October 14, 2016KR Reviews

With Bloody Precision: Caren Beilin’s The University of Pennsylvania

Mesilla Park, NM: Noemi Press, 2014. 83 pages. $15.00.

In Caren Beilin’s novel The University of Pennsylvania, the place is no paradise. The reputation behind the name welcomes us into Ivy League territory (“second-tier,” some will remind you) so haunted by history it bedevils the students, who “pip” and “squeal” to show awareness and mastery of “the exactness of the beast of what it is, which is the University of Pennsylvania, the specific tone of money tingling, the malaise of having things.”

The weight of reputation and history are constants for three young women at the school: Olivia Knox, the daughter of a wealthy gelatin manufacturer, and two friends she meets in the dorm, sisters Beth and Adele. The campus and surrounding countryside’s religious layers and historical figures, the statues in honor of William Penn and his friend George Fox, the noted Quaker, loom over all.

The novel is in one sense a drugs-and-queer-sex romp that’s likewise a thrillingly accurate record of students bursting from the confines of centuries-old patriarchal pressure. From the first paragraph, Olivia bleeds all over everything, suffering from constant menstruation due to a condition called womb duplicatum, a dual uterus. As Olivia wears diapers and puts in handfuls of tampons, her suffering elicits sympathy at the level of Greek tragedy:

Olivia is known by her affliction of continuous menstruation. She is said to have originated in Bethlehem, and is known also as the official heir to the Knox factory therein. But here, she attends the University of Pennsylvania, a freshman. The figure of Olivia, bleeding, as described by the ancients, has a beautiful face, delicate and terraqueous, and a nimble red uterus, binarious, in her bleeding—continuous.

These opening sentences have a formal ring, listing facts while raising small doubts about the narrator pronouncing them—where is “here,” for instance, in that third sentence? It sounds like the “here” of the page, an actor delivering a preamble, or a doctor in the operating theater describing a human specimen. The final line’s historical comparisons swerve playfully toward camp, as if Olivia’s condition were amusing, worthy of rhyme.

The sisters Olivia meets, Beth and Adele, are orthodox Jews and invite Olivia to the mikveh. “After orthodox women menstruate, we visit a pool. If you are done bleeding, you can come,” Adele explains. At the mikveh, Olivia, whose sexuality has at this point not been discussed, sees Adele naked. Olivia watches as Adele “reveals her own bush so brown and dry-blood crusted, the lips underneath the fur so hanging, the clitoris limping out of the hair like rooster’s drip of throat, so Olivia begins to feel better, confident. She looks at Adele’s baggy vagina, abstract of her pimpled, doubled chin, irreconcilably bearded below her, and feels fine, almost more orthodox.”

Adele and Olivia have sex several times. Early in the book, Olivia considers herself a shameful, cursed figure, “Olivia Bleeding Knox.” But Adele doesn’t mind getting Olivia’s blood on her hands or face, even in her mouth. “She lets herself be entered by Adele’s gruff fingers with their melodious minor seizures, the joints shimmering in her, the fist a puff, softer than the finger, a tormentous pleasurepresence, a fibrous flexible cloud braised with blood.” To Adele, Olivia is someone else, far from shameful: “You know, you’re Olivia—O beautifully bleeding—Knox.” Olivia’s increased confidence, first about her body compared to others at the mikveh (that “more orthodox” hints at her desire to see her body as holy), and later via the sex with Adele that dispels some long-held shame, is part of Beilin’s thematic focus on the power of each character’s personal exposure and risks, whether nakedness, sex, or, later, revelations that yield real effects, accidental and intentional, for other people and the campus itself.

Beth eventually starts skipping synagogue and the mikveh to do cocaine with a girl in the dorm named Antigone. While high, Antigone tells Beth about the time she had sex with a statue of William Penn. She also envisions Penn having a fantasy where he and George Fox go skinny-dipping in a pond once used by “the Native women” as a mikveh, “the water a molten parrotbutter,” just before Penn performs fellatio on Fox: “his violetcock coming, me still in the water, mermaidous, murmen, menial.” Unlike Olivia’s sex life behind closed doors, Antigone appreciates her sexuality’s disruptive power, fighting back against the college world circumscribed by its famous white male founders, describing her sex with Penn’s statue as both an “alchemy of orgasm,” transforming him from brass to something else inside her, and as a desecration, “this vandalism of my fucking”; it results in a victory she laments when the statue is stolen, removed to be melted down for cash. “Love is insertion,” Beilin writes.

Beth, as it happens, is pre-med, and takes a class on vivisection taught by Dr. Edelberg, who is Antigone’s father. Similar in name to F. Scott Fitzgerald’s ever-watchful Dr. T.J. Eckleberg, he’s the book’s shadowy villain, who may or may not be involved in an international black market trade of body parts and cadavers. The dark notes around Edelberg later form a chord in the book with Olivia’s childhood memories. At the family gelatin factory, as a teenager, she goes out one night to get a diaper for herself from those being used to try and cure the horses of hoof rot. She finds herself in the killing room full of slaughtered horse parts and blood where “she stood above and profusely contributed.” To her it isn’t horrific. It’s more “like a girl finding a room full of girls, you know this room is yours.” Showing how little the place bothered her, “she tore down her underwear and threw it nowhere like red swan skin into the mire of bloodletting, the bunches of flesh, the wads and strips of blackened skin, and all the other guts luscious and bobbing, glazed, in the sopping lowering.”

Olivia’s bleeding takes on even larger proportions. As an English major, Olivia has to read some Tolstoy and one day as she changes her many tampons, “she pulled up her underwear and flushed without looking, the burbling violet pond so quickly created there in the bowl, the used tampons bobbing like the bloated limbs of the dead in War and Peace, the war parts, which most students in her class confessed to having skipped over, only reading the sections on marriage, or Peace, but Olivia had appreciated seeing men bleed.” This image, blending the war dead with used tampons, recurs, as Olivia later “pulls her tampons’ braid down over the toilet, releasing three blood soaked stumps.” Flushing so many dead limbs down the toilet eventually destroys the dorm plumbing and floods the building. The book’s climax shows how Olivia and Beth, now also having sex (“To fuck this younger sister is better. Is less vaginal”), must escape, post-coital: “They climb from the dormwindow, the building bleeding. . . . They could hear the elevator filling, buttons lit red, maroonrimmed and dripping—out of order.”

Beilin’s quasi-omniscient narrator loves wordplay, which infects all levels of the text, from the exposition to the characters’ interiority to the dialogue. Extremes of word choice—many portmanteaus—form a shocking but moving new lexicon, hinting at beauty obscured by academia, advertising, any number of bland layers of American life. Used tampons are “bulging with robbinbreasts of blood”; a person’s cheek is “cheeksilk”; Adele’s body is composed of “grufflengths”; the teeth that children lose at the playground are “square bonesamples.” Beilin’s precise, luminous depictions around menstruation, fisting, and any number of other daily occurrences reveal the banal, oppressive prudery of societal silence on these things, especially when compared to the place’s history: the blood of industry, represented by the carcass-filled room at the gelatin factory; and worship of death, shown through Edelberg’s profiting on corpses. The comic destruction of the plumbing at Olivia’s dorm, which literally explodes with natural gore, indicts all the surrounding layers of inhumane slaughter.

Though quite short, the book is heavy liquor. It requires time to comprehend as characters and plotlines blur with equal parts frustration and joy. Chapters are short, and thank goodness—each is a workout that produces, in many cases, a slight endorphin rush. The book exemplifies so-called experimental fiction’s power to achieve rare complexity; the copious gore and wild portmanteaus feel integral to gaining a true hold on the events’ entirety and connectedness. Clarity and mystery occur in equal measure, as in the moments of any life—a balance Beilin creates word by word, sentence by sentence, at a level of inventive compression and startling emotional resonance most novelists leave to the poetic realm, a place beyond their reach.

Matthew Jakubowski is a member of the National Book Critics Circle and has served as a judge for the Best Translated Book Award. His writing has appeared in The Paris Review Daily, Kirkus Reviews, Bookforum.com, and The Millions, among others. He lives in West Philadelphia.