Rachel Yoder’s Nightbitch is a multifarious howl. It holds the incandescence of female rage, the thrill of unbridled song pitched at the moon, the theatrical gesture, the pain of the wounded.
The story’s register is a hybrid of dark fairytale, domestic realism and Spike Jonze-style absurdity. We meet a suburban American mother whose ineffectual husband returns home from work only on weekends. She is stretched taut raising her young son and she might be turning into a dog. The transformation is not into an Instagenic form of canine but into a feral creature.
While Yoder’s writing is ferociously funny, it doesn’t stop at the joke. Nightbitch enters the entrails of impulse, desire and the visceral experience of early motherhood. “The mother”, as she is often referred to, is almost delirious with sleep deprivation, a husk of yearning for an artist’s life that was once almost hers but that she surrendered to parenting. Reading Nightbitch, sublimated memories of early motherhood surface, among them the extremity of experience, the unhinging of self, the state’s ability to render a body so porous that it feels on the cusp of dissolution, the yearning for secret spaces.
Nightbitch’s antecedents are Ovid’s Metamorphoses, Franz Kafka, and various feminist texts: Virginia Woolf, Adrienne Rich, Jenny Offill as well as Heji Shin’s photographic series Baby, which speaks of childbirth’s brutal and other-worldly presences. Whispering through the story is Clarissa Pinkola Estés, Jungian analyst and feminist scholar whose book Women Who Run with the Wolves argues that contemporary societies suppress female instinct and power: “We are all filled with a longing for the wild.” Its wildness is exhilarating.
The story is haunted by a threshold of latent violence that, once crossed, might not be returned from, and a febrile intensity that veers between terror and transcendence. Punctuating it all are the quotidian, momentarily glorious details of raising a small child.
Structural gender inequalities are frequently challenged by “the mother”. Although she positions herself in opposition to the culture of pyramid wellness herb-selling “book mommies”, its existence speaks of underlying desperation.
In The Argonauts, Maggie Nelson searches for critical voices to accompany her in the first year of her son’s life, discarding Freud and Lacan. “I don’t want an eros, or
a hermeneutics, of my baby. Neither is dirty, neither is mirthful, enough.” Nightbitch embraces the dirty and mirthful; they are situated in its very sinew. At one point, “the mother” writes of her interest in “longing so deep it threatens to splinter a person apart”. Yoder allows the splintering to occur and what is left is startling but majestic.
Harvill Secker, 256pp, $32.99
This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Jul 31, 2021 as "Nightbitch".
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