Sarah Rose Etter
It could be argued that the strongest rival to autofiction as the most noteworthy tendency in current American fiction is its effective opposite: non-genre fiction that distorts reality through fantasy devices that create fabulous worlds--"fabulous" as in suggestive of fables. Some of this fiction is indeed reminiscent of fables and fairy tales, while other such works make less use of allegorical narrative while still creating worlds that are essentially surreal. If the former renews a kind of story as venerable as storytelling itself, it perhaps is most immediately rooted in the fiction of a writer like Angela Carter, who performed arresting variations on recognizable motifs and themes drawn from the fabulist tradition. The latter are essentially a recent permutation, less tied to narrative conventions, more freely imagistic and amorphous. The fiction of Blake Butler might be put into this category.
Sarah Rose Etter's The Book of X more appropriately belongs to the first category. It takes place in a make-believe world (although retaining enough similarity to our own that it doesn't cross over into a purely hallucinatory surrealism) in which it is possible for a girl to be born with a torso tied in a knot (as had her mother and grandmother) and for her family to be in the meat business--meat they harvest from underground chambers where it grows on the wall. The narrative seems to follow a trajectory by which the girl, Cassie, after a life spent struggling with the hardships her condition unavoidably imposes, seems ultimately to face the possibility of redemption, of a happy ending to her story, but even after undergoing an operation that undoes her knot and offers her the possibility of a more "normal" life, contentment continues to elude her, and the novel ends with Cassie's apparent suicide. Thus while we are perhaps led to expect the sort of happy ending that usually concludes a fairy tale, The Book of X subverts those expectations, to the extent that some readers might find it shocking (certainly distressing).
But this deviation from presumed narrative direction is actually the novel's most important move. Not only does it work to avoid the sentimentality that might accompany an unqualified fidelity to the conventions of the fairy tale narrative--indeed acting instead as a useful corrective to those conventions--a happy ending would likely diminish the book's thematic resonance, suggesting that the hardships and suffering experienced by the protagonist can be mitigated easily enough, that the harm done to her is ephemeral and not a necessary source of her identity. Because of her circumstances, Cassie can be seen as emblematic in several different ways, most obviously as a disabled person but also as a young girl struggling with socially imposed "body issues," as a young woman succumbing to depression, and a "fairy tale ending" to her story would seem to rob her character of its evocative associations, if not actually defeat the purpose behind the plot and character devices employed for most of the novel.
Although the method by which Cassie tells her story is unorthodox--highly fragmented (with attention given to the spatial arrangement of the fragments), interspersed with "visions" in which, generally speaking, Cassie imagines an alternative to the life she is actually living--the story itself proceeds (in the present tense) chronologically through Cassie's life. In its broadest outlines, her life is relatively uneventful, if often melancholy and full of disappointment--most of the narrative's interest lies in Cassie's psychological turmoil and in the vividness of the surreal fantasia of many of the visions. (In one episode, she visits a "Man Store," where she buys half of a man (top half) because it is all she can afford, hoping to buy the other half later.) The first third of the book chronicles Cassie's youth, the second her attempt to build a life for herself after moving to the city, and the final third her relocation to an isolated cabin in the mountains in the aftermath of her operation.
Cassie's parents are depicted as more or less familiar sorts of parental figures, despite their ostensibly bizarre circumstances. Her mother suffers the same affliction as the daughter, but seems to have accepted her lot and raises Cassie to do so as well, although Cassie frequently expresses frustration with her exacting expectations. Her father at first seems distant and damaged, but it is the father to whom Cassie ultimately seems most strongly connected, and it is his death near the novel's conclusion that leads her to what seems her final unhappy act. While seeking out her independence in the city, Cassie as well maintains a basically ordinary existence working a routine office job, although she does acquire the habit of picking up men in bars. While some of them are indeed taken aback by Cassie's knot (one leaves her apartment immediately), nothing particularly untoward happens, just more discouragement and disappointment. After moving to the cabin she does fall in love with a married man named Henry, but her passion dissipates when her father dies.
Thus Cassie's apparent suicide--she takes some "white pills," and in the novel's concluding sentence tells us that "My eyes fail and my eyes widen, all pain finally gone" as she confronts "the wide bright mouth of death"--for the attentive reader does not exactly come from nowhere. Her experiences have left her vulnerable to despair after her father dies, and it is as if she recognizes that the apparent realization of her quest for conventional happiness is inauthentic, romanticized wish fulfillment, in comparison to the grief she feels, a grief that is all too real. She falls into what is quite clearly an incapacitating depression:
These are the days of nothing: slow motion, under water, distant from other bodies, other thoughts, other humans. I stop wanting and become very still. I want to cut my life off at the legs.
That Cassie succumbs to this depression is surely disturbing, but it seems clear enough throughout the novel that she is, in the words of David Foster Wallace, a "depressed person."
It would seem, then, that Etter refuses to conclude a chronicle of depression with a happy outcome even more than the story about overcoming adversity the novel superficially evokes. Yet in most ways The Book of X still performs the same sort of signifying function we associate with fables and fairy tales. To ultimately subvert narrative conventions is not to dispense with them entirely--they still condition our response to the story's development. And the surreal elements, particularly the fantastic transfiguration of the protagonist's body, are quite clearly designed more for their metaphorical than for their tonal effect or creation of character (although Cassie is nevertheless a memorable and convincing character). We might even say there is a "moral" to Cassie's story, if a sobering one: things don't always work out.
I must say that of the two kinds of non-realist fiction described above, I am usually more impressed with works of the second kind, as the narrative-driven fabulist fiction often veers closely to didacticism, of using fiction as a means to "say something." This is unavoidably the case with The Book of X as well, although I would not say that it is overtly didactic. The impression it leaves most firmly is that of a skillfully directed act of imagination that is itself still the most important point.