25. A book released in the last year: You Feel It Just Below the Ribs by Janina Matthewson and Jeffrey Cranor
List Progress: 5/30
It is thrilling to see novelists who are eager to experiment with form and structure. You Feel It Just Below the Ribs, the Nov 2021 novel by Janina Matthewson and Jeffrey Cranor, was always going to be an odd duck because of its place in its franchise. Within the Wires is a podcast by Matthewson and Cranor that has run since 2016 and takes place in an alternate history universe, telling a different story about someone living in The Society each season. Below the Ribs takes place in the same universe as Within the Wires, and provides the origin story for one of the central tenants of The Society, but purports to be accessible for complete newcomers. And beyond that cross-media challenge, Below the Ribs tackles an additional layer of structural experimentation, stacking levels of in-universe authorship and meta narratives. The story does not always live up to the promises of this ambition, but the journey is still wild and engaging, well worth the price of admission.
Many years ago, a massive global war coincided with several natural disasters, in a cataclysm known as The Great Reckoning. With a massively depleted population that was desperate for an escape from war, the world finds a bold “solution”. Since war comes from nationalism, and nationalism comes from tribalism, and tribalism is fostered at a very base level within the family unit, The Society has dissolved all family units. Infants are taken from their families, raised in institutes, and at age ten are brainwashed to lose all memory of and emotional connection to their life up to that point.
Decades into this system, the body of Dr. Miriam Gregory, the psychologist who originally created the brainwashing techniques as a therapy tool, is found, along with her memoirs. She tells of her childhood and adolescence during the Great Reckoning, her development of the hypnotic state called the Watercolor Quiet, and how she eventually soured on The Society and discovered the shady underbelly of the utopia. These memoirs have been released by an in-universe publishing company, but presented with footnotes that are often in staunch disagreement with Dr. Gregory’s assertions. Think The Yiddish Policeman’s Union meets House of Leaves.
That is a lot of premise to get out of the way before getting into the plot; despite the authors’ assertions, a passing familiarity with the original podcast would be very useful in order to enjoy Below the Ribs, at least at the beginning. Once the stage has been set, the story moves quickly and fluidly, and both Dr. Gregory and the footnote-writer have very distinct and engaging voices.
It does lag a bit in the back half. While it makes logical sense for a memoir to telegraph the villain quite early, as the narrator is looking back from a biased perspective, it can make the reading experience frustrating. But some parts of the narrative are clearly supposed to be frustrating, as Dr. Gregory gets swept away in complacency and security in her own position. The conclusion is bittersweet, or perhaps just outright bitter, but being part of a larger franchise means that this story can continue beyond the pages. And what one reader sees as narrative frustration, another could see as a call to action, a plea to avoid Dr. Gregory’s sins. And in any timeline, that is a worthwhile call.
Would I Recommend It: Yes.