Bedlam by Charlene Elsby
Apocalypse Party Press, April 2023
Reading Charlene Elsby makes me feel bad. But in a good way, I think. Or, at least, a constructive one; a necessary one. One might describe her work as Pyrrhically militant feminism, which is to say that she writes with a reckless disregard for her reader’s safety, or her own. If her previous novels Hexis and Psychros took the form of philosophical MMA bouts—lone agents grappling with specific male tormentors through the bloody pulp of trauma—then Bedlam is an all-out brawl. This is Jen Yu in the teahouse shit. The Bride vs. The Crazy 88. She might be going down, but she’s taking every last one of these motherfuckers with her.
“Bad for the Baby” throws the first punch—an acid-tongued inner monologue (the format for all these stories, and one which admirers of Elsby’s work will immediately recognize) from a woman quietly tying herself in knots over the class dynamics at play between herself and the pregnant woman cutting her hair, before spinning out into bad memories of a bad man and all the other tiny thousand cuts that led her to this day, this moment, where she sits crying in a barber chair. For the uninitiated, “Bad for the Baby” is a near-perfect intro to what Elsby does so well—drawing you in with a dark joke and a conspiratorial smirk, only to grab you by the shoulders the second you get close—digging in and shaking you until she’s made it abundantly clear that she’s not joking at all. That she’s as serious as your fucking life.
And if the first few stories don’t convince you, “Split Dick David Does a Dick Pic on a Tuesday” ought to do the trick.
I crossed my legs without thinking as I began writing about this—the reflexive muscle-memory of penile self-defense. A fusillade from a much more focused and vengeful mind, “Split Dick David” is a masterclass in pelvic tension-building (live readings would almost certainly lead to audience fainting spells a la Chuck Palahniuk’s “Guts”), and you don’t have to be named David to feel its razorwire fury (though it definitely helps). Hand to god, the first thing I did after I finished reading was get up and make sure my doors were locked.
Now for the record, I’ve never sent an unsolicited dick pic, but even as a relative innocent I couldn’t help but feel the weight of complicity as Elsby ticked down her dicksposition matrix of possible responses, ranging from the humiliating (forwarding it to his mom), to the life-wrecking (hanging up fliers), to the increasingly gruesome (let’s just say there’s more than one way to skin a cock). By the end, it feels categorically insane that anyone ever does this—just puts their junk out into the ether willy-nilly (heh)—but it’s perhaps that very insanity that Elsby is driving at.
Existing power structures being what they are, errant nudes simply aren’t dangerous for men the way they are for women. We don’t have to think about the consequences, because by and large, there aren’t any. They’re a power move all their own—the sexual equivalent of “haha, not touching you, can’t get mad.” In this way, despite its extreme-gore specificity, “Split Dick David” also functions more broadly as fierce polemic against the whole of male privilege—an uncompromising demand that men step outside the phallic ivory towers of our own experience and really think about how it might feel to be bombarded daily by invasive, importunate genitalia. And then to cut it the fuck out (before she does it for us).
If you make it through “Split Dick David” intact, you’ll be promptly met by the left hook of “Here in a Place I Shouldn’t Be”—a despairing requiem for potentially healthy love, and the grief inherent in leaving a kind partner for their own good—followed immediately by the dehumanizing body blows of “Fuck Stick”—a nauseating, dysphemistic account of sexual assault. Survive that punishing combo, and you’ll find yourself staggering punch-drunk into a 10th round haymaker.
“Rape Lines” is a vehement demystification. An unprecedented smashing of convention. A conversation obliterator. It thrusts the reader into a woman’s mind, mid-rape, and from there spools out an autodidact’s checklist against the banality of evil. In between mulling her options (fight or flight? rigid or limp? brevity or dignity?), and reviewing her healthcare needs (is she current on birth control? protected from STD’s? where’s the nearest pharmacy?) she worries about her mattress (can the springs take this weight?) and hypoallergenic pillowcases (will this blood wash out?), reflects on other times she was raped (when did this start? which times really count? why does it keep happening?), and even wryly muses on her own luck with regard to its degree and frequency (“why couldn’t I just get raped a little?” “Did I have a rapethefuckoutofme vibe?”).
The overall effect, while obviously horrifying, is much more one of inconvenience, and an almost mordant, “here we go again” ennui. For all its graphic physical violence, “Rape Lines” seems intent on depicting rape not as some be-all end-all destructive act, but rather just an absurdly, and even tediously common crime. Case in point, before it’s even over, this woman has already fully emasculated her attacker in her mind, disabused herself of any nagging notions about seeking justice, and plotted out her routine recovery. She’ll take some time off. She’ll get herself a cake. She’ll binge a show. “Call it self-care.” The familiar efficiency of it all is devastating, but one again suspects Elsby is squaring up against a larger point. Namely, the way we talk about rape. The way we both over- and understate its importance, sometimes in the same breath, and virtually never for the right reasons. The way even typing it right now is sending warning signals down my phalanges like “Are you sure you want to use that word?” and “It makes people uncomfortable.” and “Would maybe something a little gentler do? They’ll know what you mean.” The way we fetishize “purity” and hyperbolize its loss. The way we defend women’s “honor” at the expense of showing them true respect. The way we crave all the salacious details but protect ourselves from the ugly ones. The way we thrust both blame and victimhood upon survivors to distance ourselves from their fates. And the way we put so much on one word—Rape—that it becomes almost impossible to talk meaningfully about it at all (and most definitely contributes to its being vastly underreported). All of this is a huge part of the problem.
I wish I could reprint the entire paragraph in which Elsby’s character bemoans how she’s always getting “full-blown rape[d]” as opposed to “semi-raped”—“Like the women who […] don’t really want to have sex, but do it anyway, to be polite.” It’s maybe the boldest, most provocative moment in the whole book. The acknowledgement that there are different kinds of rape, and that lumping them all together under the same powerloaded term is arguably counterproductive, is not a popular or even traditionally feminist one. Date rape is still rape. Grey rape is still rape. Not stopping when someone says “stop” during consensual sex is still fucking rape. No means no. And yet, post-#MeToo America has been working out its own sliding scale of douchebaggery for a while now, and we seem to agree that, say, R. Kelly and Louis CK are not the same level of bad (an exercise which immediately bears the dangerous fruit of giving some predators more of a pass than others). So where does that leave us? How do we codify all these nuances without inadvertently lessening their import? How do we discuss the harm without stigmatizing the harmed? How do we hold within our scared, muddled, defensive, combative, and sociobiologically limited worldviews that two things are quite likely true: 1.) That rape can ruin lives, and 2.) that it doesn’t have to. That it doesn’t define anyone by default. And that, despite our collective freighting of women’s sexuality with eons of puritanical, paternalistic baggage, sometimes, it’s just a really bad night, and laughing about it, or crying about it, or reporting it, or having some cake and quietly moving on from it, are all understandable and legitimate responses. That it is only for each individual woman to say.
I don’t claim to have the answers here. I’m honestly nervous as hell just asking the questions. But I know they’re important. And I believe that work like “Rape Lines” is invaluable to the conversation. It reminds us, with a weary sigh, that the best things we can do are listen to survivors on their own terms, try to ease their burdens in the ways that they want, and concede that there is no catchall answer to any of this; that this conversation will never be over; that we can always do better.
And just in case that wasn’t enough heavy psychic lifting for you, allow me to put a bow on this beast via the book’s penultimate entry. “On Whether Suicide is a Reasonable Option, For Me, At This Time” marks the only story in Bedlam in which Elsby is unequivocally writing as herself, detailing her struggles with depression, her travails with various neuroleptic medications, her exhaustion with all the cruel forces that compel her again and again to pick up her sword and write, and of course, her thoughts on the titular act, never too far out of mind with all its tantalizing promise of quiet and still. This is the final girl still standing—the action heroine alluded to in the opening paragraph, bruised, torn, breathing hard and a pint low, but surrounded on all sides by the bodies of enemies rent asunder. Her righteous work, at least for now, is done, and the book’s enigmatic coda “Time To Go” seems to suggest that, given a chance to heal, she’ll be back to fight another day.
This is the fourth book I’ve reviewed by Charlene Elsby, and while each of its predecessors was harrowing in its own way, Bedlam cuts deeper still for its seething realism. Whatever minor, metaphorical comforts she employed to soften the (still brutal) blows of those previous works have largely been set aside here. These stories vomit and cackle and bleed and scream with a degree of experiential pain that it’s hard to imagine anyone conjuring out of whole cloth. A lot of them hurt to read, and they’re supposed to. And it’s through this steely brand of blacked-out, metaphysical autofiction that she continually hurls herself pell-mell into all the things she wishes were different but does not expect to live to see changed. Indeed, Elsby has always written with this kind of suicide bomber abandon—like any book could be her last—but thankfully, we already know this one is not. She’s still out there, fighting the good fight, and we need her now more than ever.
Dave Fitzgerald is a writer living and working in the dank and balmy South. He recently published his debut novel, Troll, with Whiskey Tit Books. He has previously written for Flagpole Magazine and the (now-defunct) film website Cinespect, and currently contributes to Heavy Feather Review, Daily Grindhouse and Cinedump. He tweets @DFitzgerraldo.