in review: Belly Up
by Rita Bullwinkel
Publication Date: May 8, 2018
Publisher: A Strange Object
In Belly Up, all of Rita Bullwinkel’s characters are ghosts, haunted, or both. Those that are not explicitly ghosts maintain ghostly qualities, existing between different worlds, appearing as haunting presences to us in their remoteness, their inaccessibility. Bullwinkel’s ghosts include dead strangers, dead husbands, dead neighbors’ husbands, husbands in prison camps, drowned lovers, book characters, breast holders, criminals, snakes, the people that frequent 24-hour donut shops, prisoners, old men, cousins, children, soldiers, childhood friends, Floridians.
“Generally, real people don’t live in Florida. Just ghosts who are being held in Limbo for punishment of gluttony or charging interest on loans,” Bullwinkel writes. This line might well sum up all of the characters—“real people” and identified ghosts—in Belly Up. Here is not the land of real people, but rather of characters held in Limbo, reckoning with or forcibly ignoring the sins of their life—sins imposed upon them by the world or bubbling up from the surface of their past.
The power of Bullwinkel’s stories comes from their humor, from Bullwinkel’s deft ability to build a world, and from the ambiguous relationships between characters that remain irreducible to one singular identity or another. The book’s tone and themes are evocative of Miranda July’s No One Belongs Here More Than You, with descriptions of regular people—singular women mostly—who find themselves in absurd, often sexual situations that interrogate empowerment and discomfort. The best stories, such as “Mouth Full of Fish,” “Clamor,” and “Decor,” stretch with moral dilemma, with clashing complex characters, daubing on humor with a light touch while delivering an assertively outlined world through vivid description. She literally does this in “Decor,” wherein the protagonist self-consciously imagines room after room, down to the decorative knobs on the bars of the kitchen stools. “Mouth Full of Fish” maintains some of the strongest dialogue and engages with ethical questions in a manner that does not simplify but knots us further into the heart of the matter, refusing to attribute virtuosity to any character.
For all its strengths, I found issue with the systematic haunting at play in Belly Up—not the ghosts themselves, flitting in and out of stories and lives, but rather what these ghosts stand for and what they are still here to do. Throughout the stories, the ghosts return, in their best moments, to question a woman’s place in American society, to interrogate embodiment and sex, and to illustrate how womanhood and one’s body are related to sexual and emotional relationships. In their weaker moments, they elide any real non-cis-heterosexual relationships, creeping toward them at times, but ultimately avoiding any acknowledgement of other forms of love. In the updates to classic genre pieces, some aspects stick to tradition: race is skirted around, aided by pronouns that denote “humans” and “woman” and “man” and “girl” (the mention of the immigrant man stands out in its explicit reference to an Other). Perhaps one might argue that Bullwinkel’s concern is with broader, more universal matters; her questions are ones of existence. But is that enough? Whose existence deserves questions and answers? Who is haunted? And who is doing the haunting? These questions are not quite answered, and these are the questions that haunt the text like the spectral figures that populate its pages.