RITA BULLWINKEL’S FIRST COLLECTION of short stories, Belly Up, jangles with the voices of other writers. Her fearless characterizations echo Jincy Willett (Jenny and the Jaws of Life); her stark, unsettling sentences evoke Joanna Ruocco (A Compendium of Domestic Incidents); her crafting of a tautological biosphere that only contains the kind of people who would appear in her stories suggests Miranda July (No One Belongs Here More Than You); and, for many reasons, her work calls to mind Guggenheim fellow Mary Gaitskill (Veronica, Don’t Cry). Singing through this braid of whispers is Bullwinkel’s own confident voice, which displays a talent for compression staggering in a debut collection and proves that the prose belongs to her alone.
Yet the writing feels elusive. This could be a function of narrative distance, something Belly Up has in spades. In one of the longer stories, “Arms Overhead,” events are fairly ordinary, but the two adolescent girls at its center provoke unease. Mary and Ainsley talk about plants, the ouroboros, and school, and a creepy teacher mildly humiliates one of them. But it’s never clear who they really are or what they are really like — by the end of the story are they going to turn cannibal or cheerleader?
Bullwinkel never shortens this distance, despite delivering insights both mundane and exceptional. In one scene, for instance, Mary watches her baby brother while her mother is in the kitchen:
He bunched his eyebrows and opened his toothless mouth as if he were going to scream. He sat there for a moment, silent, open-mouthed in his pre-tantrum. Mary looked at him in this state and thought it was one of the scariest things she had ever seen.
This passage is typical of Bullwinkel: from a certain vantage, yes, a child on the verge of a tantrum is terrifying, and how insightful of the author to point this out with such acute observation. But it’s not clear why it’s terrifying to Mary, or whether it matters that she is afraid.
In the opening story, “Harp,” the main character, Helen, decides to split and compartmentalize two aspects of herself after she is strongly affected by the sound of harps being tuned. There’s a deliberateness to Bullwinkel’s characterization of Helen that’s meant to indicate a comprehensive profile of the character, but the reader is kept at such a remove that it’s impossible to empathize.
Which is not to say this is essential for successful fiction, to generate empathy for characters. After all, Gaitskill’s detached stance toward her characters is part of why her work is so hypnotizing. She, too, creates characters without necessarily investing them with empathy-ready qualities, and she, too, writes with a narrative distance that approaches hostility. It’s never clear whose side she is on. Bullwinkel appears to be on the side of language, but beyond that her loyalties are murky.
Gaitskill’s 1988 debut, Bad Behavior, was a book of extraordinary, mature, complete short stories, none of which had been previously published. Bullwinkel’s collection mirrors this, as well. Her stories have appeared in tough-nut markets such as NOON and Tin House, but most of the longer stories in Belly Up are appearing for the first time, which is a surprise; these stories, like Gaitskill’s, are extraordinary, mature, and complete. They also showcase a knack for killer first sentences — “I was the type of man who got his ears cleaned,” “People kept dying and I was made to sleep in their beds,” and “There was a period of my life in which my primary source of income came from being a piece of furniture,” among them.
Gaitskill has never quite shaken the reputation — half literary wunderkind, half unabashed dominatrix — bestowed by Bad Behavior, but her later work is more interesting. This prompts curiosity about what Bullwinkel’s third or fourth book is going to be like. Will her stark sentences ever open wider than a fist? Will she combine her remarkable insight with greater empathy for her characters?
In a scene in “Clamor,” Bullwinkel describes a séance from the perspectives of everyone in the room, including a young military veteran and a retired woman and her granddaughters. Feelings are matter-of-fact and quickly dispensed with, while thoughts go on and on, such as in this passage:
the older teenage daughter, Izzy, who couldn’t help thinking that for all old peoples’ whining about children being stuck in their computers, that it was the older people who were the ones usually trapped in their own world, trapped in their made-up self-constructed narratives, not the youth. It was the older people like Lillian and her Grandma Carol and most well-off retirees that just told the same origin stories over and over again regardless of whether or not they were even true.
These stories play at the boundary between work that is thought-provoking and work that is thoughtful. A consequence of the utter lack of sentiment in this volume is the sense that although the reader may be fascinated, it’s hard to say if the author or the characters are. The characters often seem to act out of boredom or routine, and the author seems implacable to the point of incuriosity. Such clinical distance reveals the ineffable from a philosophical perspective but without human warmth.
Yet, again, warmth is not necessary for exceptional fiction, just as likability is not a necessary trait of female characters, and this clinical distance is generally an asset that makes Bullwinkel’s stories appealingly alien. In “Black Tongue,” for example, the narrator performs a gruesome act and muses on her brother’s inability to cope:
[T]here are the types of people who constantly envision what it would be like to be beheaded, and there are those who don’t. My brother is the latter. He is very satisfied with his veins and the work they do to keep his blood within him. He never thinks about what would happen if they exploded and it all went wrong.
It’s hard to find fault with such skillful sentences. Still, what would these stories sound like if they had heart? In Belly Up, a profound talent has manifested, one that is experimental in the best sense. All of these stories unspool in an atmosphere of exploration. But are Bullwinkel’s future explorations going to remain remote dissections of the outside world, her pen as sharp as a scalpel? Or will she, one day, decide to crack her own sternum to see what’s under there?