INTRODUCTION BY KALI FAJARDO-ANSTINE
I read The Book of X by Sarah Rose Etter in a single night, absorbed for hours by Cassie’s life with her stomach in a literal knot. I couldn’t get enough. The book is both conceptually and stylistically like nothing I’ve read before. Etter’s debut novel is set in a world with similarities to our own (its ugliness toward women, for example), but it’s an altered reality that includes quarries of meat, gold coin currency, and three generations of women plagued by knotted torsos.
In this excerpt, Cassie has grown up and moved away from the family meat quarry in the country and into the city on her own. This section highlights some of the issues Etter covers so deftly throughout the novel: the politics of gender and class, the isolation and humiliation often found in the workplace, and the loneliness that can ensue when our working lives aren’t enough to nourish the soul.
I’ve recommended The Book of X to nearly everyone I know. I’ve described it as a surrealist, feminist coming-of-age tale told through the eyes of tangled Cassie. Etter’s prose is cinematic, sparse, effortlessly moving with quick and authentic dialogue. And I know her characters, they’ve taken up residence alongside my own memories of gendered desire, fear, and loneliness. I know that spitfire mother, that friend whose wild exuberance gave way to early marriage, that high school cool guy who is nothing more than an evil man.
The Book of X glimmers like a cracked mirror reflecting our own grotesque features. It is a novel that stays with you long after you’ve put it down. Weeks ago, at a red light, I peered across the intersection at a semi-truck loaded with rust-colored lumber. It was only a moment, but on the back of that truck I thought I saw thick slabs of red meat, quarried from a canyon. As the light turned green and I drove on, I couldn’t help but think The Book of X possessed that mark of great literature—a novel’s ability to alter perception, fundamentally influencing a reader’s construction of reality. That is to say, The Book of X changed me, and I think you’ll feel transformed by it, too.
Author of Sabrina & Corina: Stories
Living Alone When Your Stomach is Literally in a Knot
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An excerpt from The Book of X
by Sarah Rose Etter
I rent a small apartment in the belly of the city, far from where I grew up. I take my knot and my lessons and start again.
Each month, I send in the rent. The apartment is mine that way: I pay to keep my body there at night.
Each morning, I read the jobs section of the newspaper, black print fingers streaking my face and the white walls of the apartment. The headlines read:
LEGAL CLERK NEEDED
ODD JOB EXPERT DESIRED
WANTED: PASSIONATE TYPIST
Let me tell you how the city feels to me: It is an orchestra of rusting metal, heaving trucks and sharp silver buildings, full of bodies, faces, color, electricity.
On the small squares of grass, there are small piles of dog shit. In each concrete corner, there is a small pool of urine. On the walls, there are electric scrawls of graffiti in a language I do not know.
At night, the skyline shoots out pinpricks of light and I am in awe. In the morning, I get trash caught on my ankles, greased Styrofoam making its sound against my skin. Even that is beautiful.
On the streets, I blur into the population. I mix into the faces.
Here, no one notices my knotted body unless they get too close. They don’t even realize there is a pool of sweat in the largest crevice, into which one might toss a very small pebble, causing ripples.
“Got any change?” a man screams from a wheelchair.
His mouth hangs open, a single tooth protruding from the red of his collapsing gums.
“This world is pain!” screams a woman next to him.
Her eyes are bloodshot, watery, weary.
I slide a gold coin into each of their cups.
“What the fuck you looking at?” screams the woman. “Get moving, bitch! This isn’t a movie!”
I disappear quick, knot throbbing hard, into the smear of the city’s faces.
My apartment is up a wide flight of stairs. It is on the second floor, a small one bedroom with wide windows, dark wooden floors, white walls, a tiny kitchen. It is like the house at The Acres in this way.
I don’t have much: My clothes and books, a few rocks which glisten in the sun.
Outside, a constant chorus of noise: Breaking glass, trash trucks, arguments, a baby sobbing out all the tragedies of the world through its wailing.
The ad I choose from the paper says:
WANTED: PASSIONATE TYPIST
Can you type quickly and with passion? We want to add you to our vibrant, culturally dynamic office. We offer competitive salary, free water, and a positive workplace. To apply, please send a photograph from the neck up.
“And how would you contribute to the culture here in addition to typing up my daily notes?” the man in the suit asks.
The bald sheen of his head shines through several slicked, thin hairs. His skin is covered in strange red freckles, a blotching which travels beneath collar and shirt sleeve. The dead skin of his face is caught on his eye glasses, which are smeared with the thin yellow grease of his fingers and cheeks.
A stack of papers sits on his desk, many folders, an old mug of coffee. I picture myself typing up the notes every single day. Then, I picture my fingers in the brown sludge ringing his coffee mug, smearing it across my face like war paint.
“I would smile pretty frequently,” I say, smiling. “I bring a positive energy to the workplace.”
“Excellent,” he says. “We don’t appreciate frowning here.”
“Absolutely,” I nod and smile.
“And as for your… condition?” he asks. He uses his eyes to gesture to my knot. “Are you with child?”
“Oh no, no. It’s just a knot. It won’t stop me from doing my job,” I explain. “It’s just how I look.”
“Fantastic. We like to give people opportunities,” he explains. “I believe in rewarding a hard worker, no matter the ah… circumstances.”
I shake his hand over the desk.
Each morning, I yank the stray hairs from my face, brush my teeth, apply my makeup.
Then I put on the costume for work: Black pants, white blouse, green cardigan, low-heeled black shoes.
Before I leave, I put in my false heart, which sits in front of my regular heart. The false heart is made of thin red plastic and covers my real heart, quiets the beating, an extra protection.
I walk slowly to the office. I have a short daydream about my body back home, in bed, in the warmth and sheets. The vision washes over me like a drug, what a pleasant pleasure just to imagine it.
At my desk, I type the bald man’s notes. My fingers buzz across the keyboard, letters kicked up like the black wings of crushed bugs.
“My god, you’re fast,” the boss says.
“Thank you,” I say.
“You’re like a goddamn automatic weapon,” he says. “What did you do this weekend?”
I go clammy, a bit of sweat on the brow, in the palms, beneath the arms.
“Nothing much,” I say.
A deep silence stands between us, my mouth a closed shell I pry open.
“…And you?” I tack on.
“Oh, you know, took the old boat out, a few rounds of golf, a nice steak.”
“That sounds lovely,” I say.
He offers a wink through his greasy glasses, upon which I note the specific swirls of his fingerprints.
“You keep typing that fast, that could be your life someday,” he says.
I picture it: My mouth full of steak, the steak in my mouth, the steak between my teeth, strings of fat in the molars, my jaw aching from always chewing, chewing and swallowing until I’m so full that my throat sews itself shut.
- Most workers spend 1,896 hours per year at the office
- The average office worker spends 50 minutes per day looking for lost files
- Stewardesses is one of the longest words typed with only the left hand
- A typist’s fingers travel 12.6 miles on the average work day
There is nothing to it, the motions, I go through them each day.
I build a new life out of minutes filled with small actions, my distraction techniques:
STARING THROUGH WINDOW
I repeat and I repeat and I repeat. I inch toward death.
Each night at home, I wash off the mask. Then, I place the false heart in a small black box on the dresser.
After, I make a simple dinner: Chicken, starch, vegetable. The meat tastes gray in my mouth.
The silence of the apartment swells. Later, in bed, my mind churns, my organs grind against each other, a swarm of bees thrum through my veins until I slide my hand between my legs, until the sweet pink rush before I sleep.
Each Friday, the boss carries a small black velvet pouch. This is called PAY DAY and it is marked on the calendar with a single exclamation point.
“Good job again this week,” he says. “Here’s what makes the world go ’round, am I right?”
He gives me a wink.
“The world goes ’round,” I say.
The pouch settles on my desk with a thud. I can hear the weight of it. I open it slowly, pour the golden coins into my hand.
I count the coins, one by one, into my palm where they glint briefly in the sun. Soon enough the coins gone, out into the open mouths of debt and food.
In the bar, bottles line the mirrored walls. I catch a glimpse of my eyes between their necks.
A man sits next to me. His nose is sharp, his eyes are deep green, his hair brown. His smell is my father’s same smell: sour, sweet, a thin layer of meat at the base of it.
“Hello,” I say.
“Hey there. You come here often?” he asks.
“No, I usually just stay home and cry in bed,” I say.
He lets out a laugh.
“What do you do?”
“I type the company notes every day,” I say. “What do you do?”
“I’m a law man,” he says. “I deal with the laws.”
“Does that impress you?”
He reaches into his pocket and pulls out a handful of gold coins. He sits them on the bar. I smell him again, that deep smell, and I want his hands on me.
“Does it now?”
“Sure,” I say.
His hand finds my leg and squeezes. I let it happen, I want it to happen, I follow that feeling with him, out into the night, then into my apartment.
In the dim light of my small kitchen, he puts his hands on my shoulders. I keep my mouth on him. He tastes sharp.
“You smell so good,” he says into my skin, into my shoulder. His hands slide down my arms to my waist, where they discover my knot.
“Wha…” he asks.
“Oh, it’s just… I was born with it.”
“What the hell is it?” he asks, his fingers digging into the curves.
“It’s just this thing… my mother has it too, it’s a knot…”
“Your body is a knot?”
“Well just… my stomach, yes…”
“Show it to me, right now.”
I step back and lift my dress slowly, until his eyes can take it all in, my warped body.
“Look, you’re great. You are. But I don’t… I don’t think I can do this,” he mutters. “This isn’t for me.”
I drop my dress back down over the knot. I nod.
“It’s OK, I understand.”
A succession of sounds: Doors opening and closing, the car engine starting, tires kicking up loose rock from the asphalt, then the silence again, always only silence for me.
The break room at work is painted orange. The refrigerator is filthy white from our fingerprints. A low light buzzes above my head. I spoon my soup into my mouth, split pea green between the lips.
“Whatcha got there?” asks Brenda.
The pain still trembles through my knot, a pain Brenda cannot see or comprehend. Brenda has chopped brown bangs, watery brown eyes. Her shirt hangs sloppily over her thin frame. A small barrette holds back her bangs, giving a childlike appearance to her grown body.
“Soup,” I say, gesturing to the soup.
“Ooooh,” she says. “Soup! What kind?”
This is an attempt at friendship, a forcing, another labor among the current labor.
“I wish I had some soup!” she says, pulling her own lunch from her bag: A sandwich on square white bread with a limp piece of green lettuce between the crusts. She slides the sandwich between her thin lips, takes a bite, then speaks.
“You know, I know a guy who fixes that,” she says, her eyes on my torso.
The longer her eyes are on my knot, the brighter my rage glows. I stuff it down into my belly.
“Yep, he’s even been on the local news,” she says. “His name is Dr. Richard Richardson.”
“Is that right?”
“Mhmm, he’s got these special injections to help girls like you. He’s a miracle worker. I went to see him for the corns on my feet. He fixed all 12 of ’em, they never came back. He froze them right off!”
I picture a dozen pieces of bad toe skin fluttering to the floor, one by one. She takes a pen from her back pocket and jots the number in black ink on a white napkin, which I jam into my back pocket.
I wash my bowl in the sink, imagining her awful feet, the awful frozen skin of her toes fluttering to the ground around her, the shed petals of a dead flower.
“You were late this morning,” the boss says, standing over my desk. “I came looking for you and couldn’t find you.”
My hair is dirty. There are dirty half-moons beneath my fingernails. I notice the faint scent of filth wafting from between my legs. My blood is sand in the veins.
“I’m sorry,” I say. “I overslept.”
“Work late,” he says. “Don’t let it happen again.”
A brief hallucination: I smash the windows out, scream until the metal cabinets collapse, until the fluorescent lights rain down on my face in a shatter of glass, blood streaking my face. Then I leave early.
Instead, I put my head down. I work. I sit at my desk, a good worker until the sun sets, until the clock’s hands touch a certain number.