an entire chocolate cake, or Scott Hove’s Cake Rooms in Los Angeles have always drawn my eye. Even the idea of Marie Antoinette – this idea of a woman being surrounded by luxury and cake.
In a way, too, the cake is the direct opposite of the meat – it’s almost male and female, in a way. The meat represents this sort of masculine: Money, work, blood, viscera, protein. Cakes, meanwhile, are often associated with birthdays, celebrations, women working to bake them for their families, and wealth. I wanted to play with both of those symbols for a lot of reasons, but those are the ones that jump out right now.
Would you be willing to talk about the voice and prose of the novel? It is compelling and rich and lush, full of energy and wild imagery. Where did Cassie’s voice come from?
In a strange way, the voice almost came last for this book. I was really intent on structure – creating three parts of the book that each had their own arc, then building out these visions and facts. In the later rounds of edits, I really started to hone in on her voice and how she was going to move through the world.
I was reading a lot of short, sparse prose at that time – Brian Evenson’s Songs for the Unraveling World, Katya Apekina’s The Deeper the Water the Uglier the Fish, Katherine Faw’s Young God, and Why the Child is Cooking in the Polenta by Aglaja Veteranyi.
In every single one of these books, no matter the plot, the sentences are sharp, crisp, stripped down to the bare necessities. I refer to those sentences as bones, really – there’s no fat on them. There’s barely even muscle. It appeals to me to create sentences like that within a framework of surrealism because it enables us to create a world that the reader believes in. For a surrealist book to be effective, you can’t give the reader a minute to stop and ask why – they have to suspend their disbelief the entire way through. Crisp sentences that are laser-focused are an important way to do that.
Is it important that this book is a novel? In what ways is that term helpful? Do you think The Book of X it in categories like that, does that matter to you, as the creator?
I don’t care what anyone calls it really – I know this book is shorter than what we’d traditionally call a novel. I thought initially it needed to to 70,000 words and it was. But through revision, I realized I had come to that word count because the publishing industry regards that as the right length for a novel usually. And in the initial drafts, it was much longer.
Once the book was accepted by Two Dollar Radio, I felt safe to hack it down. I felt like I had the agency to create the book as it should be, not as the market would have wanted it. I don’t regret that choice because I think that it is at its strongest now. Though I could have revised it until I died.
Can you talk a little about influences you might have had for the novel—both literary, and otherwise, whether they be films, sculpture, music, etc.?
Oh sure – the books I listed above certainly mattered and were incredibly important. While I was in Iceland, I brought very specific books with me – I was reading Robert Olen Butler’s From Where You Dream, which was helpful because it made me wake up and go straight to my desk every morning without hesitation to write, in order to capture your dream state on the page. I also had Robert Walser’s Microscripts and Samanta Schweblin’s Fever Dream with me. Maggie Nelson’s The Art of Cruelty was important too. I had Samantha Irby’s We Are Never Meeting In Real Life with me, too, which helped add some dark humor to the scenes.
Visually, I am always turning to sculpture as a form of inspiration for writing. I’m fascinated by what visual art is able to accomplish. I always want my writing to feel sculptural – to create scenes and visions that make the reader forget they are reading. My hope is that every scene in the book is so intense and beautiful that if someone painted them, they’d look like nothing else.
In terms of music, I was listening to lots of depressing things like Grouper and then balancing that with Kendrick Lamar to try to keep myself upbeat a little. Ha.
What are you reading now, and what are you working on now, if anything?
I just finished Trisha Low’s new one coming out from Coffeehouse called Socialist Realism and it is a banger. Right now, I’m reading Ultraluminous by Katherine Faw and re-reading The Changeling by Joy Williams. My to-read stack is so high right now – Steven Dunn’s Water & Power, A Timeshare by Margaret Ross, Geek Love by Katherine Dunn, Magical Negro by Morgan Parker. God, I have so much to read now!
Next up is a linked short story collection based on pieces of visual art and a novel. I don’t want to say too much about either of those, because who knows where they will lead me. Your ideas always start in one place and then land in another, right? It’s the nature of the book.
Photo: Natalie Graf