Katie Jean Shinkle
Spuyten Duyvil, 2018
Reviewed by Meghan Lamb
The Summer of Us
“Time, in miniature form, like a compressed gas, gets hotter,” Lia Purpura writes in her essay “On Miniatures.” In this essay, Purpura illuminates the uncanny properties—Are they real?—and ambitious qualities—How do they work?—of stunningly economic, short form literary works. Occupying 90 short but remarkably dense pages, Katie Jean Shinkle’s book Ruination deservedly joins this category of works, condensing a war, an outbreak, an apocalyptic flourishing of the sky, and a girl’s coming of age evolution into the length of a novella. With its highly contained “compressed gas” atmosphere, Ruination reads like a Bildungsroman for the fraught times we live in, an apt tribute to our current generation of young—becoming—people. True to the spirit of their coming of age experience, Ruination is a building of dismantled parts: a becoming forged in unbecoming, transgressive accumulations.
From the beginning, Ruination frames its atmospheric fog of events through the gaze and imagination of a teen girl, watching her as she watches the clouds with her friends. The girls look up as the burgeoning disaster begins to transform the sky itself, generating a “black outline as if spiral on paper.” In the course of noticing all those shapes a teen would notice in the clouds—penises—our young narrator’s thought process deepens, darkens, and expands in time with the sky:
Paredolia in theory: what becomes a creature of wing, what becomes one blink signal or two, what becomes the shape of genitals. If we take our shoes off, put them behind our heads, lie on our backs, can we stay like this forever, pointing at creatures and penises in the sky, the largest span of blackbird ever seen?
From this darkening of the sky erupts a great war wherein the women go off to fight (rather than the men). From this shift in gendered responsibility comes a wave of reactionary conservative warnings, religious prophesies, and commandments that the men preserve their manhood. In the midst of it all, the narrator and her girlfriends experiment with their own desires, “touching…butts…flashing breasts,” outlining each others’ shapes like the wayward clouds they are. Recognizing that these all too real sweeping, sky-wide changes could potentially disrupt her own internal stirrings, the narrator asks a titular question: “Can we begin in the war of this country in the summer of us?”
In so many ways, the answer appears to be, yes! Shinkle beautifully examines the strange sexiness and liberating potential of this apocalyptic chaos, from the excitement of realization—“the sky of my heart is a bottle shimmering, the color of beach glass”—to the atmosphere of erotic urgency—“our hands become hammers”—to the impetus for holing up (and cuddling up) with Paula, the subject of her romantic desires—“The mattress starts stinking from the moisture, and it feels as if there is no one else in the entire world.” Meanwhile, the narrator’s father begins his own transformative self-exploration, dressing and dancing in women’s clothes. By removing his wife, who “never understood” his cross-dressing, the war has—in some ways—expanded his gender identity. As the narrator explains to Paula, “when my father is dressed like a woman he is the closest he will ever be to God.”
This sense of freedom is interrupted by the outbreak of mysterious floral growths both on and within the bodies of many community girls. Left unchecked, these growths appear to be deadly, killing the narrator’s neighbor in a smother of roses. This supposed floral disease is described with insinuating loveliness, however—“…rosebuds streaming out of her mouth onto the pillowcase and floor…thick wooden sprawl from her sternum…”—suggesting this growth is another misunderstood secret, like the transgressive sexualities of the narrator and her father.
As girls (most notably, but maybe not always) in queer relationships continue to develop floral growths, the community responds with even more religious anxiety and conservative policing. Shinkle aptly describes the many layers of these conservative measures, from the level of ominous organizations—such as the Center For Eradication—to internalized paranoia. When the narrator first starts to realize Paula is more than a friend, she performs a series of nervous rituals any queer person from a conservative town will recognize instantly: counting back from one hundred “into perpetuity…repeat[ing] Pi digits,” practicing what she calls “Behavior Modification.” Equally worried that they will be outed—and thus eradicated—the narrator’s father pulls up the Queen Anne’s lace he finds growing in their floors. He then ritualistically shakes the flowers from his sleeves at the church revival tent.
But Ruination seems to understand this protective ritual as no more than what it is, acknowledging that it will never get him “close[r] to God” than he feels in women’s clothing. Likewise, the narrator continues in her sexual evolution as the glorious flora continue to bloom, unstoppably. As she describes an attempt to remove growth from an infected house: “The Men attempt to cut the layers. They are unsuccessful.”
In its brilliantly condensed short form, Shinkle’s novella is akin to these small houses of titular, blooming-to-bursting build-ups. Ruination leaves us just at the point of explosion: an amazing exposure of all its many layers. Though I can’t really quote from the ending without revealing it, I will say that it is a masterful study in accumulation, employing a massive growth of lists (list upon list upon list, name upon name upon name) to a stunning, defamiliarizing (yet all too familiar) effect. Leaving us in a state of exploded-open Ruination, Shinkle slyly invites us to pick up the pieces, to reassemble ourselves anew.
Meghan Lamb is the author of a short story collection, All Your Most Private Places (Spork Press, 2018), and a novel, Silk Flowers (Birds of Lace, 2017), in addition to short works featured in Quarterly West, DIAGRAM, and The Collagist.