In a Surreal San Francisco, Depression Is a Literal Black Hole

Sarah Rose Etter's novel "Ripe" underscores the costs of living next to opulence without actually having it

Photo by Patrick Perkins on Unsplash

Sarah Rose Etter loves to write women with surreal maladies. The Book of X, which won the Shirley Jackson Award in 2019, follows Cassie, a girl who was born on a meat farm with a knot—an actual, physical knot—in her stomach. The knot doesn’t represent any one specific thing, but rather serves as an off-kilter lens for Cassie to interrogate her relationship to her body and her body’s relationship to the world.

Etter’s second novel Ripe is about a young woman, also named Cassie, who has always been accompanied by a tiny, personal black hole that only she can see. The black hole doesn’t seem to be a threat in and of itself. At least, Cassie is able to live her life and show up for her fancy job at a shiny tech startup without visible interference. But it’s always there. When Cassie is able to have a moment of peace in an art gallery, or experience a connection with another person, it gets a little smaller. When she’s overwhelmed by the demands of her job, anxious about climate change, or dreading an unplanned pregnancy, the hole grows, sometimes blocking Cassie’s field of vision. 

Ripe seems to be about feeling too big and too small at the same time. The novel draws on Etter’s own time working in Silicon Valley and her own experiences of loss and depression, as well as hours of research into the science of black holes. 

In a Zoom interview, we spoke about the grief underpinning the novel, navigating systemic issues while dealing with your own mental health, and the potential to reclaim labels like “surreal.”

Shelbi Polk: Where did the story of Ripe come from?

Sarah Rose Etter: So, there are two layers. The big one is that I worked in Silicon Valley for about a year, and I would call my dad all the time and be like, “I’m seeing this crazy shit. It’s nuts here. I shouldn’t have come here.” And he would talk me down—a lot of what you see in the book is directly taken from his advice. He passed away right before we went into lockdown, but he always told me, when I was in Silicon Valley, “Write it down. You’re gonna write a novel about this, and you’re gonna make a million dollars.” After he died and we were in isolation, I didn’t really have anywhere else to go with the grief. So I thought, I’ll just write the book that he told me to write.

The Book of X, he really loved it. He would keep copies in the trunk of his car and hand them out, very proud papa. But this, I think, is more commercial and a little less crazy. And I think that’s kind of in service to him. I think he would have wanted me to write something a little more accessible, and that’s how it became what it is.

SP: I thought it was really interesting how Cassie’s father in the book loves her very deeply, he cares about her best interests, but he thinks that the money and the prestige of a Silicon Valley job are it. He truly believes working in tech is what will be best for her. I don’t know if that’s a generational divide, but it created an interesting tension—and it sounds like your dad was maybe not sold on Silicon Valley in the same way, which is great.

SRE: No, he was. I think it is generational. I think toward the end of his life, he started to realize that there was more than that. But I do think what we’re seeing right now is a direct response to being raised by a generation of parents who told us that if we get the degrees, if we get the jobs, if we do all the right things, we’ll get the house, we’ll get the life, we’ll do better than them. And although financially we might in some cases be making more than they did, it doesn’t matter because everything is still out of reach. And now, alongside that conversation, we’re also having conversations about pay equality and who actually makes money. We’re starting to revisit things like labor strikes and unions. So yeah, I think the reason this is more than a book about San Francisco, or even tech, is because the bigger issue is, if you bought into that, then this is the situation you are in: a toxic work environment without enough money.

SP: Yeah, it doesn’t have to be San Francisco—but I do think it was a perfect setting because issues like climate and class are so heightened and so obvious there. Cassie was relatable in that she acknowledges these issues, and she thinks about them enough to feel anxiety. But yet she can’t do anything about them, and she can’t find any peace either. I imagine you lived some of that?

SRE: Yeah, when I lived in San Francisco, I remember feeling very jangled, unsettled, at all times. I felt like I was living on the edge of the world and just watching the world collapse. And part of that was because I think I got there after the gold rush, just a little too late to actually get the money. And so, you have this kind of working-class person grasping at the ability to pull themselves up and just not quite getting there and a company exploiting that.

And then, in addition, there’s also the fact that these giant problems—like the insanely rapid pace in which we’ve increased the unhoused population, the climate issues—some of these things are beyond weekend volunteer work and a recurring donation. Let me tell you what most people with severe depression who aren’t making enough money are doing for the unhoused: their best. I wanted to be really realistic about how we are all operating in the world, which is at a remove from these giant systems that we don’t feel like we have any control over and which our elected officials are not trying to change.

SP: The jacket copy says Cassie is never alone because of her black hole. But reading the book, I felt like it was the exact opposite. I felt like having a black hole was the loneliest thing possible, that it was a symbol to emphasize her lack of connection. I guess it’s kind of a joke?

SRE: Yeah, it’s tongue in cheek, right? The black hole was a tricky one. That was probably what took the longest to figure out because in certain drafts it was talking to her. In certain drafts, it had a hum that had words in it. In certain drafts, it was eating all the techies because I was trying to personify something that we don’t understand. I kept thinking to myself, Sarah, you’re an idiot. Why have you tried to make a character out of this thing we can’t even explain in real life? But I also felt like I had done enough research on black holes that I could have spoken at a conference. In the basement, you know. I wouldn’t be on the main stage. But it was one of the most challenging things I’ve ever had to work through, and it looks really short and small on the page. But that is years of research. And then, we were discovering new things about black holes as I was writing the ending, so the ending kept changing. Is there a wormhole in there? Is there a portal? And so, for me, it felt nice to be able to give space to the depression I have faced my whole life, and [to acknowledge] how it never really goes away, but it does change. And the same is true of grief. Hopefully, it reads very similarly to the knot in The Book of X, which was kind of a stand-in for body issues, or anxiety, or whatever you’re carrying. The black hole is depression for Cassie. But for me, it might feel more like the way I’ve been experiencing grief, which changes shape and size.

It felt nice to be able to give space to the depression I have faced my whole life, and to acknowledge how it never really goes away.

SP: Another element that I loved was the religious imagery around the company. Cassie calls her coworkers “believers,” but I was fascinated by how well she mimics their devotion. She’s playing the game, and she’s doing it well. And it made me wonder how isolated she really was. How many others around her were doing the same thing? If she had just told the truth, would she have found allies?

SRE: My experience of San Francisco was that you could not dare to speak up because they would find out. I had a friend who—one of the girls in the book talks about this a little—signed an NDA that prohibited her from saying why she was stressed out. It was very much a place cloaked in secrecy. And if they catch, for even a second, a crack in the mask, you’re going to hear about it. Like when Cassie throws up in the bathroom, and then an hour later, she gets taken on a walk, and her boss asks if she’s sick. It would never be a direct, “Hey, I heard you throw up in the bathroom. Are you okay? I’m worried about you.” But they would know. I think the tension is actually that if she speaks, she’s done there. I think they just made it illegal to do this, but when I was there, at most tech companies, when you left, you had to sign the NDA. They would give you your final check on your last day, and they would sit there with the NDA and the check. And you didn’t really have time to go, “well, I need a lawyer to look at this.” That’s also why you see stories coming out about CEOs years later. It’s when the NDA ran out.

SP: Doing my research for this piece, I saw that you’ve spoken on surrealism as feminism before, and I would love to hear more about that.

SRE: I was at a dinner with some academic who was riding my ass about using surrealism as a term. I know that it’s a choice that comes with some tension because it’s traditionally been a word for white men, and I know a lot of women and people of color throughout time have rejected it as a label because it was created by white men. But I also think language is made to change and evolve. So, if we believe that language is allowed to shift and change, when surrealism is being used to deal with issues of gender or race politics, can’t we just take it back from the dead white guys? I can’t think of a better way to describe my work, because magical realism, that’s not what’s going on here. And then on top of that, I want to push back on the idea that we just have to hand the label over to these dead white guys. Especially when I look around me, and my peers are using it to drive home really important things that are underscoring inequality, that are underscoring body issues. So yeah, I do think we are in a place where we can redefine that word and rethink our use of it.

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