The Rib Joint (a review)
There’s so much to admire in Julia Koets’s first book of essays. She demonstrates enormous skill at turning a subject inside out, revealing clinical interest in that subject while spinning lyrical connections between abstract ideas and detailed memories. However, the collection is far too repetitive for such a short book, examining the same memories in multiple contexts. Koets’s secret love affairs have great emotional heft, but they drop weight bit by bit as she uses them repeatedly to connect to different ideas.
The collection looks back on a young woman coming to grips with her sexuality, and weaves the particular (Koets’s life) with the universal (scientific and linguistic concepts). In this, it’s successful. Koets’s experiences reveal difficult and meaningful truths about being young and queer when one’s terms are poorly defined:
A hazy line can exist between friendship and desire, but I didn’t see the possibility for haziness then. I couldn’t. I didn’t know desire could look that way. […] I didn’t know same-sex desire was possible, not really, not in the way I knew that girls liked boys until infinity, and that girls and boys got older and taller and married and had children and it started all over again.
Five of the 16 essays are linguistic explorations: the resonance and history of the verbs “drive” and “fall,” for instance, and the many meanings of “praise” and “moor”: “Both a rope and the act of tying a rope to fasten two things together […] Moor, from the root word marr, meaning sea.” Other essays linger on organ music, the myth of Pandora, Sally Ride, and selling plasma. Anne Carson’s translations of Sappho form a frequent touchstone. Each of these subjects entwines with Koets’s experiences of queerness: early crushes on friends, a long and exhausting affair with a college roommate, and the confusion and damnation of Christianity: “I imagine the kind of fear it takes to want someone gone, to remove your children from someone’s presence.”
Koets’s eye, which is as sharp and unblinking as any writer’s could be, remains fixed on a select handful of events, and she interprets them through as many lenses as possible.
The prevailing mood of these essays is a kind of wise, gentle regret, with a tiny measure of bitterness. Not regret for the writer’s own actions; rather, that the past went the way it did—that it went down so hard. Koets’s past was obviously painful to live, but that pain has mostly evaporated, leaving behind clarity and just a touch of anger that it couldn’t have been different.
In writing about what she calls the “‘Born This Way’ […] creation story” (that is, the prevailing idea that queer people are simply Born This Way, a la the Lady Gaga song, and that understanding one’s own queerness is as simple as seeing the shape of one’s nose in the mirror), Koets reminds us: “When Born This Way is the only story, the only queer creation myth, some LGBTQ people are excluded—to the point that they can’t recognize their own sexuality, a part of their own identity.” After this practical explanation, she moves into a more lyrical register: “Narratives of queerness are infinite. They do not always begin at birth. They cannot always be traced to childhood. A story can begin in medias res, as a wave begins in the middle of the ocean.”
Koets demonstrates enormous skill at turning a subject inside out, revealing clinical interest in that subject while spinning lyrical connections between abstract ideas and detailed memories.
Koets has a sure hand at the braided essay. Her timing is exquisite, and her tangents-that-aren’t-actually-tangents reveal perfect placement. What holds this collection back from greatness is its repetition. The affair with Kate, her college roommate who continued insisting that she was straight for years on end, is examined a dozen different ways. In the title essay, the strongest in the collection, the two young women work at a barbeque restaurant (the “rib joint”). Koets references octopuses and bones, attached to factual and mythological odds and ends, to make sense of the affair: “When Kate told me she’d loved me, I felt our story bend, the way the ribs curve to encompass the lungs, the heart. In one story, we lived in a jar. In another story, we opened the lid and swam out into the darkness of the ocean.” They hear a ghost together in “Spectrum,” and the secrets Kate keeps from her boyfriend, mentioned in the prior essay, weigh more heavily on the events in the latter. They sell plasma together in “Blood Money,” and again, as in earlier essays, she writes of work at the barbeque restaurant, Kate’s boyfriend, the first time they kissed.
It would be incorrect to say that the reader tires of these stories, or feels that Koets belabors them unpleasantly. But the fact is, the essays tread the same ground in different styles over and over.
Perhaps this is an inevitable shortcoming of a memoir made up of individual essays focused mainly on one topic, rather than a memoir in chronological chapters. Koets’s eye, which is as sharp and unblinking as any writer’s could be, remains fixed on a select handful of events, and she interprets them through as many lenses as possible. Sometimes this feels prismatic, and sometimes it feels monotonous. Her detail, her rhizomatic thinking, her careful doses of abstraction and lyricism—all these are in place, and yet the final result may frustrate rather than reward the reader. A collection that ranged a little more widely—one that chose the single most incisive analysis of a given event, rather than printing all of them—might have been a masterful book, rather than a good one with more promise than payoff. What we have in The Rib Joint is an extraordinary writer stretching deeply, deeply down, but in just a few square feet of horizontal space.
REVIEWED BY KATHARINE COLDIRON
Katharine Coldiron’s work has appeared in Ms., The Guardian, VIDA, The Los Angeles Review of Books, and elsewhere. She lives in California and here.