Joseph Edwin Haeger reviews The Book of X by Sarah Rose Etter. (Two Dollar Radio)
The Book of X by Sarah Rose Etter is a surreal journey about what it means to be a woman in America. This book has one foot in our reality and the other in a world with fantastical elements that belong in a Dali painting. It’s discombobulating because the bizarre components are treated as normal (which they are in this world), but the reflection into our own reality is stark enough that I feel like the surrealism should be out of the ordinary. The relationships feel normal and, in grounding the story in these interpersonal moments, Etter has written a juxtaposition that creates a brilliant and effective reading experience.
The Book of X follows Cassie, a girl growing up in a rural area. She is forced into outdated gender roles where she learns homemaking from her mother while her brother and father go to harvest meat. And that’s exactly what it is—harvesting. They work on their “meat quarry,” digging and collecting bloody meat like it’s a crop. Cassie was also born with a literal knot in her torso. It doesn’t hinder her life in any practical way, but this bodily aspect creates issues when Cassie tries to find love. She’s continually called “a freak” and “ugly,” which puts a focus on her physical appearance.
She grows up and moves to the city, away from her family. She is expected to come to work every day with a smile and good attitude—not necessarily for her own benefit, but because it makes the workspace better for her coworkers. The location change doesn’t have the effect Cassie hoped for, and she still finds herself an outsider.
Because this novel is so expansive in its symbolism, there’s a variety of themes you could dump it into. What I got out of it is: the death of the American dream from the perspective of a woman.
Etter’s novel will mean different things to a lot of people, and this is the joy of reading something open to interpretation: we’re allowed to form deeper connections to what’s on the page.
Cassie’s father represents the nation’s ruling class in a male-dominated power structure (I mean, he lives in “the white house”). He is traditional but sees potential in his daughter as she shows her knack for harvesting meat from the quarry. She may not be able to find it as naturally as her brother, but she can sure as hell collect it better than him. We see her break the traditional mold here and become more independent by following what she wants, as opposed to what is expected of her.
But everyone else treats her in accordance with how she looks. In the middle section of the book, we don’t even know what her actual job duties are. What we do know is the boss wants her to smile a lot to boost morale. She’s continuously abused and taken advantage of with little thought into the fact that she’s a person and, while this is frustrating for me—as a man—to read in the moment, I can’t begin to imagine what it must be like to live this experience.
Etter adding a knot to Cassie puts even more focus on her looks. What I get from this aspect of the book is that the ruling class purposes a woman’s sole function ultimately boils down to the pleasure men have gazing upon them. Are they stimulating a man, or disgusting him? And thus, their duty ends. Then, thinking about what a knot in your stomach symbolizes: anxiety and apprehension. We’re seeing a physical representation of what so many women feel every day of their lives in a world dominated by patriarchy.
In the end, The Book of X is about a woman trying to find meaningful connections in her life but having the world’s circumstances impede on her passions and ultimately dictate how she lives. Cassie’s life is hijacked by what the world expects of her.
Etter’s novel will mean different things to a lot of people, and this is the joy of reading something open to interpretation: we’re allowed to form deeper connections to what’s on the page. The surreal world Etter has created is something I can see sticking with me for a long time. I can envision waking up at night with these vivid images swimming in my head, already knowing they’ll be hard to shake in the best possible way.