Caren Beilin, The University of Pennsylvania, Noemi Press, 2014

Reviewed by Jessica Leigh Alexander

[Review Guidelines]

"To hide something," says Caren Beilin in her 2o14 interview with Bookslut, "is to scalp it of its pleasure. So I want to name and describe." In her novel, The University of Pennsylvania, the too frequently and euphemistically swaddled female body is lyrically unbound and ecstatically bleeding. Menstrual blood is one among the many thematic mediums through which Beilin derides an ethics of self-control, and flouts the priggish reticence that shrouds women's bodies in shame and silence. For "menstruation," as Beilin describes it, "is neurotically hidden, literally pushed back inside of women."
     In The University of Pennsylvania the secret is leaked, the hidden exposed. The novel opens: "Olivia is known by her affliction of continuous menstruation." Olivia Knox, heiress to the Knox gelatin empire, has womb duplication, a condition, which causes her to bleed excessively. This abundance of blood stops toilets, bursts pipes, soaks carpets, and at one point transforms a mikveh into a writhing, thickening rainbow.
     Events and objects alone do not make The University of Pennsylvania the carnival of excess that it is. Beilin's prose too performs the pleasure of gorging and juicing language. When Adele, a pre-med student at the University, tells her sister of the mikveh, where she struggled to hold her mother's dull body above a horizon of oxygen, Beilin describes the male bystanders eyes as squeezed. Beilin writes, "...they were juicing their iris, so vigorous, so not to see us" (16). And later, when Olivia fucks Adele, her clitoris is a "bloated drip of flesh, the mottled maroonrimmed rags, the mutilated lung of something who swam, the jellyburble, the fishbeef, the flower of guts" (54). And when Luther Haas, the Amish boy who sells butter, fucks Su-Yon, a Thai teen, at Reading Terminal Market, he is "forcing pinkblubber" (38). She is "a bouquet of daisies and yellowbells and two brownbells, and one mauve some kind of blooma that's been put in the cooler, like frozen fuck-opening flowers" (38). Nouns copulate, ejaculate, and drip. Asphalt is "moonbutterous blackbread" (8). A surgeon's palm is "heartplumped" (58). Tampons hung from a mulberry branch are "bloodlanterns" (63). Nouns come unbound, are subject to a puncturing, their skin stretched flaccid over the ripening of a sentence.
     Indeed, it is a narrative intent upon interpenetration. And these characters, their eyes "colored bubbles blown off of the brain"(21), ensconced in the solitude of their own seeing, realizing only in "aloneness" what they have seen, these characters too are run through, pierced, penetrated not only by each other, but also, and sometimes quite literally, by Pennsylvania's history. Beilin writes:

In Glen Park there was a statue of William Penn similar to the one affixed to the top of Philadelphia's city hall. Both representations held sheathed swords that, from certain angles of looking, appeared to be their erect penises. In Glen Park's park, sitting on a bench close to William Penn, who stood, was the Quaker hero George Fox, and he bent forward at the angle of momentous talk, toward Penn (19).

     It is in aloneness that Antigone Edelberg realizes "William Penn was trying to stuff his dick inside George Fox's face" (21). And thus begins the erotic revision of Pennsylvania's foundations—an historiographic restoration, a recognition that history, like "love [,] is vandalism" (26). And thus Antigone, knowing William Penn preferred to offer it to Fox, fucks the bronze hilt of Penn's sword, while Fox bears witness with "baggy stillbell lips" (25).