Caren Beilin’s Revenge of the Scapegoat begins and ends in a café in Philadelphia, where the protagonist, Iris, waits for her friend Ray. The two scenes are eerily similar, down to Iris’ outfits and the presence of flying insects around their table. And both sections open with a single, stand-alone sentence: “I was upset.” Iris’ subsequent conversations with Ray reveal the primary source of her distress: the resurfacing of a collection of letters that her father wrote to her when she was a teenager, in which he blamed her for all the problems in the family that ultimately led him to leave them.
These parallel scenes bring the story full circle, highlighting what has—and hasn’t—changed for the characters. Ray has gotten through a difficult recovery process after top surgery, and has quit his job as a copywriter for a pharmaceutical company on ethical grounds. Iris, on the other hand, has remained fairly stagnant. Despite a trip to mARTin, an artist colony where she works as an undercompensated cowherd and is stepped on by Nazi cows, Iris returns to the café at the end of the book with the same dilemmas as before. She is back to adjuncting at an arts college for a miserable wage, her chronic pain is worsening, and she is still agonizing over the trauma of receiving her father’s old letters in the mail. The novel has a clear and surprisingly easy to follow plot, but its concerns are more painterly and conceptual than narrative in nature. Beilin delivers an artful and satiric critique of several institutional entities: the art world, academia, medicine, the family unit, and the way we tell history.
Generational trauma is a unifying thread through Iris’ circuitous and at times kaleidoscopic narrative. In her conversation with Ray, Iris concedes that there is nothing political to her role as a scapegoat within her family; rather, it is “[her] own personal tumultuous history with [her] people.” But at the end of the book, Irina, an artist from mARTin, produces an artwork in which she brands the Nazi cows with Iris’ letters. Iris’ father is a Holocaust survivor, a fact that is not lost on Irina. The cows are part of a heritage herd that, during the Holocaust, assisted in capturing people who tried to escape from a concentration camp (which has since been turned into another artist colony) by stepping on their hearts. “They couldn’t shake the gesture,” Caroline, the director of mARTin, says of the descendants of this herd. This legacy of violence is carried into the present, and Irina’s artwork draws attention to the way that its traumatic consequences are passed down from Iris’ father to Iris.
Within Revenge of the Scapegoat’s broader institutional critique is an interest in both generational trauma and in what it means to be an oppressor. Iris, a white woman, scolds her students repeatedly for using women as metaphors in their writing, yet within the first few pages of the novel, she uses a story about “native people” (with no mention of region) that she learned in middle school as a metaphor for her own situation with the letters. Like the native people, she says, she must use all parts of the experience, and in doing so she will turn the negative into a positive. Iris quickly discards this metaphor, deciding instead to “lean in” to the situation and reflecting on her role as a university professor on stolen Lenape land. Iris also considers what it means to be a “good person” in the context of class. Ray, who unlike Iris is saddled with student loan debt, does not have the option of adjuncting for very little pay, as Iris does. Instead Ray feels cornered into advertising harmful devices for pharmaceutical companies, a complicity in violence that he grapples with throughout the book. In a similar vein, Iris’ pronouncements about the writing life often miss their audience in her students, who are focused instead on their suffocating debts and mental health crises.
Narratives are by nature tenuous, untrustworthy, and tainted by violent power dynamics in the world Beilin has built in this novel, and we don’t always know what is real and what isn’t. This uncertainty runs through Revenge of the Scapegoat, and Beilin draws additional attention to it through the uncanny imagery that animates the book. While Iris is waiting for Ray in the opening scene, her feet—wrought with pain from rheumatoid arthritis—come to life as “two old retired men” whom she names Bouvard and Pécuchet after Flaubert’s unfinished satirical novel. Bouvard and Pécuchet become important characters in the story, often carrying on long, philosophical conversations. Iris at one point shares the writerly advice with her students that “… you can’t simply make up character. Pain springs them, bonkers, out of the walls and out of body parts.” Bouvard and Pécuchet enact this concept, and reflect a relationship to pain that is all-consuming, and that feels concrete despite its abstractness to those who cannot feel it. Some experiences are too urgent to leave to the realm of intellect, and Beilin uses the surreal image to make their existence tangible.
Nested within Beilin’s satire of academia and the art world is an exploration of the artistic process itself. The book is saturated with color, and rainbows, sunsets, and sunrises appear throughout its pages. In her conversation with Ray toward the end of the novel, Iris describes a box of treasures she had as a child. One of these treasures was a prism, which she would “refill” with light from the window each morning, and return to its location in the box, “… restoring rainbows into its internal and incredibly humble dimension, like a philosopher’s hut … this terrarium of my private science.” Iris also uses the phrase “private science” when describing Frida Kahlo’s diary to her students, and proceeds to offer them a warning: “If you’re successful in your writing this stuff will live and pickle together for who knows how long. A sentence is a consigning.” There is an anxiety about putting experiences into writing, but there’s a need for it, too. At mARTin, after snooping through Iris’ letters while she was in the bathroom, Caroline proclaims, “If you looked at the bottom of that prism, you’d see something like a scar where you’d inserted (really stuffed in) almost all of yourself.”
Beilin has held the prism of her imagination up to reality, and Revenge of the Scapegoat has come out. The book contains a world that feels whole and internally consistent, its surface lined with mirrors in which we are forced to examine ourselves. Fans of Sheila Heti and Sabrina Orah Mark will enjoy the way Beilin explores her conceptual priorities in this book through surreal imagery and philosophical ramblings. Repeated images speckle the pages like colors in a palette, and sometimes urgency gathers inside an image and comes alive. Revenge of the Scapegoat is a pleasure to read the first time, and it is also prismatic, each reread drawing out new patterns of light.
Revenge of the Scapegoat, by Caren Beilin. St. Louis, Missouri: Dorothy, a publishing project; April 2022. 176 pages. $16.00, paper.
Fani Avramopoulou is a writer and educator in Baltimore. See what she’s reading on Instagram at @floatingflowerfreeway.