Blame Game

Revenge of the Scapegoat BY Caren Beilin. St. Louis, MO: Dorothy, a publishing project. 176 pages. $16.
Cover of Revenge of the Scapegoat

Caren Beilin. Photo: Aaron Shulman

Caren Beilin’s prose trusts us to invest in the logic, sound, and feeling at hand. I come for the sentences, and I stay for the politics. Her prior work in fiction and nonfiction challenges medical narratives; gives voice to the chronically ill; presents surreal, continuous menstruation alongside historical anecdote; and resists gendered positions of listening and caretaking. I have the sense as I read Beilin that we are making discoveries at the same time, reader and writer together, that the sentences propel realizations as opposed to the other way around.

In Beilin’s new novel, Revenge of the Scapegoat, our chronically ill narrator, Iris, receives a packet of letters from her father that reactivate her childhood trauma (“The letter was touching my brain and I was crying”), and then goes on a journey because something simply has to move. Beilin closely tracks Iris’s reactions to stimuli in real time, and the novel’s action unfolds from her responses. My own imagination is strengthened by witnessing this process of unfolding, and Beilin’s imagery—“The sun develops as it ends. The color gets so stabby.”—makes me see the world as more replete with possibility. We spoke recently over Zoom.

LEORA FRIDMAN: I want to hear more about how you began this book. What was the impetus for writing? 

CAREN BEILIN: Such a good question, and I’ll probably begin to answer it ten different times. I’ve often heard about artists being interested in the concept of always becoming, but it might be fun to amend that to “always beginning.” This book begins with the sentence, “I was upset.” People, especially women, are often told: don’t be upset. Maybe because they’re inconveniencing somebody or what they’re upset about isn’t considered legitimate. I really enjoyed beginning this book with a proud pout. 

There are so many things that instigate that feeling that you want or need to do something. One was that I was teaching and I felt I was interacting with my students as though I wasn’t worthy of them. I felt very little confidence about my role in their lives. I realized that I was entering into a lot of situations in my life upset, ashamed, insecure. Always wondering, Do you hate me? That was the main question on the top of my skin. I felt I needed to explain that problem. I was thirty-six years old, but the nature of trauma is cyclical in my life, and my family stuff was still biting my heart. I was humbled and humiliated at the anguish I was still carrying.

When I was in grad school, I met and hung out with Wayne Koestenbaum. He had recently published his book Humiliation, in which he humiliates himself, I think, as a practice. I remember saying to him, “This book is such a gift to yourself because anybody who’s read it can’t really hurt you, because you’ve already humiliated yourself to them.” I felt more comfortable talking to him because of the ways he had prostrated himself in this book. I wanted to write my own version of that, something that would give me a similar gift. 

Tell me about your interest in the figure of the scapegoat. 

Check out the Reddit boards, it’s a real thing: family scapegoats are struggling to heal. 

Around the spring of 2020, I was spending a lot of time being weird and ritualistic about reading. I love to spend time in libraries copying things down by hand. I love being in rare-book rooms and not knowing why I’m doing something, being a little bit mystical about flipping to random pages, finding old texts. I’d been interested in René Girard’s book The Scapegoat. I just started copying out passages by hand to carry with me. At that point I already had the title Revenge of the Scapegoat thrumming in my mind, as it had for three years. It was a seed of the revenge I knew I wanted to enact.

That May, my dad sent me a package very similar to the package my narrator, Iris, describes receiving in the novel, which contains a bunch of letters blaming her for her family’s problems. As I write in the book, a lot of friends advised me to burn those letters. But I said, “Oh, I’ll burn them. I’ll burn them in a novel, motherfucker.” I had my plot: upset lady receives letters. 

There’s something about that word, “enact.” You say you wanted to enact revenge—that feels ritualistic, or even witchy, to me. You also write about witches in your 2019 book Blackfishing the IUD. How do you think about ritual in your work?

I think about ritual in terms of practice most of all. Like that practice of being witchy in the library. And not being so directed, so phallogocentric about research or purpose. I have a lot of rituals around my writing practice—I love to do the same thing over and over again. I like to be in a rut. I’ll take the same walk every day at the same time. 

But as to the witchiness of writing itself, I did feel I had to be careful about what I wrote in this novel, because I had this fear that it could come true for me, like I was casting a hex. Iris’s biggest fears in this book have to do with her rheumatoid arthritis. How sick will she get? How much pain will she bear in this lifetime? Will she need assistive devices? These are some of her fears, and they are some of mine as somebody who has rheumatoid arthritis. In an earlier draft of the book, I did have Iris’s condition grow worse because I wanted to play around with those fears. But I ended up changing it because I couldn’t put that into the world. I didn’t want to curse myself. Instead, I cast this positive hex on my life. In the book, Iris gets better. She starts taking a new medication with the help of her rheumatologist, and by the end, the pain in her feet is dying. Writing these scenes allowed me to imagine that I might try a new drug, which is something that really scares me, but I worked with my rheumatologist to do it. And now I’m doing a lot better. But, in a way, I needed to write that possibility first. 

I’m interested in how trauma both forms the center of the story in Revenge and refuses to be completely resolved. You also write about chronic illness, which often does not resolve in a linear fashion. This move seems to challenge the kind of character arcs people have been talking about recently in conversations about the “trauma plot” in contemporary fiction. 

Yeah, people have been really into this trauma plot idea. Personally, I just don’t have any faith in psychological realism, which seems connected to the ideas being posited about the trauma plot. I remember one of the first stories I submitted to my workshop when I was an MFA student was about a guy who goes around to different towns in Pennsylvania and kills a different animal in each town. And I don’t know why I wrote it! I think I just thought it would be an interesting way to give a tour of Pennsylvania. And everybody in the workshop, in this very earnest MFA way, was like, “Why would he do this?” Or, you know, “He needs to have a reason.” So, when I rewrote it for the workshop, I made him an adult child of an alcoholic. 

Right. He needed to have a backstory.

But these poor adult children of alcoholics, I’m putting this on them? And making that change killed the story. I tell that anecdote to my students now to say, “Watch out for the comments you get, they could kill your story.” I was recently listening to a Bookworm with Dennis Cooper, and he was talking about his latest novel, I Wished, which I think is very brilliant. And Michael Silverblatt asked the perennial question that one might ask Dennis Cooper, which is, basically, “Why are you so dark?” And he replied that he doesn’t know why, he’s not sure. If you’ve read Dennis Cooper, you might think, Oh really? You don’t know why your characters do these sick, sick things? But in fact Dennis Cooper is light! He has no attachment to his darkness. He just knows that it’s something that comes up.

He models the idea that the imagination has its own drives and motivations, rather than trying to trace that all back to, as you said, psychological realism. 

I think so. One of my favorite things about his writing is that he is constantly breaking the limits of the sentence. He does that through sex and violence and through the body. I’m excited about his work on a formal level. It has less to do with the content. 

But to get back to your question, I think I approach trauma very differently in this novel than I did in Blackfishing, for example. In that case, I really wanted to communicate the trauma that happened to me and many other people with uteruses. But Revenge is not about communicating to people, “Look at what happened to me. My family blamed me for a lot of shit.” It’s about the triumph of getting to use my trauma, getting to play with trauma, and getting to torture trauma. To invent and innovate with it, and let trauma be the thing that allows me to break the sentences that I want to break. Of course, if, as a side effect, other people who struggle with that scapegoat role connect with Iris’s experience, I think that’s beautiful. But the important thing for me as a creative person is not to expose trauma, but to play with it. 

When I first got the letters, I was horrified at the possibility of publishing them and somebody saying, “These don’t seem so bad.” The letters were—and are—deeply troubling to me. But as an artifact, they’re not actually remarkable. I had to get over that hurdle, that something that hurt me is not going to be evident to everybody. But then that’s the stake, and there should be stakes in what you write.

That makes me think about your novel Spain and how you explore “boringness” of narrative in that book, which takes place at an artist’s residency. Do you resist things like climax and resolution? What does plot mean to you?

I don’t have the bravado to be the kind of writer who offers readers a lesson. It’s most important for me as a writer for my sentences to feel the world in some way. I want to take that perfect shivering photograph of something that feels like life. I’m very indifferent to plot and can be bored by it. If a plot ever overtakes anything that I’m reading, it’s very hard for me to keep caring. 

One of the guiding lights of Revenge is Gustave Flaubert’s Bouvard and Pécuchet, which Iris reads in the book. It was published posthumously with some notes that Flaubert had about the ending. But ultimately we don’t know exactly how he might have tied up his plot. I describe it in Revenge as a lapidary circle. Bouvard and Pécuchet go to the country and try all these different things out, but they end up being and doing exactly what they did back in Paris. They just return. And that shape was helpful to my writing because I like to use forms that already exist when it comes to plot. In Revenge, Iris’s feet are in pain, and they are named Bouvard and Pécuchet. I follow the feet. Like Bouvard and Pécuchet, Revenge goes in a circle, and it ends very sweetly, with friendship. If I could always just steal somebody else’s plot so that I can just work on the sentences—that’s my ideal. 

As you’ve mentioned, there are autobiographical aspects to this novel. In Revenge you write, “I tried to tell my students . . . you can’t simply make up a character. Pain springs them, bonkers, out of the walls and out of body parts.” How do you think about fiction, nonfiction, and how characters are made in each?

I always say all writing is 100 percent nonfiction and 100 percent fiction. It’s just a 200 percent sort of situation. This book is a documentary fiction that uses some very particular personal artifacts to drive the plot, including real conversations that I had with my partner and with my friend Ray, and of course the letters. When I was in college and I was really forming a lot of my virtues as a writer, I read that Carole Maso novel, The Art Lover. At the end of the book, you realize it’s about the author and her friend who passed away from AIDS. But this true core of the book isn’t revealed until the very end. I love books like that, where a kind of curtain lifts within it, and I think Revenge does something similar. 

As for character, people change. They’re very mercurial. And I think who we are is so dependent on where we are, like how people act differently under the conditions of the workplace. There are so many external factors that influence human behavior—there will be times when you don’t recognize yourself. So the idea of stability of character design in writing seems very flawed to me. I don’t think of “character” as a consistent, stable entity, just as I don’t quite understand resolution in plot. This does make it difficult to end. The pressure of the big ending—that’ll kill writers. Instead, I like the idea of deciding to give yourself a gift. I ended this book by saying, Thank you, Flaubert, I needed your help. 

Leora Fridman is the author of My Fault (CSU Poetry Center), among other works of poetry, prose and translation. Her essay collection Static Palace will be published in 2022.