The day before I got my hands on a copy of Dodie Bellamy’s essay collection, When the Sick Rule the World, I was standing in a middle school classroom, asking a young Iraqi girl what was going on in Baghdad on the day she was born. She just looked at me without saying a thing. I immediately felt like the worst person in the world.
Later, a friend would explode with laughter when I told her about my obscene prodding. It reminded her of the time she facilitated a support group, “I mean, I wanted to ask the women I worked with if their husbands had raped them again last night, but I waited for them to bring it up.” She suggested that I apologize to the girl, prostrate myself before her, beg, which I did, sort of, eventually. I find it a rare gift that this friend, really more like a godmother, was able to view the moment with such a perfect blend of affection toward my good intentions and despair on behalf of this young child, born into war, now under siege by a creative writing prompt.
In the second class I taught that day, I tried to be a little less aggressive while offering the same “creation myth” lesson plan. Another little boy who was also born in Iraq said, “I can’t write about the day of my birth. The day of my birth was a nightmare.” He went on to explain that two of his older brothers were killed as infants. His family was kidnapped before they managed to escape. I told him he could write about it without writing about it and he did. Another boy showed me the bracelet his mother gave him when he last saw her. I was shaking by the time I got into the car.
When I turned on the radio, NPR reported that Paris was in the middle of a terrorist attack. I drove to a restaurant where I was supposed to meet up with friends and tried to take a moment to sit on a bench to weep. But soon, my friend Brian approached with Eileen Myles. He introduced us, and said, “How are you?” It was apparent that they hadn’t listened to the news yet so I told them about Paris and broke into tears. The dinner that followed was rich with awkward silence, narrated tweets from the Bataclan Concert Hall, poutine sharing, and eventually, Transparent plot spoilers. All delivered in a vast gradation of tones. “I don’t want to be crude, but it seems like the beginning of something,” Eileen said of the attack. And I marveled: what a weird day.
The next evening, I went to see Dodie Bellamy and Eileen Myles give a reading, but Dodie Bellamy wasn’t there. They were selling copies of her book so we got one. The reason I have told you all of this is because her book is exactly like the day before I acquired it. It contains, or attempts to contain, everything.
“Attempts” sounds like the essays might have failed, but that’s not exactly how I see it. This collection’s relationship toward the world might be comparable to the Buddhist precept to “save all sentient beings,” which no Bodhisattva-in-training thinks they can actually accomplish, but you vow it all the same.
At first, I felt unsure whether or not I was going to like the book because the first essay, “Whistle While You Dixie,” made me feel like a teenager caught masturbating. A discussion about the act of whistling, the essay analyzes, among other things, Snow White’s “Whistle While You Work,” which will forever change your experience of the Disney cartoon: “as the chipmunk rubs the cloth up and down, the turtle throws its head back, clenches its eyes, gapes open its mouth, and rhythmically moves its bottom legs up and down.” While the essay is a brilliant interrogation of the act of pursing your lips together in a “piercing blade of rationality… freakish, like a wheeze that has been unnaturally domesticated,” it is also a story of sexual adventuring, meandering away from Southern roots, of opening out into the world, “going back to a longterm girlfriend I’d split with a couple of months earlier, a sort of boyfriend, Michael, whom I was obsessed with, and a grad program I had no interest in.”
Any time an author leads with raunchy sex I feel suspicious, which sounds super Freudian. But, whatever my reason for doing so, I procrastinated. I started reading Meghan Daum’s My Misspent Youth instead. I finished Patti Smith’s M Train. I re-started Murakami’s Norwegian Wood. But I had promised to review Bellamy’s book, so I picked it up again and read on—past the title essay, past the Eileen Myles cameo (Bellamy is desperately trying to plunge a toilet while Myles shouts at her from the doorway), past the naughty spiritual guru—until I finally fell into step with it.
For me, this means that I finally felt that I was being led by someone as deliciously ill-equipped at being in this world as I am. And by the time it was over I thought the book was masterfully human, cerebral but self-aware, wistful, curious, judgmental, forgiving, repentant and broken. In other words, the best kind of nonfiction around. In “Barf Manifesto,” she explains her ideology: “Perception is about framing; when it comes to doling out opinions, I am the frame.”
There are plenty of opportunities to identify with Bellamy’s project, but it took me until the sixth essay, “The Bandaged Lady,” to fully trust her. This essay was sort of like the film Mulholland Drive for me— I liked it long before I had any sense whatsoever what was going on. In fact, it took me a few reads before I realized that this essay was written from the point of view of a bandaged woman in a photograph by Tariq Alvi, which serves as the book’s cover image. But even on my first time through, and especially on the fourth, the way she engages (through a fractured lens, through multiple, approximated, appropriated selves) with the faraway execution of two boys accused of homosexuality so exactly encapsulate the ineptitude of a singular, rational response to life or world events that I knew I’d found the kind of vulnerable, not necessarily attractive honesty I appreciate, and that I so often see edited out of more polished personal essays.
In this piece, Dodie herself appears in the third person. She gets myopic about word choice during a conversation about death, she knocks over a small child in a public restroom, she relays research on confined children and witches, she reads and re-reads the image of the two boys’ execution. She lets a thought and a sentence unfurl for lines and lines. She remembers being told the key to happiness “in the midst of a fucked up, violent, homophobic, racist world hurling toward extinction, a world teeming with enemies,” but can’t quite recall what it was.
I drank two glasses of wine while reading, “Phone Home,” which may explain why I see it as the heart of the collection, but I think it’s actually the heart of the collection. The essay begins with Bellamy watching the film ET with her dying mother, and involves an obsessive, covert re-watching of the film, in the attempt to re-experience those final moments, but also in search of clues about the history of death scenes in her family (the same movie was playing as her grandmother died). It amounts to an extraordinary description of the loop of grief.
For anyone frustrated by or, even, curious about Meghan Daum’s essay, “Matricide,” Bellamy manages to beautifully delineate the selfishness of a hapless, confused adult child in the face of such a loss— succumbing to a level of sentimentality that would undercut Bellamy’s thinky style except that it feels like a necessary offering, a place where the daughter lays down her sexy tricks in the hopes of one more imperfect moment of being with her mother while she is still alive.
This book holds some delights that I will not ruin for you, but here’s a preview—there will be nostalgia for feminist collectives past and a cameo from Gloria Anzaldúa, a chapter called “Digging through Kathy Acker’s Stuff,” a dance party with Occupy Oakland protesters, and a detailed account of living through San Francisco’s recent tech-gentrification, which includes a murder mystery. One amazing quote so reminds me of Detroit’s current gentrification that I have to high five her for it: “I say hi to a guy at a bus stop and he turns his head away. I share a table in a café with a woman and she stares at her phone the entire meal, never acknowledging my presence. All these clean, clean people—I stare at them trying to crack the mystery of how they do it, walk down the street impeccable as a doll wrapped in plastic.”
Bellamy’s proclivity toward weaving, or if you favor a different term, layering, is as Buddhist as it gets—she combines everything that is presently handy, producing the very definition of equanimity, or at least what amounts to a dizzying sketch of a single moment in time. In an essay that traverses the Vietnam War, the Casey Anthony trial, slavery and the meaning of the 4th of July, this effort resonates so deeply as to create a vibration in the ground:
I wash my hair with Earth, one of the revolving five elements shampoos I use (the fifth element is Chi), Earth is brown, doesn’t lather, and contains clay, it’s like washing my hair with the mud Caylee was buried in. Earth smells spicy-fruity, not a fruit I recognize, a fruit from another world.
It’s been awhile since I’ve written down the mundane details of my life. But ever since finishing this book, I’ve seen that minutiae with new exactitude: my growing addiction to wintergreen tic tacs. The way it felt to enter the bathroom of my favorite video store for the first time last night. The trudge of exhaustion that everyone— even the Michigan militia— feels about the Flint water crisis. How my puppy’s illness made me nicer to strangers at the Post Office this afternoon, which inspired a cascade of almost unbearably amiable interactions. Each day this collection of strange stones.
It’s heartening when Bellamy casts an eye—so unflinching—toward our uncertain future, with, yes, sex, blood, and rock and roll, but also this irradiating, fallible, grumpy, narcissistic, cynical glimmer of hope. All of this captured by a title that shifts in the light: at one moment, referring to a future where everyone will be ill; in another referring to a time when weirdos like us might finally gain something like an upper hand. And if you read it in the right mood, these essays feel like a hilarious, devastating opportunity for collective, revolutionary brainstorming. A way of asking: how?