Conspiracies and Madness in “You Feel It Just Below the Ribs” – Chicago Review of Books


The world of You Feel It Just Below the Ribs is all apocalypse and debris, bare shambles coagulating into a familiar dystopian world order. The novel is marked as an “alternate history” of the early twentieth century, except that it doesn’t feel like one. The timelines are certainly murky, the laws are new, the figureheads have other names, but the broad contours can easily be mistaken for what you might find in a textbook. The novel is composed of a haphazardly-written memoir set in Europe and America, spanning the sixty years of the life of a scholar, Dr. Miriam Gregory. We follow her journey through the desolate landscapes of a war known as the Great Reckoning, roughly covering the first thirty years of the twentieth century. 

Miriam wrote the manuscript in the twilight of her life, focusing on the aftermath of the war and her legacy as part of the reconstruction efforts. The memoir, however, is an unearthed manuscript, cautiously distributed with annotations from the publisher; history is revealed through allusion, and pieced together using detailed footnotes interspersed throughout the memoir. The footnotes reveal dates and names with an assertive flourish in the nature of fact-checking comments, cutting the flow to address the reader in the present; Miriam’s words provide the broader strokes of a past linear time. Neither Miriam nor the footnotes reveal too much. The largely unreliable narrative and these authorial intrusions makes You Feel It Just Below the Ribs a frightening novel that slowly induces a paranoia that leaves an itch under the skin.

The author, Jeffrey Cranor is one of the creators of Welcome to the Night Vale, and along with Janina Matthewson, the two have also written the podcast, Within the Wires, set in the same universe as the You Feel It Just Below the Ribs’s Great Reckoning. Readers familiar with either of the two podcasts will be aware that formal experimentation is part of the oeuvre. This novel plays less with the epistolary form like the podcasts rely on, and more with the atmosphere produced by the found manuscript. 

The publishing of the manuscript is treated with some trepidation, and the publishers warn against reading factuality into her accounts. The initial footnotes merely provide information, verifying dates, places and names. Deeper into the text, as the manuscript becomes an exposé, the tone becomes increasingly aggressive. The comments mock Miriam’s authorial persona and her lack of institutional affiliation, and soon enough, directly deny her controversial claims. Miriam is vague, they say, Miriam is sensational and the text is a screed; her claims about political figures and institutions are conspiracy theories.And yes, maybe Miriam is a little too vague, but aren’t the footnotes defensive, sometimes appearing as if they are parroting an official press release? It is left to the reader to decide whom to trust. 

This sort of storytelling—where exposition is boiled down to build suspense, where the academic character and the reader are both detectives—is a literary postmodernist fascination, a mainstay of the Tel Quel writers. Today they’re more popular as text adventures or as a significant part of role-playing games, where the audience plays an active role in shaping the story. You Feel It Just Below the Ribs, even as it borrows from these forms, offers a more mundane reading experience: scouring the internet for news, drifting between conspiracy theory and propaganda, watching opacity become truth. The prose style accentuates this variation, forcing sympathies to veer by interspersing a sparse mode with sudden evocative flairs. The novel forces a reconsideration of what an alternative history is and what it is for. After all, most conspiracy theories are alternate histories, a pulp format that reimagines elements of danger and threatens the force of established truths. Moreover, exposés are alternate histories too, insofar as they threaten conventional historiography.

It is assumed that alternate histories spin off the “what if” question, usually depicting horrors we have been spared (like all the Germany-winning-the-war dystopias) or correctives to the horror we live through. The whole premise offers a sugar-coated reality, especially in the former case, reinforcing the safety of existing conditions. You Feel It Just Below the Ribs takes a different approach: if an alt-history novel described the world (mostly) as we know it, would we recognize how bad things really are?

In the novel, all the disciplinary apparatuses that were formalized in our twentieth century—schools, prisons, psychiatric institutions—impact the novel’s world. Miriam’s memoir paints a single divergence through the Watercolor Quiet, a psychological exercise, whose development produces an alternate history of clinical psychological practices. Miriam discovers the technique through a fellow prison inmate she meets during the war. Towards the end of the fighting, she researches, refines, and practices it to heal trauma. Watercolor Quiet is similar to Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT): both work through “remapping neural pathways” to alter “harmful” thought patterns and beliefs, and aim to “normalize” trauma. The similarities end here; the Watercolor Quiet aims to alter memories. 

At first glance, this treatment appears benign compared to the electroshock treatments and lobotomies that most psychiatric inmates endured at times between 1940 to the early 1950s in America. However, in the novel, the formalized treatment is institutionalized, such treatment is mandated as a part of school, and any deviation is deemed illegal. The treatment then evolves and influences society akin to actual history: psychiatric institutes mushroom quickly, becoming part of the means of controlling people through policing, incarceration and regulating productivity. Neural becomes anatomical, psychology becomes physiology. We only have to look at SSRI’s and their withdrawal symptoms to see the similarities. 

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Dystopias where governments establish some form of control through psychological manipulation are aplenty, such as Anthony Burgess’s Clockwork Orange, Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World or Marge Piercy’s Woman at the Edge of Time. Nonetheless, the novel’s focus on a seemingly innocuous practice throws contemporary clinical psychiatry under a critical light, depicting the co-optation of social research by the medical industry, and drawing a rather Foucauldian thread through the development of psychiatry. Otherwise rare in SF, this criticality emphasizes that a cultural understanding of “harmful” thoughts is usually ambiguous, contextual, and malleable. More often than not, it is manipulated to produce conformity and productivity.

You Feel It Just Below the Ribs begins slowly, building anticipation and thrills, and is powerful even as it tapers off into a predictable ending. It can be read as multiple narratives, a literary choose-your-own-adventure: as a meditation on the nature of alternate histories, as a provocative account of the horrors linked to psychiatry, as a character study of a woman who has made terrible choices, even as a narrative about the ethical and political questions to consider as part of scientific research. It’s skeptical heart, however, throbs, pushing the reader to decide whom they usually trust. Do we turn to jargon or data, to authority, to linear stories or to emotional intensity? What is truth, it seems to ask, if its weight is not delivered through narrative style?

FICTION
You Feel It Just Below the Ribs
by Jeffrey Cranor and Janina Matthewson
Harper
Published November 16th, 2021



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