I’ve always been confused when reviewers call a book a “fever dream.” The connotations of the description are never clear to me—is it a good thing? Does it signal some postmodern breaking of semantics? Or is that a nice way to describe a book that doesn’t piece itself together? I’ve avoided the term myself, for so long, because of these confusions. But there’s no other way to describe Katie Jean Shinkle’s slim and beautiful book, Ruination. It’s a fever dream in the best sense—lilting, hallucinatory prose that undulates between the microscopic focus of a young girl’s queer crush and the expansive scope of a world teetering on the edge of obliteration.
Ruination takes place in a world turned sideways. The women are at war, gone from their families. Older sisters are terrorists. The Prophet gathers the men together in revival tents. A superstorm brews and hits, erasing whole neighborhoods from the world. And in the middle of all this, girls are turning into flowers. This bleak but stunning storyscape is Shinkle’s brilliance—even while security and familiarity fade away, even while girls die, Shinkle shows us the quiet, sublime beauty in it all.
Shinkle also places in the center of this ruination small measures of queer sanguinity. The narrator is tortured by her love for her best friend Paula, but recounts for us both her struggle and the moments of tenderness between them: “Our hands are soft feathers caressing and I am touching her hips, stomach, tracing the outline of her Tasmanian Devil tattoo.”
Her father, who dresses at home in her mother’s clothes, is rendered with careful gentleness: “My father has his toenails painted red, which is why I like my nails painted red, he paints my toes for me, they look professional the other girls say, envious.”
And the men, who are now the ones at home, try to fit themselves into the role of nurturer: “The Men talk that The Women were the ones that did the prayin’ around there, The Women were the ones who took care, and now The Women are gone, and we gotta figure everything out.”
Shinkle’s world evokes for us the gender-capsizal of Naomi Alderman’s The Power, plus the dreamlike runaway vegetation of Jeff Vandermeer’s Annihilation:
[H]is twin daughters are fused at the ankle by two saplings; the terrorist older daughter is trapped on her knees as if praying with the most magnificent magnolias you’ve ever seen swaddling her; his youngest daughter with filaments of cascading green from her head like cables, skewered vertically by a mimosa tree.
Shinkle’s Ruination is a fever dream in the best ways. The book—whether we call it a collection of flash fiction or prose poetry, or even a lyric novella—is meticulously crafted into a tight, acrobatic structure that morphs and evolves while holding together all of its strings and never showing its seams. As our real world slips evermore into chaos, Shinkle offers us both escape and warning in a book that I wish would go on and on.
By Katie Jean Shinkle
Paperback, 9781947980419, 90 pp.