I bought Rachel Yoder’s Nightbitch for one reason and one reason only: the author is from Iowa. I mean, I had the idea that I would like it, but I don’t even remember where I discovered the book. As I get closer to the end of this current reading project, I’m getting to states where I made it to September without accidentally reading a book from there, so my standards are dropping somewhat for what I’ll order.
That sounds like I’m about to start panning the book. I’m not; I actually put it on my shortlist for my best books of the year list, but … I do not know what to say about this one. See that quote on the cover describing the book as a “feral, unholy marriage of Tillie Olsen and Kafka”? After reading about a third of the book, and before I noticed that quote, I described the book to my wife as the book Kafka would write if he had been a suburban Midwestern housewife. By the end of the book, I’d actually ordered a new copy of Metamorphosis, which I’m going to read after the book I’m reading now. I don’t actually know Tillie Olsen’s name, so I can’t comment on that part, but this is a deeply weird book, and it’ll be interesting to see where my opinion of it ends up shaking out after a couple of months to marinate on it.
The story: the main character is a mother of a toddler, I believe around two years old. She used to be an artist but since having her baby has ceased to make art. Her husband is an engineer who travels for work and he is away most of the time, so she’s at home with the child, who she must clothe, feed, entertain, and worst of all, put to bed every night.
She hates it.
And then she turns into a dog.
This is not a joke.
The character is never actually named. She is The Mother for the first third of the book or so, and after the transformation she thinks of herself as Nightbitch for the rest of the book. It sounds like a superhero name; it’s not. She turns into a dog, abandons her child for a while, runs roughshod across her neighborhood, taking great joy in taking a “colossal shit” in her neighbor’s yard, and kills a couple of things. Then she goes back home and eventually reverts to her human self … at least mostly.
Nightbitch’s doggy nature continues to assert itself in odd ways throughout the rest of the book, particularly when she convinces her son to “play doggy” as well, and does things like feeding him small bits of raw meat and finally solving the bedtime problem by convincing him to sleep in a kennel, which actually comes off as more reasonable than you might suspect just given that description. And while it might sound like there are bits of levity in there, and there are, from time to time, this is really a book about rage and feeling trapped, and there are moments of genuinely shocking violence sprinkled throughout the text.
And the thing is, I can’t tell if the book is horrifying or just insufferable, and it’s entirely possible that it’s both. Like, this woman really is convinced she lives the worst of all available lives, and … well, I’ve had a toddler, although I will grant that I never had to be alone with him for a week at a time much less every week, but I have to feel like there are worse ways to live than being trapped with a toddler and feeling unsatisfied in your career. Maybe that makes me a bad feminist, I’m not sure. But if I had to compare it to a book other than Metamorphosis, it would be The Catcher in the Rye, which might immediately clue some of you in as to why people might find the book insufferable. The tone of the writing even evokes (quite possibly intentionally) Holden Caulfield’s disaffected, alienated tone, to the point where when I read a paragraph to my wife she asked if it had been written in English or if I was reading it in translation. I dunno; I’m inclined to think the book is a bit of a triumph, but I need to sit with it a while and maybe talk it over with some other people who have read it. Maybe you should be one of those people? Let me know if you read it.