boysgirls, by Katie Farris. North Adams, Massachusetts: Tupelo Press, July 2019. 76 pages. $14.95, paper.
For such a small book, boysgirls by Katie Farris is intimidating. It dares us into a world of multiplicities bookended in desire, featuring creations that shift with such frequency as to destabilize any bodily manifestations one thinks have become tangible. Language is a means to create and destroy, and Farris challenges her readers in an ontological investigation. What is at stake in this work is our sense of what it means to be in the world–or, for that matter, what the world even is, though the spare illustrative work of Lavinia Hanachiuc attempts to situate us there. Hanachiuc’s black and white figures shock, unsettle, and terrify, a perfect counterpart to the text.
Farris plays havoc with what is knowable, and she implicates us in this disruption. In the “introduction/implication” she asks “What is it you hope to accomplish by reading this book? You were hoping to escape unscathed?” We are caught off guard. We are unsure. We are threatened. And before we can attempt to construct a response she constructs us. We become the first fantastical creature in a world populated with the indefinable. This may very well be her point. How can anyone be defined or reduced? And so we are now in cahoots with Farris on this journey. “You” are the “dear reader” who might “underneath your skin” have bibles for brows, a bacon nose, and dolphin lips. We are now complicit in pushing against expectations of the text. Whatever it is we might be, whatever our construction, she beckons us: “Come giddy yourself atop these sheer drops. Come shake victorious with delirium tremens and carpe diem. Come frolic with bared teeth.” Farris’ freak show, her circus of paradox, has begun.
The first tool Farris gives us is a mirror in “girls.” The girl with a mirror for a face is empty but full, one and yet all. She, in fact, even contains us as she eventually subsumes us, consumes us. This girl’s hunger devours the boundaries of text/reader, self/other, girl/boy. It is the girl’s hunger that destroys reductivist binaries. And we are not safe from this destruction. Once we are “seen” in the mirror, we are eaten by the girl who grew. In “the politics of metamorphosis” it is the girl’s belly that becomes cherished. We are not only being devoured but, perhaps, birthed and then raised by this text until confronted with a riddle at the intermission of the show. At the book’s midpoint between “girls” and “boys,” the riddle invokes mythological characters embodying division and duality. Making sense of the halves. Making sense of the whole. Until we are faced by the other.
At this point the text explicitly asks “What am I?” (Hasn’t it been asking this all along?) But we are also asking that of the fantastical figures and of ourselves. The interstitial spaces provoke us; the boundaries of genre and gender, of author and reader, suggest cracks that both threaten and construct. The text continues to accuse us; the other (author) asserts wholeness, yet we are “a paltry part.” We are reduced.
For the book’s second half we are reconstructed and reconstituted, possibly even re-gendered. Certain aspects of this section are troubling–we are submerged in a gendered and constructed reality that privileges maleness through the male characters that seemingly hold more solid space and structure in terms of continuity as well as the mechanics of proper nouns and capitalization. “Boys” introduces us to the Boy with One Wing and the Inventor of Invented Things and tells their interrelated tale as opposed to the more loosely connected tales of girls.. The Inventor proclaims the Boy could be invented. I see this as no accident that proper nouns, complete with capitalization, have created the male gender here; as patriarchal structure stilts and suppresses via binaries, no one is left unscathed and without expectations. This textual mark is a subtle yet heavy weight. The ability to invent is gendered here, yet rendered impotent. The Inventor can create but cannot birth. Between the Inventor and the Boy there is a quick discussion of love. The boy leaves. And the Inventor asks “What is this?” There is loss here, but also there is love and desire. Apart, there is only bodily function as life is “filled with scratching, sneezing, shitting, and sleeping.” Brought back together, inventor and invented, part and whole, two halves united, reveals our humanity. But what the whole is remains fluid.
We can ask the Inventor’s question of the text. What exactly is this? The dream-like setting and characters, the hybridization, even the typography produce the sense that this is a singular text that could be invented again and again. And so we come full circle to the beginning: What is it we hope to accomplish by reading this book? The question multiplies: What is this figure, this text? What is the space we are in now? How can we identify? Reidentify? The question is the whole and its constituent parts. It is plenum. This book interrogates us as we sit in our discomfort. Offered in an “apologia,” Farris gives us a way to cope with the experience of stories, including this one, as transformative and nourishing. “The story has been changed. It is my body. Eat from it and live.”
I have thought about this book since I finished reading it. I am still recovering, and I wonder if I ever will.
Cheryl Weaver-Amenta is a writer and teacher living in Buffalo, New York. She is currently a doctoral student whose research interests include education, trauma theory, and American literature.