Dodie Bellamy’s bereavement chronicles
IN AN EARLY ESSAY in her recent collection Bee Reaved, Dodie Bellamy takes on a stalker who harasses her by ordering her scads of unrelated items using a fake credit card. “My stalker sends me objects that are not objects. They’re images I keep trying to push into language.” Bellamy provides a list of selected virtual purchases: “BLISS FUZZ’ OFF™ BIKINI PRECISION HAIR REMOVAL CREAM/2 OZ – 2 TUBES,” “SUPER-SENSITIVE SUPREME CELLO STRING SET – 4/4 SIZE,” “FOREST FRIENDS ORNAMENTS FELT KIT,” “TETRA POND AQUASAFE TAP WATER CONDITIONER – 2 101.4-OZ BOTTLES,” “THREE ASSEMBLED MINIATURE WIDOW’S WALK RAILS,” and on and on. American English has been bent and zombified by the need to name an ever-widening object-world that in turn inspires an ever-widening array of bizarre behaviors designed to manage all the stuff. In the absence of such a commodity-world and its attendant grammars, its spammy word-strings and low-resolution thumbnails, would one understand, for example, the necessity of depilating the borders of one’s pubic region with a stinky paste? Or painstakingly hot-gluing a miniature widow’s walk to one’s dollhouse? The answer is that one would not. The title of this essay is “The Violence of the Image.” That seems right.
The nineteen pieces collected in Bee Reaved concern contemporary embodiment. They are about the flickering interstices between what’s physical and what isn’t; the gaps between matter and spirit, language and action, and how these divides are bridged and sometimes obviated. Bellamy treats mob behavior among poets on Facebook; the disorienting experience of having one’s archive collected by the Beinecke Library at Yale; memories of her manic, fantasist first husband; various Netflix programs; the myth of James Dean’s beloved and apparently haunted sports car, Little Bastard. And more. Yet primarily this is a collection about a single event, the passing of Bellamy’s husband, the writer and artist Kevin Killian. A record of grief that is also an astute and tragicomic account of our digitally managed sensoria, Bellamy’s intensely felt prose is persuasive, alchemical. As one reads, that hollow site lately conditioned to push data around on social media and purchase toxic goods produced by slave labor in one click becomes something else. This book is a spell for recovering feeling(s), a sort of salutary linguistic drug.
Bellamy mentions Joan Didion’s 2005 memoir The Year of Magical Thinking more than once, and I will admit that after completing Bee Reaved I downloaded an audio version of that “bereavement chronicle” (Bellamy’s phrase). I had never read Didion’s account and, listening to it a decade and a half after its first appearance, I found myself challenged. I couldn’t seem to pay attention to the right aspects of the writing. I obsessed over the number of drinks John Gregory Dunne had consumed on the night of his death, as well as Didion’s unflagging insistence on the absolute, crystal-clear normality of the situation. I supposed this insistence, the titular “thinking,” was the whole point, but it nevertheless chilled me in a way I doubted that it was intended to. I felt a bit guilty about my reaction—particularly given that Didion herself has recently passed away—yet the sentences felt like stalling strategies, uncannily practiced and polished and maybe inherited from a previous generation as a sort of wedding gift. Although Bellamy writes that this book was meaningful to her, it’s a very different sort of work than Bee Reaved, and that, to my mind, is not such a bad thing.
Bellamy and Killian are often associated with the New Narrative writing movement, a loosely affiliated group of writers known for mixing explicit autobiographical and documentary styles with appropriation and pastiche, as well as more traditional tools of fiction. Indeed, they may be the movement’s de facto cofounders, along with other San Francisco-based figures such as Robert Glück (known for his transcendent 1994 novel Margery Kempe), Bruce Boone, and Steve Abbott. As Bellamy and Killian explain in the introduction to Writers Who Love Too Much, a 2017 anthology of New Narrative-allied work including such authors as Kathy Acker and Gary Indiana, “the question,” for them and their colleagues, “was how to reproduce the sensations of ordinary life while subverting the totalizing narrative that had stymied and withered our lives.” The wish to “bring the body back to writing,” brilliantly and collaboratively fulfilled in workshops they participated in beginning in the 1980s, was complicated by the advent of the AIDS crisis. The disease laid siege to queer communities, killing the poet and short story writer Sam D’Allesandro, among so many others. Bodies broke down, betraying the authors who inhabited them, and mortality ceased to be an abstract literary theme, becoming instead a messy, terrifying, and very real foe, ever close at hand. As Dennis Cooper wrote, “AIDS ruined death.”
About that totalizing narrative, deadly in its own way: Bellamy and Killian locate it explicitly in nineteenth-century realist and romantic fiction concerned with bourgeois life (e.g., Honoré de Balzac), but it strikes me that they might also intend the totalizing narratives of other, non-literary institutions: of marriage and the nuclear family; of the great (usually heterosexual) love affair; of manifest destiny; of white supremacy; of capital; of Bildung; of heath and sanity; of enlightenment; of the inviolable meaning of the birth and execution and rebirth of Jesus—to choose but a few. While I’m not convinced that Balzac or, for that matter, George Eliot, among other such giants, were in fact writing in support of the institutions of bourgeois social life of their day, I do see how the descriptive techniques they developed have been exploited over time to create an unimaginative secular mode of storytelling that favors pat tropes, rather than investigating and revealing the conditions of the writer’s life.
When I think of totalizing literary narratives, avoidance seems to be a big part of the gambit. Glossing over ethical ambiguities, yes, but also omitting the fact that, as they say, everyone poops. (People do not, as a rule, poop in nineteenth-century fiction.) From a more contemporary technical point of view, I think of something called the “emotional question,” which I recently learned from a student is a craft-related tchotchke that all short stories must consistently refer to throughout their “arc.” The student had at first called the emotional question “the EQ,” and I had to ask him what he meant by that. He assumed that anyone interested in literature must know all about the EQ. It had to be their watchword. The student had learned about this sacred touchstone in a college writing class. “You know,” he said, “the EQ!” The famous EQ. A relic of Cold War pedagogy as far as I can tell, the EQ is the sort of arbitrary metric that New Narrative came up against. The student and I later laughed about his fervor for a pair of letters, but I will admit that it felt strange and not altogether pleasant to struggle for a moment in their hold.
“The distinction between abstract and material has become a joke,” Bellamy writes in the final essay in Bee Reaved, “Chase Scene.” She is describing how it is to live after Killian’s death. But this is not the same as Didion’s magical thinking, because far from slipping into a fantasy that Killian had not received a serious cancer diagnosis and then died from complications related to chemotherapy treatment six weeks later, Bellamy dwells in the simultaneous reality and impossibility of this emotional, intellectual, and physical loss. It takes skill to inhabit this place, and a character has emerged. She is named Bee Reaved: “Side note about the ‘I’: Dodie’s gone.” Bee Reaved is someone who can talk to Killian, write to him, write about him. She is the one who can confess, of being brought to tears after seeing a couple holding hands on the street, “I so intensely longed for someone who would care enough for me to hold my hand. I have the eroticism of a child.” She can document the weeks, days, and minutes leading up to the moment when Killian is taken off life support. She can admit that at times she was a “horrible wife.”
I never took the garbage out, I didn’t read the final version of your novel Spreadeagle. Not only did I fuck other people, I fell in love with them—all that was fine, you said, as long as when things turned to shit you didn’t have to take care of me, and then you took care of me anyway. The last thing you wanted was a good wife. The unspoken promise of our partnership was that neither of us would ever have to be “normal.”
I’ve forgotten to mention that “Chase Scene” is also an essay about the movie version of Stephen King’s novel about a killer car, Christine, and James Dean’s vehicular death, and Bellamy’s discovery that she has a sister she has never met who was given up for adoption before Bellamy was born, and the poet Jack Spicer’s grave. And there are other details pasted deftly in the margins like little illuminations: scenes from Grey’s Anatomy and Bellamy’s dreams. I feel as if I’ve left everything out: that I am supposed to tell the reader that Killian identified as a gay man, that Bellamy has written in detail about their sex life. But there isn’t a singular issue or emotional question, a.k.a. EQ, here; that is Bellamy’s signature and her talent and genius. Her syntax makes you throb. You pant, trying to pull it in through your eyes: more information, more feeling, more life. More accumulation. Particularly in these Covid-numbed days, this is compelling, enlivening, relieving; reading approaches a state of grace. “You acted like sex was a miracle, like I was a miracle that happened to you,” Bee/Bellamy writes. The essay, like all of Bellamy’s prose, concerns the metamorphic miracle of writing.
The Authorized Version
“Chase Scene” concludes with a scenario that also plays out at the close of Dodie Bellamy’s 1998 novel, The Letters of Mina Harker, which Semiotext(e) has just rereleased as a sort of companion volume to Bee Reaved. In this scene, the narrator’s husband, KK, insists, “I’m your house.” He is naked, kneeling over her. He pauses, jokes: “This is what you always wanted, isn’t it, a house that talks.”
Returning to Letters alongside Bee Reaved, I was struck by this line about the talking house. It’s a sweet yet unsettling image, since archetypal. As in a fairy tale in which objects and animals conspire to aid the heroine, where candlesticks speak and hundreds of mice flood a dungeon chamber to separate grains of wheat from a pile of sand, the talking house is a figure of salvation. A talking house might be the mystical other who accompanies our always-incomplete journey from childhood to whatever comes next. It is, indeed, what we’ve always wanted and needed: someone who knows what this place we are living in is, because they are somehow already of it. They are the place. A house that talks uses its powers of speech to remind us that we are here, sheltered, not quite alone.
Anyone familiar with The Letters of Mina Harker, perhaps Bellamy’s most ornate and challenging book to date, knows that things are a bit more complicated than I am letting on. This epistolary fiction follows the exploits of a hybrid writing subjectivity—part Mina Harker, part Dodie Bellamy (and thus a different spin on the Bee Reaved persona). Mina, who is inspired by the female protagonist of Bram Stoker’s Dracula is, like that Mina, a.k.a. Mrs. Wilhelmina Harker, née Murray, a stenographer, a gatherer of media and linguistic evidence. An aside here to say that I had forgotten that this character is primly interpreted by Winona Ryder in Francis Ford Coppola’s 1992 film adaptation, a fact that adds a whole other pop-cultural valence to the mix. Bellamy’s Mina revises Stoker’s characterization—along with Ryder/Coppola’s and just about everyone else’s. Her Mina is no mere “secretarial adjunct to the great European vampire killer, Dr. Van Helsing.” Rather, this is the true Mina, an undead Brontë-esque figure “dart[ing] across the moor fog condensing on my long plait of hair.” She’s “THE AUTHORIZED VERSION.” It seems that after a fun dalliance with old Nosferatu, she’s moved on. “I will never love him,” she writes. “He’s too weird too intense.”
The language of Mina Harker haunts Dodie Bellamy’s word-processing software, but not only this—it threatens to permanently possess Bellamy’s body. The authorized Mina turns out to have succumbed to Dracula/Nosferatu’s charms precisely in order to be infected with the Count’s infernal powers: “Remember,” she writes, “my kind can slip through keyholes, slide beneath doors.” Whereas in Stoker’s account Mina’s soul vacillates between damnation and salvation, and she is only rescued through the heroism of a crack team of Christian vampire-slayers, here Mina revels in her cursedness, which expresses itself via a voracious appetite for sex and, more important, writing. Page one of the novel’s first letter: “I am so aroused my clit flicks like a tongue.”
Despite being centrally located on many human bodies, clits don’t seem to make it into much literary fiction. Letters is on a mission to revise all that—through the detailing of a sex life that could, factually speaking, be Dodie Bellamy’s own, but which is mediated by the titular character who, as it turns out, begins taking credit for it. Mina mocks Dodie for her relative prudery, and, meanwhile, Dodie “threaten[s] an exorcism” if Mina doesn’t “calm down.” Mina takes two lovers, Quincey and Dion. KK, Dodie’s husband, knows all about this; he offers dry commentary. Of the latter of Mina/Dodie’s paramours, he quips, “You and Dion are two giant screens with different movies playing on each of you.” In the novel’s lush array of sex scenes, KK himself appears, “cock and balls dangl[ing].” As he also seems to be Dodie’s most trusted reader and editor, he’s in the curious position of commenting on his own acts and the description thereof.
Perhaps it doesn’t seem like Letters could possibly be a book about mourning, but I think it is, and this is part of the reason why it makes so much sense for it to appear again at this time. If Bee Reaved is, on the one hand, a text about grief, it is also a book about how one becomes a writer and how that—process? fantasy? act?—gets bound up in one’s most intimate relationships. Similarly, Letters treats loss and how writing permits its assimilation: here a loss of innocence about what one is capable of as an embodied being, about love itself, about the very meaning of our strongest drives and most intense experiences. It’s not that sex is just or merely empty, empty in a simple way. If only! Sex is empty in the extraordinarily haunted way in which mirrors are empty. This is a very hard thing to get over. Some people never do.
Bellamy has an unerring ability to find the verbal mot juste—and not just once, but over and over and over (and over) again. Her sentences are capable of vulpine rapidity, gleaming condensation, shaggy languor, and all sorts of other movements and gestures that astonish, please, unnerve. What separates her from other “experimental”—I employ quotes to help a little with the tiredness of the term—writers who have foregone the faded distinctions of traditional literary genre, is her simultaneous uncompromising antinomianism, a.k.a. weirdness, and stylistic rigor. Her science of the American phrase revises the “show don’t tell” chestnut so that it reads something like, “Exist and never ever cease opening your body and brain to what it might be to write this down.” Not mean. Be. Meaning is not lost in Bellamy’s prose, far from it, but it comes after enunciation. Only with the selection of the word that has the satisfactory texture, suppleness, drip, bite, brittleness, heat, ichor, etc., will meaning begin to pool and teem.
Bellamy’s writing feels simultaneously disconnected from the internet and intimately intertwined with it, too, full of strange contradictions related to being an insider and outsider, both at once. This amphibious quality is what allows her to so convincingly convey psychic and corporeal particularities of our time, to bring us figuratively and literally back to life. Her work simultaneously builds on earlier precedents—like Acker—and foreshadows and even exceeds the most surreal and antic moments in contemporary (auto)fiction by “very online” authors. But, more important, Bellamy’s writing takes on an ambiguous literary substance we seem at once to revile and crave: emotion. She doesn’t rail against our addiction to emotion in its triter manifestations (i.e., sentimentality) or exploit our weakness for it, yet she is engaged with it nevertheless. She tracks it. She tirelessly mimics it, reinscribes it, questions it, drives it out of her body ahead of the cursor, plays with it. She is one of the handful of living writers I know of who have had the force, courage, and maybe also the luck (but what is luck other than hard work) to go beyond cliché.
Date: March 1, 2022
Publisher: The Baffler
Format: Print, web
Link to the essay.
This essay appears in the print edition of The Baffler, March 2022, issue 62, "Political Fictions."