It’s always such a pleasure to hold a new book from Austin, Texas, small press A Strange Object. They’re a women-run outfit with an eye for bold writing and creative but unassuming book design. Their catalog is, thus far, humble; although they were founded in 2012, they’ve only published seven books. But each one feels carefully considered. The newest addition to A Strange Object’s line is McSweeny’s Editor Rita Bullwinkel’s debut collection Belly Up. It’s a dense and masterful book. It feels like a jungle in there, with bursts of flash fiction flitting between longer, winding, fleshed-out short stories.
I can appreciate stories that know their length and own it. Stories like “Nave” enter the mind of a young girl who begins feeding the belly button of her church. “Stuck them under the rug and mashed them up a bit with my foot so the nave wouldn’t have to chew,” the young girl explains. Feeding the church only increases its hunger, and the story reaches a chaotic, paranoid conclusion in barely over a page. But that’s exactly how long the story needed to be.
Belly Up’s meatiest offerings lay in the two longer short stories at its center, “What I Would Be If I Wasn’t What I Am” and “Arms Overhead.” Both focus on intense, twinning relationships that exist without beginning or end. “What I Would Be...” explores a woman mourning her husband, and her feeling that, after being married to him for such a long time, she can no longer separate herself from him, even in death. “Sleeping with other men has always been a bit tricky,” she explains. “I just can’t help thinking during the act that they are fucking Ray and me.... I feel that Ray is inside my chest, occupying half my brain, sharing the body that is taking place in the physical act.”
Similarly, in “Arms Overhead” Bullwinkel sets the reader down in a friendship between two bookish girls who are just entering high school. They share a dissociation that they will one day grow into flowers. It’s imaginable that the girls, Mary and Ainsley, will grow out of this delusion, but Bullwinkel never shows that. Instead, the conversation between them frequently returns to an idea of self-cannibalism—another reference to the image of an ouroboros.
In “What I Would Be...” Ray is not gone because he still exists in the body of his wife. They’ve merely changed, like anything that grows. Mary and Ainsley don’t turn into flowers, but begin to think they’d rather grow up to be something strong like squash. In the great imagination of Rita Bullwinkel, these twinning relationships have always been, continue to grow, and will never end.