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Book Review:
Debut novel was a pleasant surprise


Rachael Yoder, 2021

I decided to read Rachel Yoder's debut novel, Nightbitch, due to the audacious and (slightly) offensive title and a blurb on the cover: "A feral, unholy marriage of Tillie Olson and Kafka ... " The novel lives up to its title, audacious, wildly imaginative  (even unhinged), offensive and often funny. Yoder is a talented satirist of cultural manners;  when in doubt she goes for the jugular. On line, I was surprised ( due perhaps to my own ethnic stereotypes) to learn that Yoder grew up un a Mennonite family in Ohio, and lives and works in Iowa City, though not employed by the Iowa Writer's Workshop where Marilynne Robinson ( and many others) is a faculty member.  After finishing Nightbitch, I had a fantasy of observing a cocktail party where Robinson, the embodiment of Christian compassion, is engaged in an intense conversation with Yoder, who celebrates animalistic rage, while other writers circle the couple, sniffing ( per Yoder's main character) blood.  But who is attacking whom, or perhaps it's all writers' shop talk. 


In Kafka's, The Metamorphosis, the main character gradually turns into a giant insect. Kafka's imagination does not shrink from this horrific transformation, surely one of the most memorable nightmares in fiction. In Nightbitch, a married stay at home mother finds herself gradually transformed into a dog, first physically ( hair on the back of her neck, sharp canine teeth, craves meat)) and emotionally as she is consumed with animalistic rage regarding the self immolation of mothering her young child with a husband who is mostly absent due to work, or self absorption when he is home. Yoder takes Kafka's imaginative idea, and crosses boundaries Kafka did not approach: the mother goes on nightly forays into the woods, stalking on all fours and tearing apart small animals with her teeth. She also slaughter's the family's cat in front of her (nameless) two year old son, referred to throughout the novel as "the boy," an off-putting device that bothered me as much as the tearing apart of rabbits with the mother's teeth. 


Yoder's rants regarding the tyranny, servitude, virtual self immolation of parenting young children are tiresome ( she's not low income or trapped) but convincing.  This mother feels her artistic interests and talents are being annihilated,  and that she has been reduced to 'boring non-person' in the minds of her professional friends. One of the best over the top scenes in this novel (or any novel) describes a monumental meltdown in a restaurant when artist ( employed) friends chat with one another regarding their current projects while excluding the mother (referred to as "she") from the conversation. "She" explodes at her friends in animalistic rage while taking meat off the plate of other diners on her way out of the restaurant!


Yoder has a fearless imagination. Her depiction of the emotional transformation of the mother into a feral dog is remarkably, compellingly horrifying,  and often funny at the same time.  Yoder's extraordinary literary gifts are evident on every page, whatever one thinks of her moral vision. I was ready to go to bat for Yoder's novel after Nightbitch was not included on The New York Times Sunday book section's Best 100 books of the Year, while several mediocre novels were on the list. "So very very typical"  as Yoder's doggie mom might say. I even sent the book section's editors a nasty gram expressing my low regard for their selections (especially of novels).  I then read the last 30 pages of Nightbitch in which Yoder attempts a misguided upbeat ending in which: "She" embraces her animal nature, lays down the law to her lazy husband regarding division of parenting duties, engages in nightly sorties in which she hunts and kills animals with her teeth, finds that her husband accepts and  embraces her transformation, even to the point of lovingly cleaning her up on her return after which they have great sex ( "don't ever change", he moans) and achieves social celebrity by giving public theatrical performances in which she kills a rabbit with her teeth in the final scene. The book ends on a note of self affirmation, an ending for which "trashy" is too kind a description. 


By the end of Yoder's novel, I was horrified, not by Yoder's moral sense, but by her artistic judgment. It's like watching a great artist fill a canvas with a dark, daring, captivating vision and then ruin the picture with a can of red paint at the very end!  But why? To inspire, to convince readers her main character has discovered the source of feminine authenticity and personal power? Whatever the answer, I don't need a dog's keen senses to turn away from the smell.        

-- Dee Wilson

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