In 2014, French “confinement artist” Abraham Poincheval spent thirteen days and nights living inside a hollowed-out bear carcass, restricting himself to a diet of worms, beetles, and honey. Through a succession of wacky and highly-publicized stunts, most of which have involved prolonged sojourns in perilously tight spaces, Poincheval has carved out a niche for himself in the Parisian art scene. The artist’s 2014 performance, In the skin of the bear, presented at Paris’s Museum of Hunting and Nature, drew inspiration from animal carcasses he encountered during a trek through the French Alps, the idea being to “become one” with the animal. Camped out inside the sterilized carcass, which had been fitted out with a system of tubes and cables for light, water, and waste disposal, Poincheval occupied his hours reading and live-streaming in his underpants. Last month, the artist performed his most recent piece, Stone, at the Palais du Tokyo in Paris, spending a full week entombed within a block of limestone. Although deliberately and even exultantly silly, Poincheval’s work raises interesting questions about how our sense of internal and external space—of where we end and the world begins—shapes our awareness.
Reading Canadian novelist Jesse Ruddock’s poignant début, I found myself thinking (again and again) of In the skin of the bear. A dark, elegiac exploration of interiority and traumatic consciousness, Ruddock’s Shot-Blue engages similar themes, troubling the distinction between inside and outside, between embodied selves and the surrounding world. Set on Canada’s sparsely-populated Arctic frontier, at a remote fishing outpost and summer resort on the fictitious Prioleau Lake, it is a novel of environmental and emotional extremes. Caught between the wilderness to the north and the suffocating insularity of their own rural, resource-poor community, characters are held hostage to one another’s moods and impulses. Tristan, an orphan in love with a domineering, older girl, is a willing captive, prepared to suffocate in exchange for a little warmth:
He felt close to a fire where the air is eaten up. He wanted to get closer, to gather the locks of flame, the coals, and the blackened spit below. He would pick up the smoke and carry it.
Tristan can choose to stay and burn or, like his mother, escape into the wilderness and freeze there. Examining the forces of isolation that prey upon an impoverished community’s most vulnerable members—a single mother, an orphan boy, a lonely teenage girl with low self-esteem—Ruddock is deeply interested not only in our sense of where we end and the external world begins, but in intersubjective boundaries: our sense of where we end and others begin.
The novel’s first section chronicles single mother Rachel’s struggle to care for her young son Tristan in a town where resources are scarce and sympathies scarcer. Courted by a brooding preacher’s son, a man “like poured concrete,” she quits her low-wage job at a local hotel, moving herself and her son to her father’s hunting cabin on an otherwise uninhabited island, far down the lake. Aside from the occasional visits of boatman Keb, with whom Rachel exchanges sex for money, mother and son live in near-total isolation. The intimacy Ruddock crafts is both sprawling and austere. Like two planets held together in orbit, Rachel and Tristan share the same room, meals, and routine but remain wholly mysterious to one another. A constant source of wonder and speculation, Tristan is the only fresh thing in his mother’s life, the only thing she is still curious about: hovering over him in the dark, she listens to him half-talking, half-singing in his sleep. She wonders why he doesn’t sing more and why he insists on sleeping on the floor (and not in the bed beside her). Tristan has no friends, no relatives, no teachers. Aside from Keb, his mother is the only person he knows—his only point of reference. As Keb’s daughter Marie observes, “he belonged to his mother, who kept her hand in his hair.” One evening it occurs to Rachel that “maybe she was the reason he never sang out. Maybe she was what he needed protection from.” She struggles to separate his life from her own, to give him more of what we all need and, by and by, regret: space. One winter afternoon, after receiving some troubling news, she sets off on a hike to clear her head. Losing her way in the snow, she wanders out onto the frozen lake and perishes. That winter, Tristan is forced to fend for himself, but when the lake thaws and Rachel’s body washes ashore, Keb the boatman comes to take him into custody.
In the second part of the novel, set two years after Rachel’s death, Tristan is living on his mother’s island again, but circumstances there have changed: the little cabin has been razed and a vacation resort erected in its place. Paid in food and board, Tristan works at the resort as a manual laborer and “guide.” His long hair and soft demeanor make him a target for the other teenage workers, although Tristan mostly avoids them. Content in his own company, he spends his free time alone by the shore. But Tristan’s solitude is shattered when the new kitchen worker, Tomasin, sets her sights on him, laying claim to him and forcing her way into his life. Slowly, he begins to grow accustomed to her feral presence, wanting to trust her and, for the first time, to tell his own story. Unfortunately for Tristan, Tomasin is not interested in who he thinks he is.
Do you know what you are? She asked…
As a child, she had opened a “Grasshopper Hospital,” but when she could find no sick grasshoppers to attend to, she caught healthy grasshoppers instead, tearing off their legs before playing nurse to them on a slab of pitted brick. Here, Ruddock demonstrates her talent for drafting the shapes and contours of an entire personality in just one brief anecdote. Suffice to say, Tristan does not fare much better than Tomasin’s grasshoppers. At her behest, he boxes with a boy twice his size, sustaining a concussion and a broken nose before falling into a day-long coma.
Following this incident, Tomasin’s interest in Tristan wanes as she gravitates more and more toward the alluring and predatory Stella, a young actress vacationing at the resort. In one fantastic, memorable sentence, Ruddock manages to capture not just Stella’s character, but a whole way of being in the world: “more subduing than a migraine, she somehow became whatever you were doing.” Stella takes pleasure in toying with Tomasin—treating her like a servant, bathing in her attentions, slowly wearing down her defenses. Tomasin’s fascination with Stella culminates in a sexual encounter with Stella’s twenty-three-year-old boyfriend and the thirteen-year-old Tomasin struggles to come to terms with the experience:
this feeling: like her own blood was scratching against the walls of her veins, long scratches trying to tell her something: I’m trying to tell you, her blood was saying. I’m telling you, it said.
But this is no crisis or turning point for Tomasin; it is merely another thing that happened. Because, in Shot-Blue, trauma does not register as an isolated incident, but as a condition. A chronic affliction of the senses, the body crying out from its own depths: I’m trying to tell you, her blood was saying. I’m telling you, it said. Like a droning in the ears, sickeningly low and constant, trauma is constitutive of characters’ experience of the world. For the novel’s young protagonists, adolescence is a fundamentally traumatic experience, unfolding as a sequence of emotional and physical violations at once thrilling and scarring.
Also bent on self-destruction, and in many ways a foil for Tomasin, Rachel is physically marked by her own teenage trauma: her face rent by a long, ragged scar like “a wave stuck in breaking…like ground dug up by a dog.” For the sake of her son, who is her only tether, she curbs her self-destructive impulses. Still, even as an adult, her experience of the world is traumatic—defined by friction, a gradual wearing away:
If she were a boat, she would scrape the dock and from the scraping shiver and threaten the only threat she had: to finally break.
Rachel’s trauma is not existential but environmental. Rural poverty shapes her body and mind to its grinding necessities. Rowing from island to island, her one, consuming thought is of securing money or food. But in both cases, trauma is a psychic state: a generalized dysphoria—“nothing felt quite as it should”—that distorts characters’ perceptions of the surrounding world. As subtly pervasive as nuclear radiation, their moods seep into the novel’s settings, infecting ordinary scenes of nature with muted violence:
The bass were stuffed from hunting in full sun. If you managed to catch one, its fight would lag and it would rise to the surface throwing up wan, shredded, half-digested minnows, little pieces of flesh that looked like they’d been run through a washing machine.
Ruddock’s prose is saturated with spatial-corporeal metaphors that weaken or collapse the boundaries between bodies, their attendant sensations and surrounding space. Trauma is etched into the novel’s DNA: external space is not neutral or empty, but excruciatingly alive and always on the verge. The sun is a “skinned-knee”; or, for Marie, it is a far graver injury: a hole gouged in the sky, bleeding heat. Hearing a gunshot echo in the distance, she decides in a moment of poetic inspiration that the sky is shot-blue. Boatman Keb must “tourniquet” a mounting sense of dread. And in one hallucinatory passage: “the sun slipped its fingers in between the treeline and sky to split a space open like the gills of a fish, showing the red breathing ribbons.” Like Poincheval, Ruddock believes in the vitality of “dead” matter: rocks, animal remains, and even household objects are anthropomorphized, instilled with “thing-power.” The novel is littered with found objects that seem to vibrate with life—fishing lures, a bit of driftwood shaped like a bird’s wing, a dead hummingbird, or the hand mirror Tristan inherits from his mother:
It was a rearview mirror snapped out of its shell, something she’d done as a teenager after her face was hurt and she wanted to see. She’d seen it shining on a wrecked car at the garbage dump, a cleared field near town that was scattered with trash and the bristly bodies of hungry black bears.
The passage demonstrates the intensity and disperseness of Ruddock’s attentions: the mirror flickers with associations, referring from sign to sign—to a car to a dump to a field and finally to “the bristly bodies of hungry black bears.” For Rachel, it is a cherished, traumatic artifact, while for Tristan it is almost a talismanic object—in life, his mother had forbidden him from touching the mirror. After her death, without knowing how it came into her possession, he will hold it up to his own battered face to assess the damage wrought by an older boy’s fists: his nose crushed flat against a face so bruised and swollen that he can no longer recognize himself. A vital, unresolved thing, Rachel’s mirror exceeds even these meanings. The narrative that collects around it also instills it with a life, a character, all its own—connecting it, in an almost miraculous turn, to the bodies of starving bears.
Just as the novel’s world is awash with human feelings, worldly things embed themselves in the psyches of its characters. Late in the novel, Tristan leaves Tomasin a “gift” rolled up in cloth: a dead hummingbird. She flings it away in disgust, but Marie, who is in love with Tristan, retrieves the bird, temporarily interring it in her sock and underwear drawer. As a consequence, “she would for the rest of her life, associate the smell of fresh laundry with a little bit of death.” The political theorist Jane Bennett posits an “out-side” populated by what she calls vibrant matter: “This out-side can operate at a distance from our bodies or it can operate as a foreign power internal to them, as when we feel the discomfort of nonidentity.” Trauma is an invasion of the inner world by the outer that casts bodies and selves into doubt. In the moments before her death, it does not occur to Rachel that she is dying: “She felt no pain, only doubt. She doubted her knees, doubted her hands.” For Tristan—who wonders why his name is something anyone can say, even those who would hurt and torment him— nonidentity is a comfort, a refuge. He seeks the feeling out, withdrawing to the lakeshore to meditate:
If he sat long enough, following each wave as it rolled forward and broke, bristled and dissolved, he forgot himself, he disappeared, and there was only the water wide across and deep at shore. Tristan liked that feeling. It was not like falling asleep. It was not like dreaming.
Abraham Poincheval hoped that, by confining himself to a bear for two weeks, he might induce a similar state of self-forgetfulness. The whole project was staged around this desire: “to experience becoming animal.” The term, borrowed from Deleuze and Guattari, implies “a fascination with the outside.” It describes the movement toward nonidentity, contingent upon the loss of social identity, or “face.” A fable of isolation and belonging, Shot-Blue is, in a sense, all about becoming-animal: the unravelling of social identities and selves. As Stella observes: “we do what we do, we do it to those who get too close to our animal souls.” There is something ancient, primal and almost biblical about the story Shot-Blue tells. Rachel—whose face is riven by a deep scar—is neglected, excluded and finally driven from the fold, “disappear[ing] into dry air.” The novel’s last scene mirrors her death on the lake when another character drowns there, this time in late summer.
Gazing into the lake’s outer distances, Tristan is tempted to climb down into the water and swim all the way out, but, rest assured, it won’t be Tristan who follows his mother into the “deep water.” As Stella observes, he has that rarest and most enviable of qualities, as rare in adults as in children and far better to have than confidence, or even kindness: self-possession. Indeed, this is a deeply self-possessed novel. Powerful and assured in its voice, it knows exactly where it wants to go and it gets there on the strength of its extraordinary language. Softening the distinction between poetic and narrative forms, the novel takes on the experimental logic of performance art. In other words, Ruddock builds up the conditions for nonidentity in and through language. Like the waves of Prioleau Lake, her hypnotic prose rolls, breaks, bristles, dissolves—folding its readers into an inexorable tide of feeling. With sparse dialogue and very little in the way of conventional devices, Shot-Blue is not driven by plot, but by a deeper, shrewder intuition. It is the novel’s emotional atmospheres that seem to give rise to “developments,” carrying its characters forward on a slow, ominous drift.
Shot-Blue’s language is a language of becoming, of fleeting moods and flickering impressions, so it is no accident that much of the novel is set in adolescence, at the confluence of so many “becomings.” An intensely imaginative and lucid study of human feeling in all its depth and range, much like Poincheval holed up in his bear, Shot-Blue asks its readers to consider how it would be to feel differently. Its closing scene traces a final, dazzling line of flight, whereby death is revealed to be: only another kind of becoming.
Christiane Craig is a writer and English lectrice at Pantheon-Sorbonne University in Paris.
Banner image: "Ice Fishing 2," courtesy of DREA.