The Uncanny in Girlhood

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side by side series of the covers of Before and The Body Where I Was Born

The Russian formalist Viktor Shklovsky argued that literary language distinguishes itself from everyday language through a process he dubbed ostranenie—variously translated as defamiliarization, estrangement or, the most literal, “making strange.” In “Art as Device” (1917), Shklovsky wrote that “the purpose of art is to impart the sensation of things as they are perceived and not as they are known. The technique of art is to make objects ‘unfamiliar,’ to make forms difficult, to increase the difficulty and length of perception.” Art, according to Shklovsky, is a means of freeing us from automatic perception. In some sense, it returns us all to seeing the world through a child’s eyes, as if for the first time.

This may be why a certain freshness, even rawness, emerges in the early work of many writers examining childhood and adolescence. This is the case in Guadalupe Nettel’s The Body Where I Was Born, translated from the original Spanish (El Cuerpo en que naci, 2011) by J.T. Lichtenstein in 2016, and Carmen Boullosa’s Before, translated from the original Spanish (Antes, 1989) by Peter Bush in 2016. Both of these Mexican novels are first-person narrations of girlhood and adolescence whose uncanny qualities serve to shock the reader out of the complacent certainties of adulthood, evoking the essential strangeness of girlhood.

In Nettel’s novel, the narrator informs us from the first line that, “I was born with a white beauty mark, or what others call a birthmark, covering the cornea of my right eye.” This sentence already contains the tension that animates the novel between the narrator’s perception of herself (she has a “beauty mark”) and the way she is perceived by others (as marred by a “birthmark”). Forced to wear a patch over her good eye for most of the day, the narrator’s world is a series of blurred images until she is allowed to remove the patch before dinner, revealing an “overwhelmingly precise” world of “treetops and infinite leaves that composed them, the contours of the clouds in the sky, the tint of the flowers, the intricate pattern of my fingertips.” Nettel’s narrator is doubly estranged from her environment—first naturally, as all children are new to the world, and then again by her blurred vision. Her increasing perception of herself as flawed causes her to distance herself from her schoolmates. Through a turbulent childhood that includes her parents’ divorce, father’s imprisonment, and a move from Mexico City to Aix-en-Provence, the narrator adopts the cockroach as a kind of personal mascot, noting that for cockroaches, “Their survival does not imply they haven’t known suffering, but that they have learned to overcome it.”

One of the narrator’s only friends in her early years is a girl named Ximena, who lives in the apartment block across from hers. The girls never speak to each other but form the habit of watching one another through the windows at the same time every day. One evening, the narrator glances out of her window and sees a fire in Ximena’s room. Later, she learns that Ximena, who may have been schizophrenic, had lit herself on fire. For the narrator, it seems only natural that “Ximena had resolved once and for all to escape the cage of her life.” Ximena serves as a kind of double for the narrator, a girl who does not survive her own experience of her unhappy childhood. As Freud notes in his 1919 essay “The Uncanny,” doubles in literature are almost always uncanny. The double encountered in childhood, he says, is a reflection of the child’s inherent narcissism, a projection of multiple selves that, when encountered in adulthood, becomes uncanny. In Nettel’s novel, Ximena’s death remains one of the most ghostly and uncanny moments in the entire story, an event that taps into the Freudian notion of the uncanny as the return of repressed childhood feelings of loneliness and terror.

As the novel progresses, Nettel’s narrator finds more and more reasons to doubt her own sanity. After her mother moves to France, leaving her and her brother behind in the care of her old-fashioned grandmother, she begins to see caterpillars everywhere—in her shoes and in the sheets of her bed. The caterpillars function both as a telltale sign of the narrator’s mental stress and of her own approaching transformation into a discontented teenager. She identifies with the narrator of Franz Kafka’s Metamorphosis: “One day, I too woke up with a different life, a different body, not knowing what it was I had turned into.”

Although Nettel’s novel is essentially realist, these moments of estrangement give the reader insight into the narrator’s psyche as well as return us to the liminal realm of adolescence. Only at the end of the novel, when she learns that the long-awaited surgery to repair her damaged eye will never be possible, does the narrator reconcile herself to her difference: “My eyes and my vision were the same but I saw differently. At last, after a long journey, I decided to inhabit the body where I was born.” This realization signals that the narrator is ready to cross over into adulthood; she has come to accept herself and her own unique viewpoint on the world.

Boullosa’s Before is also a coming-of-age novel that covers much of the same thematic territory as Nettel’s, but with some notable differences. While Nettel’s prose is lucid and straightforward, the style of Before has a jerky, surrealist quality. “Where were we before we got to this point?” the narrator asks in the opening line. The first few pages of the novel are a swirl of pronouns and dislocated perceptions as if we have entered the pre-verbal, pre-rational mind of a very young child. Boullosa, who established herself as a poet before turning to prose, is highly attuned to the mind of a young child and to the symbolic underpinnings of language: “The non-verbal universe was much more prolix, had many more inhabitants, was much more worldly. A world without words corresponding to each word. Scissors, for example, what are scissors? Two knives living together, opposite, yet in apparent harmony.” This series of dissociated memories and perceptions converge on a single point: the narrator remembers being with her friend Enela in an empty chicken coop and hearing approaching footsteps. The narrator feels afraid. After that, she avoids Enela. While vision is an operative metaphor in Nettel’s novel, the narrator of Before is pursued throughout the book by the auditory hallucination of approaching footsteps. When her friend Enela suffers a seizure and collapses at school, never to return, the narrator believes it is because she wished for the footsteps to come for her friend instead of her. Like Ximena in The Body Where I Was Born, Enela functions as a kind of double for the narrator, a girl who the narrator perceives to have taken her place. Even as the adult reader perceives the child’s interpretation of events as confused, the passage still carries the frisson of the uncanny.

The sound of footsteps continues to pursue the narrator throughout her childhood. When her mother dies unexpectedly in her art studio, the narrator blames herself. And at the story’s end, the footsteps finally overtake her as well; she dies on the day that she first menstruates, of unknown causes. It’s only at this point that readers understand they have been reading a ghost story, that the “before” of the book’s title refers to the period when the narrator was still a child, and still alive. Unlike The Body Where I Was Born, Before subverts our basic expectation of the coming-of-age novel in that the child fails to cross over successfully into adulthood. The novel’s power is felt in the reader’s understanding that growing up involves the symbolic death of the child.

Before is more overtly a horror story than The Body Where I Was Born and, in the end, more radically undermines our expectations about what a coming-of-age novel can be. Yet both novels rely on estrangement as the primary means through which they evoke the liminal terrors of adolescence. To read either one is to be freed, at least temporarily, from one’s automatic perceptions and to be returned again to the strange and raw world of childhood.