Rachel is a cool person who moved into the room I recently left in Brooklyn, NY. This room has been the home of at least two other HTMLGIANT-adjacent writers in the past.
She gave me a copy of her new book Loving the Ocean Won’t Keep it From Killing You on Hello America press. It’s a small paperback with a sleek typographic cover. I had met Rachel previously–when we shared Adam Humphrey’s video production help two summers ago–so I knew there was something worth paying attention to inside the cover. Rachel is a driven, focused writer-artist and who is also fun to be around. We smoked cigarettes together. We went to the deli across the street.The action of the novella is framed by a violent turn in the relationship status of the central character, Marina. At a young age, she ditches a (uniquely, extremely) deadbeat husband and drives west looking for hardly anything at all, and finding another man. Maria is a young woman who has already lived completely and devastatingly. Her cross-country move is precarious and wild, a potently-constructed psychological escape vector angling hard away from an impossible-to-survive new reality. She doesn’t surprise herself, but she does end up for a time inside a life that isn’t objectively better than the life she fled in total necessity. Bell writes, “the time to wonder if driving across the country to meet a man was a good idea was not after driving across the country to meet a man.” Though it returns, that primary story falls away quickly in the first few pages, at a moment when it overwhelms the reader. Bell begins the intricate work of filling in the details of Marina’s life from late childhood. A detailed sketch of abuse is set against the mirror of a family context that, for all the bleakly-specific reasons given, doesn’t help Marina fully heal or process her experiences.
The book takes us through deceptively long-feeling sections of in-patient treatment, personal and sexual exploration, friendship, romance, education, travel. Bell matter-of-factly navigates Marina’s complicated traumatic scenes, able to tie together wildly lucid phrases and bold personal observations in moments of near total darkness.
She found it remarkable that she was being given the opportunity to heal in this place with these people, who would stop doing something if she simply asked. Being aware of other patient’s triggers seemed like an important tool in the process. Marina started to wish the whole world felt as safe and protective of her as the hospital did. But she knew that was unrealistic and at some point she would go back to her life and wouldn’t be able to expect anyone to change the TV channel for her because they were talking about inscest on Law & Order SVU.
Marina gets stronger and wiser with every page, and yet still more haunted by a repetition of events that seem without sense or end. It is a trick of aging, active even in the very young, that gives power to the title. In life we all learn important, mysterious, wise things–aphorisms like loving the ocean won’t keep it from killing you–but we small, insignificant mortals of narrative don’t get to start life over and apply these hard-won lessons. Knowledge doesn’t guarantee success or comprehension. Even (especially?) the best writers are trapped in the linear prison their own stories, true or false, moral or not.
Bell doesn’t try to sell us anything, so we begin to trust her narration completely.
As much as the book is about trauma, it’s also a sizzle-reel of adolescent triumph over the horrors of the adult American life yet-to-cum: horrors soon-to-be ladled out in miles of road, hours of low-wage work, and months or years of indecipherable pain and desire. Despite the impossibly sharp turns, the edges of the narrative feel soft and reaching. It’s a book that’s everywhere all the time. It’s a story of sexual redemption in the face of ebbing and flowing addiction–a story of pure dreams and towering fears, either harnessed for personal goals or bent to the absolute bitter end of human experience. If this testimonial novella is a road of escape into or through language, then at every freeway exit, we read deeper into the gendered nightmare of sex and violence, and the undisputed fact of a massive global culture that abuses as much as it protects. The obviousness of Bell’s naturalistic style is as compelling and affecting as her subject matter. The words don’t leave you and the feelings connected to the words don’t leave you. She punches hard with syntax and uses the short and long structures of language any way she can, fighting with and through conventional meanings and connotations, especially within the vernaculars of sex and pathology.
They stumbled back to his apartment, student housing. His room was large and standard. He had a twin bed with lavender sheets and an upside-down cross on the wall made of empty cigarette packs. Marina was on her period, so she sucked his dick. He took out a condom and put it on and Marina said “I’m bleeding.” He threw the condom in the trash can and fell asleep, squished next to her on the twin mattress. In the morning she flushed her tampon down his toilette and put in a new one. They walked outside and he didn’t hug her goodbye. The vastness of her emptiness was immeasurable. The next day Marina dropped out of college.
The book never slows down. If the book ever struggles, the reader might need to struggle along with it. For a writer, it’s not easy to finish a short novel on a rhapsodic flourish. Bell narrowly does it. She manages, using her words, to climb up above the clouds and into the blue, where things get clearer, colder and not any easier. I cheer for Marina because I want more than anything for her to get the success and validation she deserves, any way she can. I cheer for Bell because her book fucks so hard.