JULY 4, 2022
“I HATED NOT being really read. […] Not even the title,” says Iris, the protagonist of Caren Beilin’s serious yet hilarious new novel, Revenge of the Scapegoat. Iris is comparing herself to a book — specifically Simone de Beauvoir’s hefty The Mandarins — that someone picks up just because they need a good doorstop. In one refreshing metaphor, Iris encapsulates the author’s ambition to have us see things for what they really are. Beilin shows us how airing our dirty laundry can be helpful, that paranoia is a logical response to the everyday horror around us, and why work in the Lewis Hyde definition of the word — contrary to what our collective unconscious has led us to believe — will never be a means to anything other than our complete subjugation. And she does it with a swaggery, unfettered syntax, which is a minor masterpiece of its own.
It’s important to give the obligatory notice that, while Revenge of the Scapegoat is a work of fiction, it is based on real-life events. As Beilin reveals at the book’s closing, some of the dialogue in the text is lifted from taped recordings (à la Sheila Heti’s 2010 novel, How Should a Person Be?). In her acknowledgments, Beilin thanks her “dad, who sent the most ingenious novel-writing kit in the mail, which I appreciate.” In an interview in The Creative Independent, she explains her preference for autofiction over memoir: “[T]o be able to use your biography to play, that is a very redeeming, helpful, healing thing to do.”
And play she does. Throughout her oeuvre, Beilin exhibits a healthy disregard for the rules of writing: her language and choice of themes is anything but orthodox. In Beilin’s chapbook Americans, Guests, or Us (2012), a character begins to “pack up her cunt” as she puts on her clothes to leave her married lover’s home. Then, there’s the novel The University of Pennsylvania (2014) about a character with nonstop menstruation. The travelogue Spain (2018) states on the copyright page: “The people and events in this book are according to my memory and thus filtered through a necessitated paranoia about what the world, and things, are like.” The memoir Blackfishing the IUD (2019) has a page with a definition of the verb “blackfish” — that is, to “destroy a cultural notion of normalcy around something, as the 2013 documentary Blackfish did for whales in captivity.” Beilin’s humor is reminiscent of Jenny Zhang’s, and it’s no surprise that Zhang’s My Baby First Birthday (2020) and Revenge of the Scapegoat both have a Rabelais reference on their back covers.
The plot in Revenge of the Scapegoat is launched when Iris receives a package from her father. The package contains letters he initially sent her as a teenager in which he blames her for the breakdown of their family. In the letters, Iris’s father tells her that she needs to mow the lawn, do her laundry, and clean up after eating, among other household chores, in order to keep their broken family together. Iris is her family’s scapegoat, and she muses that only a father who “desperately needs her love and wants to choke it out of her” would issue such a traumatizing indictment (and send this “totally perverse encore” to her in her mid-30s).
Most of her friends advise her to destroy this evil package and move on. While Iris understands that these letters are personal, not political, she wants them “to be made public, to become a topic, that the public should really see this, and publishing should be like that, like a tactic.” Iris openly shares her familial wounds with others, and while some bluntly tell her that it’s boring, the tactic does allow for the possibility of solidarity with those who have suffered a similar fate. Iris’s friend Ray, for example, is also a familial scapegoat. The two swap stories, talk openly about their experiences, and support each other as best as two people with limited resources can: Iris trades her mildewy house for Ray’s too-old Subaru so she can escape to the countryside and Ray can have a place to recover from their top surgery.
Beilin knows that the family reenacts the larger culture’s violence on a smaller, painfully intimate scale. Her aim is to drag this domestic abuse into the public sphere through this book, to show us the absurdity of capitalist life in America. In one scene, Iris recalls how she has to take the medicine for her rheumatoid arthritis, a low-dose form of chemo, on Fridays, in order to use her weekends as sick days and thus accommodate her poorly paid adjunct teaching job. “A lot of people do it like that,” she explains. As we watch Iris inject herself, her husband Joe waits nearby looking at her like a dog “waiting for his stupid stick.” He swears to her that micro-dosing heroin to help with alcoholism is also a thing. While Iris is negotiating the minefield of precarity that is academic gig labor, Joe is battling addiction in a country without a strong social safety net. The whole process makes a gaslighting mockery of the American mandate to “pull yourself up by the bootstraps.” In this context, we understand why Iris would “rather be killed outside, on a stage, than beaten indoors.”
In an interview with The Believer, Beilin says, “My experience is shaped by the horror-pneuma of possibility, and all the millions of gestures in this world that, if not enacting the pure horror sure point to it.” In Blackfishing the IUD, the author talks about her experience getting the eponymous contraceptive device and how she believes it triggered the chronic autoimmune disease she shares with Iris. The medical industry knows that copper toxicity is a possibility, so what could be the reason to implant it into people with uteruses? Similarly, Iris’s father could have just been cleaning out the house and re-sent these letters meaning no harm, but what would it mean if he had sent them on purpose?
At the book’s midpoint, Iris is working a stint as a cowherd at a fancy rural museum called The mARTin somewhere around “Vermont, Massachusetts.” In swapping life stories with its co-owner Matthew, she learns that his late father, Martin (whom he incidentally helped his mother kill), also wanted him to work for work’s sake. Iris, who by this point has reauthored herself into Vivitrix Marigold, learns that the museum used to have a type of velvet tree that was “dark dark dark like midnight gunking the property, morning was dark, every rooted thing just begowned in this soft, wet, and clinging version of a blackout curtain.” Beilin’s aptitude for poetic language makes those with a fondness for it swoon in these descriptive passages. Martin would have the young Matthew go around with a bucket of copper nails, which he, a “human hammer,” would insert into the trees to kill them. There could have been a reason to make a child do this work, but it raises the important question of what it means if Martin wanted to exert power over his family just because he could.
A further emphasis on language surfaces in Beilin’s study of the word “weeds,” as well as its rapport with paranoia. She is careful to remind us that “weeds” is just another word for herbs by placing the latter next to the former in parentheses each time it appears in the book. In this way, the author questions received notions of what is important (herbs) and what is not (weeds), thus offering a fascinating reflection on the inevitable power dynamics at play even — or especially — on the level of a single word: “My ears perked up. Weed, weed, a word like just, a warning word. When you hear weed, that scapegoated growth, you hear about power, a capacity. Track weed, that word we have for what grows without us. Something is in it.”
Much of the heft of Beilin’s narrative revolves around Iris/Vivitrix’s time spent at The mARTin, which is also the site of the novel’s foray into absurdism. On Vivitrix’s first morning at the museum, she wakes up with her heart under the hoof of a cow, her feet covered in shit, even though she had lovingly wrapped them in “bonnets of stolen cabbage, which is honestly good for inflammation.” When Caroline, Matthew’s mother, appears above her, Vivitrix takes a deep breath. She thinks, “You have to manage up, you have to work.” She has no experience (or interest) in being a cowherd — she will fake it until she makes it by learning the basics on YouTube during a bathroom break — but she understands the cruelty of our reality: our physical survival is tethered to tedious and often repulsive forms of work.
Vivitrix’s feet, thanks to the rheumatoid arthritis, feel awful and inflamed, old as “two retirees,” and she refers to them as Bouvard and Pécuchet after the two friends in Flaubert’s last, unfinished novel. Although Beilin has selected feet as examples of her pain based on her own experience, the move still feels intentional: feet are arguably our most hard-working body parts in a sort of mindless, manual-labor kind of way. In the popular imagination, feet are often mentioned with derision — smelly, ugly — or seen as potential objects of fetishized attention that effaces all of their work.
Similarly, cows, like workers, give and give (except they don’t get paid). It makes Matthew’s comment to Vivitrix — “What were you reared for, do you think, dairy or beef?” — all the more haunting. In a twisted reflection of the way capitalism’s emphasis on work has converged with the contemporary art market, these cows were brought over from a former concentration camp in Germany so that an artist could kill them as part of a performance. Vivitrix reflects that “[i]t’s good […] to be lazy like that, as an artist. Especially if you’re a woman. Fuck work.” In an attempt to save the cows, she tries to highlight their worth by claiming that they are useful:
“Why [kill them]? Their milk is good,” I said. “I mean, it works.” I didn’t know if their milk was any good or if it worked. I don’t actually think milk “works.” I don’t know why I chose this angle anyway, to try to sell these cows as still usable, when my issue obviously was that I loathed these murderous artforms of The mARTin, did not believe in destruction as vision, not at that time, not murder.
Beilin herself lives by these guidelines (in contrast to Iris/Vivitrix, who gives her students writing advice she herself skips over). Beilin has made art out of growing up in a house that was, in her words, “so gaslit.” She openly celebrates being paranoid and reminds us that it’s a privilege not to be. And finally, while writing this book and finding herself blocked, she didn’t work through it: instead, she sat on a chair, with her eyes open, mindfully staring at a corner of her bed. Her message goes down easy: don’t follow the rules made against you. Reading Revenge of the Scapegoat, you’ll find yourself laughing one of those laughs that stops abruptly when you suddenly grasp that we have internalized our own oppression.