Belly Up by Rita Bullwinkel, contributor to Mcsweeney's Quarterly Concern, is weird. It’s confident and uncompromising in its weirdness, and it’s dark but didn’t make me feel overly sad. I found myself laughing and smiling while appreciating how odd it was. Short story collections are a fun genre, feeling to me like they require less commitment than a novel – a literary snack instead of a meal. When I saw this collection described as “grotesque,” and also “witty,” I was immediately convinced by what sounded like an interesting pairing that I can now say is definitely accurate.
It would be difficult to summarize this collection, as each story is unique and strange in its own way. One of the strengths of the collection as a whole is the cast of characters, who I cared about quickly and who stayed with me after the stories were done. The world-building pattern consists of either a wild character paired with ordinary circumstances or an ordinary character paired with quirky circumstances. I gravitated toward the strange, so some of my favorite characters included a snake living in a tree named Karl, a living child born to a Floridian ghost, and banished brothers employed in a prison infirmary.
Bullwinkel is able to draw beauty from some otherwise gross or sad things, like a burnt tongue or a widow’s jar of hair. These were the stories I was most interested in. I read several of them multiple times because the language and themes fascinated me, so I was particularly drawn to the stories “Black Tongue,” “God’s True Zombies,” “Hunker Down,” and “Concerned Humans.”
However, I also felt a couple of them dragged on a bit. Some stories are far more meditative or cerebral in tone without much action, and these are the ones that were less memorable for me. This isn’t a major flaw because they’re all relatively short, so I moved on to the next or waited it out for a few pages until the next story began.
With some stories as short as two pages, there’s a sense of urgency, but I also felt invited to revel in the words and take my time with each piece. Bullwinkel is in no rush, and varies her sentences so readers can luxuriate in the language. In the space of a page, her sentences can be long and descriptive, like “When the mediums sleep, they unlock their skulls and let their brains float up out of their heads like balloons, their spinal cords stretching like rubber bands out of their backs, anchoring their brains to their respective owners” or short and snappy, like “Try one, he said. It might taste like chicken, but really it’s dinosaur.” This variety kept my attention, and I never felt the writing became monotonous. I really read every line without skipping ahead to look for action the way I sometimes do, because I didn’t want to miss any surprises along the way.
Belly Up is the perfect collection to read intermittently when you want to bask in something different, a little dark, and meditative. It made me want to investigate, appreciate, and imagine all the weird things I could encounter in my own life or the lives of others.