Unnerved and a Bit Delirious

February 20, 2015   •   By Aaron Shulman

THE UNIVERSITY OF PENNSYLVANIA, a first novel by Caren Beilin, is bananas in the best possible way. Winner of the 2013 Noemi Press Book Award for Fiction, Beilin gives a “boiling violet kick” (a phrase I’m lifting from her prose) not just to taboo but to the form of the novel itself. I finished her short book feeling unnerved and a bit delirious.

First, on taboo. With a kind of insouciant aggressiveness (or is it an aggressive insouciance?), Beilin launches headlong from the first sentence into terrain that is both uncomfortable and strange: menstrual blood, the slaughter of horses for industrial gelatin, anal rape, and sex with inanimate objects. And at the same time, through often surreal juxtaposition, very familiar subjects — becoming an adult, friendship, parents, sexual awakening — are cast anew. And as Beilin notes below, it’s really just a story about college kids going through some stuff: the daughter of a surgeon, a young Amish man, the heiress of a gelatin fortune. Their lives and histories, and the history of Pennsylvania, collide, mix, and stew together.

Second, the form of the novel. Weighing in at less than 100 pages, The University of Pennsylvania’s scope seems to contradict its length. It is an epic in miniature, its panorama swiveling across time, space, point of view, experience, and voice. Its rule-breaking form does you the service of reminding you that there are in fact no rules.

Oh, and the language is gorgeous, and often Joycean. Pormanteaus abound, e.g., “robbinbattle,” “pepperstarriness,” and “wormvelvet.” Hebrew script is described as “a clatter of banisters.” An evening contains “the jellied spine of sunset.” A fist is a “small splayed bouquet of bone.” And the descriptions of everything reproductive-organ related are wildly original: “a downturned cypress” is female public hair, a penis is “velvet surgery,” and “juiced daffodils” are … I’ll let you read the book to find out.

For this interview Beilin and I emailed back and forth over the course of a week.


AARON SHULMAN: I’m curious how you would describe your novel and what it’s about. Can you have a go at it?

CAREN BEILIN: In a fairly delusional moment of this book’s becoming, I was sending it to agents, and they really want an answer to this question. I was told by a monetarily successful writer that, no matter what, I had to pitch my book as adjective + page-turner, so I started describing it as a lyrical page-turner. I still like that impossibility! I also really like Joanna Ruocco’s description: “Part family gothic, part queer historiography,” because it’s a rewriting of not necessarily my family but a family I have felt, and it’s a rewrite of Pennsylvania history, or a re-transcription. It covers the founding of Pennsylvania, Bethlehem Steel, Jewish suburbia, immigrant Philadelphia, and my favorite, the origins of surgical education in America, as practiced at the hospital of the University of Pennsylvania. But I’d also simply say, it’s about a few students who meet at the University of Pennsylvania. I said this to someone recently and he enthused, “Oh, is it a coming-of-age tale?” and I enthused, “Why yes!” Emphasis on coming.

The director Mike Leigh was asked what one of his films was about and he said, “If I knew what it was about, I wouldn’t have made it.” Talk about a sensation of resonance.

Early on in the novel you state: "A good book is a pamphlet on how to leave your parents. A great book is longer and tells you how to leave your town. A very long book helps you with the waiting you are enduring." Where did these maxims come from, and what do you hope your novel would help someone wit

Oh, absolutely nothing! I love, in fiction, the gesture of the maxim, aphorism, declaration, that proud smack or toss, gesture of truth. Truth is a rashness. See, I can’t help myself. It’s why I love conspiracy theories and subscribe to quite a few of them. I love the gesture of remaking, or re-saying the world, of feeling a knowledge. The childhood scenes in this book depict some desperation, a yearning to leave home soon, and I felt this way as a child, and I needed to invent my own religion of what’s right, to conspiracy-theorize against my parents, all parents, to aphorize in the closet. To pronounce a maxim makes my heart fleet! I don’t hope to teach anyone anything, but perhaps I hope to fleet hearts.

At 83 pages this is a short, if densely packed novel, but it took you eight years from beginning to publication. I’d love to hear about the story of the writing of it, i.e., how much you threw out, and just generally how much work it takes when you’re going for something tight and short, which brings its own set of detours and difficulties.

Thanks for this question. It’s fun to acknowledge just the time and uncertainty and actually total blindness in writing a novel. I’m hooked on that — the big, blind project. Best fear of my life.

My biggest maxim out of all of this: Writing is humble erasure. That has become my chant. UPenn is 83 pages (which I hadn’t realized, my birth year!), but there’s, I don’t know, a thousand pages in its spaces. I’ve hacked out so much, have had so many phases, characters. I mean, for a while I was writing it as an astronomy textbook. In its earlier phases, it was more realist, because I still felt the pressures of realism, of having some kind of big orchestral, meaning-laden ending. I call that denouement syndrome.

Erasure has come from a sense of just devout deference to the reader, who I acknowledge is at lightning speed ahead of me. There is so much she does not need to hear, already knows and feels and has already read.

A huge turn in my process was when I started visiting the rare books room in the Marriott Library at the University of Utah. My novel had died, reached some kind of realism dead end — the orchestral meaning, it turned out, meaning nothing. I was desperate and bored, so bored, and I went to the rare books room and started copying out by hand a very old astronomy textbook, and the writing was crystalline, a tender, Christian happiness, I don’t know, it wasn’t a textbook. And I started just so slightly changing the endings of each sentence, until I was just writing them, like taking training wheels off of a bike, but crystalline wheels in this case. And then I read a lot from Pennsylvania’s founders and early surgeons and factory workers and Native Americans.

One of my favorite moments writing this: visiting the first surgical amphitheater in America at Pennsylvania Hospital. It is totally preserved, and you can visit it alone —there’s no guide, they just let you go in if you pay a small fee at the gift shop. Students would call this room The Dreaded Circle. I wrote the last scene sitting there, a double-tourist, of Pennsylvania Hospital and of my book.

Speaking of Pennsylvania, its history and variegated voices, one of the strangest, most subversive, and yet oddly moving parts of your novel is the reimagining of William Penn and George Fox’s relationship as gay lovers. Can you talk a bit about who they are for the state of Pennsylvania, who they became for you in your book, and what you were hoping to explore through re-mythologizing them?

William Penn is its Quaker founder and George Fox was a preeminent Quaker who Penn wrote about and corresponded with. The Quakers are thought of as exceptional — exceptionally peaceful, abolitionists, etc. But I believe it’s very difficult to conceptualize history. There are too many narratives, and everything’s a narrative. Penn is celebrated for a treaty he signed with the Lenape Indians in what is now called — wait for it — Penn Treaty Park. He signed this treaty under an elm tree, and people would make gift memorial boxes from its branches. But this is now recognized as completely apocryphal. The Lenape did not sign their land away.

In writing UPenn, I was interested in the way these figures infused my childhood as a young Pennsylvanian, and the way we learn things, what they become, freakish oblongs, in our minds. That we don’t learn anything — but are given things to imagine along. For me, Penn and Fox were fathers, gods — gentle saviors. They were over-fathers, my two gay dads, over my own.

At Quaker camp, we sang a song about George Fox: There’s an ocean of darkness but I drowned in the light, till I come through the darkness to an ocean of light, for the light is forever and the light is free, and I walk in the glory of the light, said he. As a child, I needed these gentle men, as they were given. What a song! As for their desire, this is a re-transcription. It’s all there in their letters. They loved each other terribly, longed for each other, prayed to encounter one another, pled. A group of them, including the Rittenhouse brothers, went out one night on Penn’s land with a telescope, passing the telescope voluptuously between them, in search of Venus. I’m not kidding.

Olivia Knox, one of the main characters, has womb duplicatum, "a rare affliction of continuous menstruation." This is a made-up condition (I think), but serves as a powerful metaphor for pain and shame in the novel. How did you come up with it and what were the challenges of making Olivia’s affliction real and relatable for the reader?

This is made up in the sense that I made it up while writing, but since I’ve given readings for this book, people totally come up and tell me they know someone with something like this, in some form or another. I did a lot of research but I restricted myself to what I could learn from reading in the rare books room. I never Wikipedia-ed. In some ways, it is depicted as incredibly unrealistic. The blood is rainbowous, and also, I don’t write at all about menstrual cramping. So for me, this condition swings between a realism (I describe a lot of blood and bleeding) and a figuration. Womb Duplicatum, for Olivia, makes life very difficult — it’s hard to sit in class, live in a dorm room, make friends, there’s always this excess happening. Her excess, at least in the beginning of the book, is her isolation. I’m interested in how excess gets celebrated or denied, particularly in female experience. But more, the writing of this novel, for me, became about writing in the menstrual mind, moonmind. I read a section of this to the artist Lili Lifanova and she was like, “Why is everything so dramatic, she’s just hanging out in the park?” I think my writing has PMS.

The language in your novel is incredibly poetic, enlivened, risk-taking, and beautiful. If a novel is conventionally a balance of form and context, University of Pennsylvania seems of the school that believes that form is content, or is at least as important as "plot." Thoughts?

Thank you. And sure, form is content. There’s a traditional idea of conflict in fiction, a conflict between characters or man vs. nature, that stuff. For me, there’s this whole other conflict, which I read for, which is the conflict of the writer, having to write what they’ve written, into this sublime saturation — the conflict of finding one’s way to. Conflict of a way through. A way to speak formally into the world. My way, I’ve found, at least in UPenn, is lyrical, is a way that sheds the sentence into the sentence, bares it as writing. There is talk of that, of a bare or spare writing, which seems to refer to masculine prose or realism — but for me, the lyrical, highly hexical sentence, sentence as excessive place, is another type (form?) of realism. I’ve been told by writing teachers to work hard to make my writing disappear. UPenn works hard to show things, the body, the female body, maybe the menstrual mind, and also to show the sentence, bare it as such. Without giving it away, I think the last line of the book is a pronunciation of this.

Who is your ideal reader for this novel?

There are multiple ideals! First of all, anyone. Please, someone. To narrow it down, maybe someone with a sensitive mind, perhaps fellow Cancers. Births of July, please read! My mother, who it’s in part dedicated to. The final draft I wrote to her, trying to give her as much help, as many stilts, as possible. She can read it like no other, she catches all the little flickers, the insides. She knows too much. My friends, who I wrote this with. Other people who have been told by writing teachers to make their writing disappear. Pennsylvanians, maybe. People who remember being young on Quaker-preserved land. Someone willing.

What has the experience been like seeking publication for, and then publishing, a highly unconventional, non-mainstream book? It feels like your novel belongs on the subversive indie edge. Is that right where you want it to be?

First, yes. Yes, I’m incredibly pleased and it feels just right to have published it with Noemi. I am reliant on poets-as-editors to consider my prose. My fiction chapbook is out with New Michigan Press only because a poet, Ander Monson, is in charge, and Noemi, similarly, has a very strong history of publishing poetry. My prose needs poets, I feel it. I’m grateful they’re willing to publish some fiction.

Books are miracles. I can’t believe mine gets to be an object, I certainly never felt sure. As I said, in earlier phases, I tried to send it to agents, but it’s not built for that world, which wants immediately apparent plotting, likable characters, a certain length (I basically wrote a pamphlet and call it a novel), all kinds of things. I sent it out to contests in 2013, was so touched to be a finalist in Fence’s first prose prize (the winner McGlue is the real deal, it’s tough and cool and beautiful), and exuberant to win Noemi’s contest for fiction. Now that it’s out, who knows. If writing is humble erasure, publishing is even worse. What is this? I hope someone reads it. I hope two people do. Conversations like this, friends, moments where you get to shout from it a bit at a reading, I just try to say, this is it, this is all there is. This is what a novel is. My mom calling so emotional when she saw the dedication. This is it. No more, now put your head back in the drawer.


Aaron Shulman is a freelance journalist who has written for The New RepublicThe American Scholar, and The Awl, among other publications.