You Feel It Just Below the Ribs

Book Cover
Jeffrey Cranor and Janina Matthewson
Star Rating
Reviewer's Rating
Apr 25, 2023

What a perfectly sinister, unsettling little book. Well, not so much a "little book," more a little amount of unease. A mildly sinister and unsettling book--in the best possible way. It is subtle. A tickle. Something not quite right gnawing at the edges, never openly stated, never resolved. Ambiguous and open to interpretation, with no interpretation feeling like a good one.

This is a fictional memoir set in a fictional though familiar world, ours with an alternate history the last century or so. Something like World War I happened, then grew and spread to literally involve every part of the world, lasting for decades, destroying much of civilization and eliminating much of the world's population. That period of history has become known as the Great Reckoning, and a new world order has emerged from it, a united global government and civilization. The protagonist narrator grew up during the Great Reckoning, then played a minor though pivitol role in the New Society that was created after.

The story that Miriam tells is a quiet one even as gradually, ever so subtly, it becomes a disquieting one. Hints and cracks that something may not be quite right. Much of the tension develops in the interplay between her manuscript and the commentary of the (fictional) editors who have published it. In a short introduction, afterword, and footnotes, they discuss how many of the claims she makes are outrageous and cannot be verified as factual (or they provide "historical" context). They claim she is an unreliable narrator. Yet readers begin to wonder if it's she who is unreliable or the editors--and, by extension, the controlling narrative of this world's leaders and population.

A footnote, for instance:

*The Repopulation Initiative was purely voluntary for the first sixteen years of its existence. This was less a deliberate choice and more a result of ongoing debate about the level of compensation participants should be entitled to. A small but vocal contingent argued that it was unfair to offer less to those donating sperm than to those donating bodies. While this argument was never in danger of succeeding, its proponents did manage to block successive votes on the issue--which was resolved only when two of the men concerned were discovered to have been embezzling funds from the committee. Their dismissal left the group with too small a minority to have any sway.

It seems like a nice little bit of color added for world building, insignificant details to make this history seem more real. Except. If the Repopulation Initiative was voluntary 70 years ago, that means it hasn't been since. So this ideal New Society has mandatory repopulation? What does that mean? What does that look like? Is that an okay thing? None of it is ever addressed or answered. It's just a hint that maybe the "reliable authorities" calling this memoirist a crackpot maybe shouldn't be trusted. A crack in their veneer. Is this the sad story of a life gone wrong, a notable figure who slipped into paranoia and infamy? Or is it the story of a tragic hero trying and failing to stop a dangerous machine too big to control? It's left ambiguous, up to readers to decide.

Without spoiling too much, a general summary of the story: Miriam grows up an orphan in war-ravaged Europe, doing her best to survive in changing circumstances. She develops a meditation technique that she realizes could help others deal with their trauma from the war, and becomes a self-taught psychological expert. A key part of her methods is removing memories. As the New Society is developed by some of her mentors, idealists dedicated to the idea of eradicating the tribalism that leads to war, she sees her methods adopted by others and spread across the world. A linchpin of the system is eliminating "familial nationalism," as Miriam calls it. Eventually, the government mandates that families be eliminated entirely, using Miriam's methods to erase parents' and children's' memories of each other. Miriam helps with the work for a while, but eventually comes to question it and how it's being put to use. Her questions, though, are too little, too late, and amount to nothing.

Most dystopian stories are about the cracks and totalitarian downsides of a utopia at the end of its life, the protagonists helping to tear it apart. This one flips that story on its head. In the background of this tale is the creation of a successful utopia just getting started, the protagonist unwittingly helping to create what may, in fact be a dystopia.

After all, she doesn't even seem to be sure herself which it is:

We were an orphaned people in the Reckoning. We had all been surviving alone, by our wits and gambles, for so long. But as the New Society gained traction as a philosophy, and later as a fully realized world government, that began to change. Soon, whatever need we had could be addressed by some newly developed agency.

What a luxury.

These days it doesn't seem like a luxury, of course. Such a system seems essential, basic; it's taken for granted. The state is everyone's parents and it will see to everyone's needs--whether those needs are nourishment and support or discipline.

There were revolts against the formation of the New Society throughout the 1930s and 40s. But they usually burned out before they spread too far. They would lose momentum because it's hard to rise up against a government that's giving people everything they need. Even if that same government is taking something away in the process.

Or, maybe the editors are right, and she's sadly unhinged from reality. Another footnote:

*The author is being both exceptionally arrogant and alarmist. She sounds like a conspiracy theorist. The Age Ten Protocols and the treatments relevant to them were not "unleashed"--they were carefully and thoughtfully developed. It is foolish to suggest that they were implemented without proper vetting. Our world was almost destroyed by violence caused by inherited hatred and prejudice. By removing the ability to inherit, we have achieved a truly peaceful and equal world.

She might be a conspiracy theorist wrongly protesting a utopia or she might be the only person seeing clearly in a dystopia. It's never settled; and either option is an unsettling one. Mildly sinister and haunting, a quietly disquieting story. Deliciously so. Definitely thought-provoking and fun.


A footnote of my own: I read this book because I loved the other book by co-author Matthewson, Of Things Gone Astray. I learned it is also part of the world the authors have created for their podcast Within the Wires, a backstory and history for the stories they tell there. So I'm sure fans of the podcast will love this, but I loved it even without knowing the podcast.

Reviewed by Chris K.
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