'Mortality Will Be Sexy'

Dodie Bellamy, When the Sick Rule the World

Semiotext(e), 248pp, £12.95, ISBN 9781584351689

reviewed by Jean-Thomas Tremblay

In the essay ‘In the Shadow of Twitter Towers,’ from her recent collection When the Sick Rule the World, Dodie Bellamy writes: ‘This piece has 117,002 characters. That’s 836 tweets. Some students—even in graduate writing programs—make each sentence a new paragraph. It’s like they don’t know how to connect one thing to another. Perhaps these one sentence paragraphs best reflect our current reality—a series of discrete bits—better than my horse and buggy paragraphs that trot on for pages.’

Bellamy’s observation is accurate, but her self-criticism undeserved. Surely, the scale at which her writing operates, the paragraph, is somewhat of an anomaly within a social media paradigm that requires content to be compressible, movable, sharable. But Bellamy’s paragraphs aren’t antiquated; they feel neither heavy nor slow. Instead, the sheer range of topics that these paragraphs cover and connect makes them riveting. Bellamy’s anti-‘tweet’ style aggregates, rather than isolates, information. Within her paragraphs, two stories situated in San Francisco’s Mid-Market neighbourhood – the establishment of Twitter’s headquarters and the discovery of body parts in a suitcase – become tied. She constellates the gentrification and privatisation of San Francisco with discourses of beautification and sanitation, technologies of surveillance, and the growth of a homeless population made vulnerable to violence. Bellamy’s web of relations reveals an activist bent: it would be socially damaging to isolate San Francisco’s latest tech boom (there have been many, as she recounts) from the apparatus of marginalisation and violence on which it is contingent. Paragraphs shift between genres as much as they move across topics. By featuring nuggets from such vernacular genres as Facebook ‘feeds’ and Yelp reviews (genres that are notably lengthier than 140-character ‘tweets’), she develops a social critique of the impact of social media on urban spaces that takes the form of social media seriously. The extensive paragraphs of When the Sick Rule the World are not only justifiable, but necessary: they afford Bellamy’s capacious thinking and agile prose enough room.

Bellamy’s lengthy paragraphs formalise a proposition: that being in the world entails living in the midst of social relations, and that pondering these relations constitutes an occasion for speculating patterns of interaction and forms of community. The collection’s title essay, ‘When the Sick Rule the World,’ tackles multiple chemical sensitivity (MCS), a chronic condition whose manifestation, though volatile, often involves an acute allergic reaction following a low-level exposure to common chemicals. The essay’s massive, three-page opening paragraph imitates a self-diagnosis questionnaire. Unevenly recognised by medical practitioners, MCS relies on self-diagnoses that are legitimised almost strictly within MCS circles. These are the last few lines of the opening paragraph:

… have you ever had root canal implants or bridgework done on your teeth if so when have you ever had implants stainless steel Teflon silicone put into your body if so when and what kind of implants have you ever been given vaccinations if so when have you ever had reactions to any vaccinations have you ever smoked if so for how long have you ever lived with others that smoked if so for how long and how old were you how often do you eat fish what types of fish do you eat?

The question mark that brings this excerpt to an end is the paragraph’s only punctuation. In this excerpt, potential causes melt into one another. Devoid of both clear categories and a hierarchy, the symptomatology of MCS is a pastiche of potential causes whose accretion, more than any one cause, indicates sickness. The term ‘pastiche’ seems especially apt, here. In her 2006 monograph Sick Building Syndrome and the Problem of Uncertainty: Environmental Politics, Technoscience, and Women’s Workers, the historian Michelle Murphy argues that sick building syndrome, a derivative of MCS prevalent in 1980s workplaces, is a problem that is postmodern in form, in so far as it lacks an essence. I would suggest, instead, that MCS has an essence that is distributed, elusive; the causes of MCS are ‘in the air,’ ‘in the water,’ ‘out there.’ In the face of such distributed causes, pastiche, postmodernism’s preferred stylistic device, is mobilised to marshal the different particles of an essence.

Bellamy’s punctuation-free questionnaire conveys a sense of the hazy, disorganised context in which people vulnerable to ordinary chemicals struggle to build communities. She takes interest in current infrastructures for MCS information-sharing and community-building, including what she calls ‘a listserve for the sick.’ The Internet has been an important locus of gathering for members of MCS communities, many of whom are women who come from North American urban and suburban areas. Bellamy doesn’t only survey existing community forms; she also speculates on a future social configuration dominated by ‘the sick.’ Her speculation is utopian and dystopian at once: ‘When the sick rule the world roses, gardenias, freesias, and other fragrant flowers will no longer be grown. On Valentine’s Day the sick will give one another dahlias and daisies to say I Love You. The sick should have sex as often as possible because it’s good for the immune system;’ ‘When the sick rule the world there will be no restaurants. When the sick rule the world Calvin Klein will design aluminium foil dressings and our porcelain walls will be decorated by Limoges. Gas masks will be sexy, the envy of every Paris runway;’ ‘When the sick rule the world mortality will be sexy.’

Bellamy’s flirtation with both utopia and dystopia (e.g. abundant sex, but no more fragrant flowers; a fashion avant-garde that evokes militarism) is worth dwelling on. While Bellamy puts things in relation, she doesn’t resolve their tensions. Many elements suggest that Bellamy draws a connection between MCS and HIV/AIDS: the sex-death matrix of her utopian/dystopian speculation; a reference to Todd Haynes’ film Safe (1995), in which MCS serves as a metaphor for the AIDS epidemic; the use of ‘sick’ to mean both a category of marginalisation and an affirmative identity to be claimed; and a discussion, in the essay that follows ‘When the Sick Rule the World,’ of a cult guru who lived with AIDS and had unprotected sex with students who ignored his status. Yet, Bellamy never absolutely conflates these diagnoses, or proffers that one clarifies the other. She brings together people, topics, and genres in a manner that is open-ended, never definitive.

Bellamy’s practice of bringing together without flattening tensions is obvious in the essays that pay homage to important figures in her life. Tributes to Eileen Myles (‘Barf Manifesto’) and Kathy Acker (‘Digging Through Kathy Acker’s Stuff’) don’t cast aside the ugly bits of her friendship with these authors. The same observation applies to ‘Phone Home,’ a devastating eulogy to Bellamy’s mother that pivots on a virtuosic engagement with Steven Spielberg’s schmaltzy E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial (1982). Another sign of the open-endedness of Bellamy’s prose: at times, she sets out to outline a phenomenon, and later adds sections to her essay when she realises that the phenomenon she’s tracking is part of a greater web of relations. ‘I thought this piece was finished. I was wrong,’ she writes some forty pages into ‘In the Shadow of Twitter Towers.’ Bellamy isn’t just willing to go where her objects take her; she skilfully negotiates every shift and turn of these objects’ trajectory.

Some of Bellamy’s more experimental books come with writing protocols of their own. Take, for example, Cunt-Ups (2001), a hermaphrodite re-examination of William Burroughs’ ‘cut-ups,’ or The TV Sutras (2014), a collection of television-mediated aphorisms. Rich in narrative passages, the essays contained in When the Sick Rule the World are more accessible, but they are no less impressive. If I had even one ounce of Bellamy’s vision, I’d write a lengthy paragraph of superlatives – without any punctuation, of course – to describe her work. Needless to say, my paragraph wouldn’t stand comparison with hers. Dodie Bellamy is a writer of relations and connections, but she’s in a league of her own.
Jean-Thomas Tremblay is a PhD researcher in the department of English Language and Literature at the University of Chicago.