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Self and concept collide in experimental collection 'When the Sick Rule the World'


Stunned, the animals obey." This is an early line from "Whistle While You Dixie," the opening piece in Dodie Bellamy's "When the Sick Rule the World." It's emblematic of Bellamy's ability to overturn expectations with language that is by turns hilarious and sometimes almost cruel.

In Bellamy's view, the animals in the animated film "Snow White" do as the title character bids but incorrectly: "Even though Disney has given some of the animals opposable thumbs," she writes, "… [a] deer licks dinner plates, and a squirrel dries them with its whirling tail. … [T]he Seven Dwarfs are real slobs."

That's a classic Bellamy approach, the provocative observation rendered in accessible, even humorous, language, although it's also language that can turn on you. In "When the Sick Rule the World," she brings such a perspective to bear on Kathy Acker, feminism and various other subjects. (One piece is called "Barf Manifesto.") Still, perhaps the most essential lesson is that Bellamy can't be easily categorized.

Rather, like Leslie Jamison and other stylists of the moment, Bellamy produces supple, moving and challenging work with a power that relies in part on the author looking outside her apparent comfort zone.

Bellamy is a longtime San Franciscan and champion of experimental writing. Her books include "Pink Steam" and "The Letters of Mina Harker," and she seeks to blend narrative with more theoretical issues in her work. And yet in the title piece here — the book's strongest effort — she also zeros in with empathy and directness on meetings of people who believe they are sick.

Much as Jamison or Charles D'Ambrosio, Bellamy lets us know she's done the living that earns credibility. "The Greyhound down to Florida had been a nightmare," she writes at one point. And later, with what I judge to be a winning lack of pretension: "Georgia peaches were like famous." Anchoring this gritty voice are specific and appealing roots; it's no coincidence that when she writes about her Midwestern family, Bellamy's voice feels most sure.

"I lived in notebooks," she tells us in "The Center of Gravity," "while in the living room my father the carpenter smokes and cusses and Mom's in the kitchen and my brother is out engaging in the juvenile delinquent behavior that will make him a high school dropout. In my notebooks, I dreamed I knew Latin and I lived in the Alps, where I hovered above the world crane-less, educated and beautiful, with a mind lofty and brilliant enough to defy."

Bellamy shines when she writes in this direct voice, when confession balances her ideas. She seems to thrive in the collision of self and concept, and she deftly deploys apparently obscure cultural vocabularies while also writing with enough self-deprecation to break down our resistances.

This is especially true of her remembrance of Acker, which involves trying to claim a piece of jewelry from the estate of the late writer and provocateur. (A "typical" Acker assignment, according to Bellamy: "write a piece in which you have sex with the most disgusting person in your family.")

You need not be steeped in experimental writing to enjoy this, as Bellamy describes the caretaker of Acker's apartment, the strange piles of her iconic outfits, as well as her own anxiety about having something that belonged to her.

Occasionally, Bellamy can seem tone-deaf, especially when writing about foreign policy, war or class. "The Beating of Our Hearts," which largely concerns Occupy Oakland, is as long as it is tiring. And the closing piece, "In the Shadows of Twitter Towers," culminates in a hokey offer to teach the micro-blogging service how to have a heart for the low price of $100,000 a year and the purchase of the Victorian she and her partner have long called their rent-controlled home.

By and large, however, "When the Sick Rule the World" goes where we still need words, taking risks in terms of format, cadence and contrasts — and does so with refreshing purpose and passion.

Indeed, when she writes, as she does in "Phone Home," about the death of her mother, it is the pushing into risk that makes the piece so vivid. Long after I thought it might (or should) end, she's in her Subaru, imagining flying like E.T., then back at her apartment, waiting for her computer to die, and the echoes between these glowing moments of departure and demise feel dense and illuminating.



This piece was published by The Los Angeles Times. Read the original here.