Sarah Rose Etter’s new novel, The Book of X, follows Cassie, a girl born with her stomach tied in a knot. It’s strange, and the strange is good.
Aside from Cassie, there have only been two other cases in which babies have been born with knots for stomachs: Cassie’s mother and grandmother. Is it a curse or a blessing, perhaps neither? The story makes certain one thing is for certain, though; when growing up, all one really does is get beat down, and somehow Sarah Rose Etter makes that dark truth so darn pleasurable.
The book doesn’t obey “traditional” structure. It’s broken up by facts and visions. The pages have a whole lot of white space for a novel –– making it easily readable in a day or two. The novel makes me think of the works of Alfred Jarry or André Breton, except for the fact that Etter is of the now, meaning that we can better understand her.
Etter wants you just as sad and just as excited as Cassie. For example, while Cassie’s father and brother go to work in the Meat Quarry, harvesting meat from the “tall walls of a red, fleshy canyon,” Cassie and her mother clean the house by rubbing lemons all over the place…
Gender roles play a significant part in The Book of X. The “X” alludes to the X chromosome, which women have two of, whereas men have an X and a Y. It is on the X chromosome that the gene for the knot resides, resulting in what doctors have deemed largely a “cosmetic issue.” Cassie’s mother, Deborah, loves fashion magazines and thrusts her hopes of beautification on Cassie. She dolls her up in (plastic) pearls and yellow dresses, because she read that “yellow is the color of the season.” Deborah even suggests sucking on a rock instead of eating, the hot new diet, which Cassie yields to. This is a critique on marketing, and how businesses create insecurity, or at least feed off of it, as well as a plea to the parents living vicariously through their children. Etter asks that mothers and fathers stop burdening the youth with dreams deferred, and let them form their own.
Etter also examines the nature of relationships — both platonic and romantic — in the novel. Cassie has a friend named Sophia who is the epitome of “cool.” She’s pretty and she kisses boys. She smokes cigarettes and drives drunk. The book chronicles the highs and lows of their friendship, which, despite the efforts of time and distance, serves as the constant to Cassie’s romantic variables. One of the men (or boys) to enter her life is Jarred, a lanky, freckle-faced kid with a lazy eye. Over and over, he acts so… vile, so brutishly male that it makes staring into a mirror no easy task, and yet, for some reason, Cassie continues to forgive him.
In this respect, advertisements (gods of the city) and the notion of savagery are one in the same, producing and/or targeting self-doubt. It should also be mentioned that Etter uses the cliché of insecure girl and predatorial boy wisely; she paints this picture, it seems, to contrast light and dark, femininity and masculinity, etc.; however, she does so knowing that these classifications are nonsensical. And by no means am I saying that men are not more predatorial than women, because, unfortunately, that’s not even a question, but I am saying that Etter has written a book that laughs in the face of the binary-minded. Anyone can be and, at times, is feminine. And the same people can be and, at times, are masculine too. When finally given the opportunity to work in the Meat Quarry with the men, Cassie digs up a bigger chunk than her brother.
After some of the more depressing scenes, Cassie has visions. They illustrate hope and sometimes ignorance. They remind the reader that a large portion of the world exists inside of one’s own head. In addition, there are pages dedicated solely to facts on subjects ranging from office work to the uterus, bombs to miscarriages. Did you know that most workers spend 1,896 hours per year in the office? Or that female lions do 90% of the hunting for their pride?
What I expected to be a weird book about a knot ended up being a profound meditation on womanhood and heredity, bullying and plastic surgery –– loneliness.
The Book of X
By Sarah Rose Etter
Two Dollar Radio
July 16, 2019
Cody Lee is a writer and bookseller from Chicago, IL.