Belly Up cover[A Strange Object; 2018]

Rita Bullwinkel’s debut collection Belly Up moves with a kind of syncopated rhythm. Short vignettes and tableaus mix with more gradually accruing stories, creating a sense of restlessness — a turning from one side to another.

This unfixed energy is applied to the constraints of embodiment: its weaknesses, its materiality, its maybe inherent monstrosity. From thrillingly unexpected angles, Belly Up circles around and picks at the constraints of being.

Many stories in Belly Up hinge on a moment of emotional upheaval. A character’s sense of reality is challenged, and as a result the materiality of their body (or possibly of all bodies) is somehow shaken or reconstituted. In “Harp,” a car accident leads a woman to ponder the fragility and arbitrariness of her relationships, and to increasingly identify with the musical instrument; in “Décor,” a disturbing letter complicates the narrator’s blasé attitude toward her own objectification. In “Arms Overhead,” this theme is giving an especially macabre treatment, as two teenage girls express their sexual anxieties by discussing the logistics of cannibalism. Bullwinkel’s spare but powerful prose muscles us into her characters’ fantasies — we feel their hope mingled with horror as they cleave from flesh and blood.

But the existential concerns of Belly Up are multidirectional. They extend to the endurance of physical trials, and it’s here that Bullwinkel’s writing feels its most loose and lively. The dislocating nature of injury or decay is grotesquely and affectingly explored; in “Passing,” for instance, a woman marks the duration of her husband’s absence by her haircuts, a simple routine transforming into another iteration of suffering.

As they watch some part of their bodies unfurl, wither, or fall away, Bullwinkel’s characters work hard to intellectualize their circumstances. In “Black Tongue,” the narrator sees a childhood accident as marking them for a lifetime of batterings, while it also seems to endow them with a special resiliency. Their matter-of-fact tone keeps giving way to dazed wonderment, and the impressionistic depiction of the injury — the burnt tongue seeming to swell exponentially and become some foreign object — is rendered with pathos but also a dreaminess. This distance seems to be granted not only by the narrator’s backward glance, but also by some comprehensive philosophy: bodies are made to be destroyed, and a sort of human excellence is found in the rubble.

“God’s True Zombies” takes this idea a step further, imagining a flourishing Florida enclave of the undead, and spinning out the practicalities and resonances of a living boy growing up among them. Although primarily a gleeful, gross-out exercise in the absurd, “Zombies” also contains some of Bullwinkel’s most elegant and evocative writing. A visit to zombie grandparents is rendered in language both tender and clinical:

The photographs, the china, the pink flamingo wallpaper, the disco couches — they smelled of decay and were all slightly more pliable than they should have been. Just bending, soaked so heavy in memories that their physical substance could barely sustain the weight of their existence. On the couch a couple sat, hand in hand, jaws open, in many ways combining and exchanging substances with the couch, molding into a single, preserved entity. Gravity had taken their skin and dealt with it, and their brains were slowly dripping out of their noses and onto their shirts.

This domestic scene melts down the familiar and strange, creating something at once alien and nauseating in its nearness. Bullwinkel coaxes us minutely in the direction of the void, at once stoking our fears and elbowing us for our squeamishness.

“Zombies” is one of a few stories explicitly set in the South; however, Southern Gothic themes saturate Belly Up. Flannery O’Connor seems a relevant point of reference, given Bullwinkel’s interest in physical impairments or peculiarities marking people for extraordinary experiences. There’s also a hint of O’Connor in Bullwinkel’s flat, sardonic narrative voice, most notably in the brutal fable “Concerned Humans,” in which a snake eats an inordinate number of children, and in “Arms Overhead,” as the two main characters survey the people around them with cold (yet comic) fury.

Some of Bullwinkel’s Southern-inflected stories also strongly recall early Barry Hannah, with their humorous tone, formal phrasing, and Tex-Avery-cartoon violence. In “Burn,” an altercation with a ghost is rendered with slapstick hilarity:

He raised his bottle of ghost Beam and brought it down on my crown. It went straight through me. Ghost glass. It’s like having a cup of cold water thrown on you, nothing more. I took advantage of his surprise and pulled his legs out from under him. I folded him into quarters and then halved him again and stuffed him in a nearby bucket.

Bullwinkel deftly sketches this small-time ghostbuster with minimal strokes: modest, exasperated, and clearly misguided in his few moments of confidence. “Burn” is a cheerfully nihilistic character study, easily mixing a little supernatural activity into the dramas of small-town life, and building to an almost sublime conclusion.

Whether set in Texas, the Pacific Northwest, or New York City, the stories of Belly Up tend to have a stylized placeless and temporal neutrality — kind of like Twin Peaks, but without even the ’50s to cling to. At times, then, Bullwinkel’s evoking of the South can appear to be more of an aesthetic choice than an attempt to dig around in its slurry of historical demons.

For O’Connor, Hannah, and other great Southern stylists, the presence of these demons — racial, religious, economic — is essential. However surreal their writing becomes, the context of their particular South persists at the cellular level, just faintly tingeing it with specificity and knowingness. Such minute modulation of tone feels missing from Belly Up. Its Southern-set stories are beset by a haze of folly, ruin, and violence that is somehow associated with their locale, but the reasons for this entropy can seem obscure or absent. Given its array of alternate universes, though, it’s arguable that Belly Up simply presents an allegorical South: maybe all the more evidently brittle and compromised, with an extra little shine of strangeness.

Contrasting with the book’s rigorous experiments in style are a few more conventionally structured tales, including “Fried Dough,” describing a teenage romance at a donut shop, and “What I Would Be If I Wasn’t What I Am,” in which an elderly woman looks back on her life and relationships. Bullwinkel shows the same eye for detail and fine phrasemaking that she deploys more flamboyantly elsewhere, but the pacing of these more subtle pieces can feel less energetic. First-person narrations are sometimes slightly indistinct, and characters can be a bit too diligent in articulating their thoughts and observations.

And yet these stories of everydayness also provide a needed break or upbeat from so many daring, overstuffed scenes. It’s the variety and balance of these elements that compel the reader to turn the page, anticipating whatever the heck is next. A strong, perversely buoyant debut, Belly Up’s pages pulse with life — and death, and a few beats in between.

Emma Ingrisani lives in Brooklyn.