Ripening and Rotting in the Uncanny Valley: On Sarah Rose Etter’s “Ripe”

Hannah Bonner reviews Sarah Rose Etter’s new novel “Ripe.”

By Hannah BonnerSeptember 2, 2023

Ripening and Rotting in the Uncanny Valley: On Sarah Rose Etter’s “Ripe”

Ripe by Sarah Rose Etter. Scribner. 288 pages.

IN SARAH ROSE ETTER’S second novel, Ripe (2023), the proletariat doesn’t ultimately eat the rich: it is neoliberal technocracy that eats them all. Etter’s narrative follows Cassie, a millennial and Silicon Valley neophyte, who joins the startup company VOYAGER out of economic precarity and a desire to do something distinguishing. Cassie is the head writer on VOYAGER’s marketing team, snorting a line of cocaine every morning to help her to cope with the day’s demands, and her boss Sasha criticizes her with more fervor than a barre instructor. Cassie could be any young working woman with no disposable income, but who believes that, with “adjustments,” she “eventually […] could be beautiful.” She buys discounted frosted cakes for consolation, only to discover cockroaches teeming within the sponge. She may or may not be pregnant by a chef in an open relationship who gifts her gourmet donuts and never stays the night.

For Cassie, living in San Francisco is apocalyptic and stupefying. Those who read Anna Wiener’s 2020 memoir Uncanny Valley will recognize this devastating, albeit fictionalized, urban environment. People self-immolate on the street, openly defecate, or throw themselves in front of oncoming trains. In the morning train commute, the Silicon Valley employees “blu[r] into the same person,” like the herd of workers in the opening of Charlie Chaplin’s Modern Times (1936). Cassie’s job reports include strategies for monetizing people’s attention so that they remain glued to their screens, or lying on behalf of her toxic boss to underpaid employees in Pakistan. While VOYAGER’s name suggests innovation and techno-utopianism, the company occupies the bottom rung of diversity reports and dabbles in illegal activity to squash competition. People speak peppily of juice cleanses, Pilates, or their sneakers “made from recycled soda cans.” But while virtue signaling is rampant, intimacy and ethics are scarce.

As Cassie observes her co-workers, she notes that, while she knows “their smells, their eating habits, the number of times they go to the bathroom in a day,” it is the kind of “information shared between friends and lovers, but we are neither.” Though these co-workers will flippantly share “the most traumatic thing that has ever happened to [them]” while on lunch break, the revelations are in the spirit of team bonding and, therefore, strategic. Despite missing her father’s support, Cassie cannot afford to return home. Her overbearing and spendthrift mother has driven their family to the point of financial instability, and a black hole hovers over Cassie everywhere she goes like a tether—or a knot.

If parts of Ripe’s plot sound a bit like Etter’s 2019 novel The Book of X, that’s because they overlap like concentric circles. Both protagonists are named Cassie, and both come from households where their mothers can be punishing, their fathers sympathetic, and their cities dual hellscapes of impoverishment and isolation. When Cassie describes her birth in The Book of X, she could be describing Ripe’s universe: “Outside, beyond the bright white lights of the hospital, the machine of the world kept grinding on, a metal mouth baring its teeth, a maw waiting to clench down on us.” Ripe similarly opens by describing San Francisco as “cold sunset over glinting water, dark hills dusted with lights, the black silhouettes of palm fronds clawing at the fading pastel sky.” In both books, the women’s environments are anthropomorphized and menacing. But while The Book of X scintillates with surrealism and the oneiric, Ripe’s world sits squarely within our own. There are no meat quarries or throat fields in Ripe, but this Cassie faces horrific economic inequality, soulless VOYAGER sycophants, and an inability to achieve intimacy that is not dependent on drugs or self-deception.

As if they are fraternal twins, one Cassie has a knot in her stomach, the other a black hole over her being that waxes and wanes. The black hole, like the knot in The Book of X, is matrilineal. In Ripe, Cassie states, “In the beginning, I almost didn’t know my mother’s face. The black hole would hover between us, eclipsing her.” In this way, the black hole is also a shield. “My mother stung and stung,” Cassie elaborates. “Her words stung. Her fury stung. Her palm stung across my skin. Some part of love must be the stinging.” In The Book of X, as she browses through an old magazine when she should be cleaning, Cassie’s mother’s “brown eyes flash, then froth, rabid. […] Then her palm stings across my cheek in a quick flash of red.” Kindness, like capital, is hard to come by amongst the women in Etter’s worlds.

In an effort to dissociate or escape, both Cassies cope with their environments through self-proclaimed “visions” or “fantasies.” For Cassie in The Book of X, “[b]right visions rush over [her], scenes from a golden life in another world.” In Ripe, Cassie’s fantasies are bespeckled with the blood of revenge. When Sasha gifts Cassie a white plate emblazoned with “She Believed She Could and So She Did,” Cassies “take[s] a moment to indulge a fantasy: smashing the plate against the wall, white shards flying, bits of porcelain in our faces and hair, the small bloody gashes across our skin marking us as true sisters.” This flavor of girlboss feminism doesn’t sit well with our corporate acolyte who can almost succumb to “a flood of boss bitch affirmations” on the radio but ultimately would shun Sophia Amoruso’s neologisms.

Unlike The Book of X’s “visions,” which process trauma or indulge in wishful thinking, the “fantasies” in Ripe are more nefarious and toothed. To be a woman in these worlds is to succumb to physical or psychic violence not just once, but often. To escape these cycles or perpetuate them can feel like the only two options, and in Ripe, it’s the latter. Cassie’s only moment of professional success occurs when she helps Sasha and their company’s CEO scheme to take down their competitor so that they’ll never work again. Cassie receives positive reinforcement at the cost of destroying another institution’s livelihood. After all, Ripe is a novel of appetites where hunger is never sated and where consumption fuels the necessity to consume, and thus labor (however cruelly), more.

On a formal level, Ripe and The Book of X share additional similarities by devoting significant real estate to definitions or historical and scientific trivia, including the definition of a black hole in Ripe. Etter’s decision to return to the identical formal choices of her previous novel might at first feel pat and propaedeutic rather than pioneering. Whereas in The Book of X such moments complemented the hybrid nature of the surrealist text, in Ripe these moments feel ancillary, interrupting the flow of Etter’s otherwise effortless prose, traditional narrative structure, and newest iteration of Cassie. Indeed, it is in the revival of Cassie’s character that Etter’s more provocative participation in—or engagement with—capitalism lies. To wit, Etter’s use of multiple Cassies feels like a meta-commentary on capitalism’s mode of production, particularly as it pertains to media and, more specifically, franchise conglomerates.

The link to cinema is not a baseless one. At the beginning of Ripe, Cassie describes music from her earbuds “mak[ing] the commute feel like a movie” and the black hole as “a dark dot on the film of [her] life.” There is a palpably blockbuster intertextuality to both Etter’s authorial choices and Scribner’s marketing of Ripe. The publisher’s decision to gift a pill case, sleeping mask, tissue pack, or pomegranate chapstick with preorders of Ripe is not unlike that of film franchises to sell clothing, toys, and soundtracks in the lead-up to a blockbuster’s release. New Hollywood films in the 1970s like Jaws (1975) and Star Wars (1977) redefined the marketing strategies that had heretofore led to box office releases. In addition to print and radio press, there was an entire ancillary market employed to incentivize interest (and income). The ancillary market for Hollywood products also laid the groundwork for the movie sequel, a ploy that Hollywood films rely on today. With this framework, one could consider Ripe a sequel to The Book of X—or perhaps a midquel, a parallel universe of The Book of X if Cassie hadn’t suicided at the end.

Cassie’s research into the black hole serves as a metaphor for the slippage between Etter’s two narratives. As Cassie says in Ripe, “[S]pace-time becomes so warped that it twists in on itself, ripping a hole through the very fabric of reality […] Space and time switch places.” So too have the two protagonists of Etter’s books crossed places in terms of plot points, themes, or form. This is where the definition of the black hole at the beginning of Ripe elucidates the metaphor rather than obfuscates it. As Etter writes, “Black holes are confrontations with the collapse of space and time.” Ripe appears to be a multiverse manifestation of such spatial and temporal collapse. Ergo, at a crucial juncture in Ripe’s narrative, Cassie considers two options before her: one is death and the other is “I survive, and I find myself in another dimension, another timeline, another life entirely.”

Is this second option Etter’s alternative ending for Cassie in The Book of X? Such a reading is a more interesting way for me to engage with Etter’s hotly awaited follow-up to The Book of X’s success. The danger of such a reading is that it provokes an inevitable comparison: which iteration of Cassie (i.e., which book of Etter’s) do you prefer? I’m not solely interested in the question of ranking based on personal taste, however. For me, Ripe’s potency lies not in its didactic critique of capitalism but in its engagement with capitalism through its narrative, formal, and marketing choices, indebted to a multiverse framework. And if there is any veracity to my interpretation, there is also a gesture of love in Etter’s decision to resurrect Cassie from The Book of X that I find both moving and instructional as a writer attentive to my own recurring obsessions.

While Etter’s two narratives may twist together before pulling apart, it must be said that their target audiences might not necessarily overlap. Ripe will appeal to readers of Wiener’s memoir if they had preferred it to be laced with the disillusioned ennui of Raven Lelani’s Luster (2020) and the addictive propulsion of HBO’s Euphoria (2019– ). Without the lush lyricism and surrealism that made The Book of X such a deservedly timeless cult classic, Ripe is a straightforward parable of a working woman in the soul-sucking environs of Big Tech. Though some writers may return to their obsessions over and over again, Etter demonstrates through the dialectic between The Book of X and Ripe that Cassie’s narrative has infinite possibilities. That the latest iteration feels provisional, not perfect, does not diminish its pleasure.


Hannah Bonner is currently a creative nonfiction MFA candidate at the University of Iowa.

LARB Contributor

Hannah Bonner’s essays and criticism have appeared, or are forthcoming, in Another Gaze, Bright Wall/Dark Room, Cleveland Review of Books, Literary Hub, The Rumpus, The Sewanee Review, and Senses of Cinema. She is a 2023–24 NBCC Emerging Critics Fellow and a graduate of the creative nonfiction MFA program at the University of Iowa, where she also earned an MA in film studies. Her first poetry collection, Another Woman, is forthcoming from EastOver Press.


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