Absurd Pain: On Caren Beilin’s Revenge of the Scapegoat


Caren Beilin. Revenge of the Scapegoat. St. Louis, MO: Dorothy: a publishing project, 2022. 165 pages.  

“A book should be like a lot of spit,” Caren Beilin writes in her hybrid novel Revenge of the Scapegoat (4).Or more accurately, her protagonist Iris, alias Vivitrix Marigold, makes this assertion. Iris is an adjunct who teaches students with more important things to think about than the stakes of a metaphor. Iris, though, is concerned with what writing and art should be like and what it should be doing. “Of course your characters have gone to the bathroom at some point, but your reader doesn’t need to know everything that happens or in order,” she tells her students. “In fiction you don’t say everything unless you’re a man” (82). With such consistently pithy and arch observations, she indicts literary and art institutions alike. But Iris’ ironic detachment allows Beilin to perform these jokes, too, at her own expense,  underscoring the pretensions of capital L-Literature or capital A-Art. Iris wryly juxtaposes these with her students’ own concerns, who are preoccupied with more immediate and existential matters, she reminds us: “suicidal family members, predation, assault, and work” (114).

Beilin’s previous book of creative nonfiction, Blackfishing the IUD, has related interests to this novel’s: namely the relationship between pain, form, and relative scales of trauma. “Is it kitsch to speak of myself? My little body with its big disease, in the first year of a diagnosis?” [1] Beilin asks, before transitioning into the etymology of the word “Nazi” (BTI 15). Both Beilin—the speaker in Blackfishing the IUD—and Iris in Revenge of the Scapegoat are gently teased for being so absorbed with their own struggles amid a world of large-scale tragedy, for processing their own experience through pedagogy. But this question of how to “appropriately” tell personal experience is Revenge of the Scapegoat’s project—which is more ambitious, perhaps, than Beilin’s nonfiction, with its presentation of lived realities related to the topic at hand. In her break from straightforward reality, she renders a visceral portrait of our world, biting and droll in its absurdity. Beilin persistently questions the value of story itself, while delivering a fragmented, but no less emotionally gratifying narrative.

The book is divided in five sections, which shift geographically: this is a hero’s journey, though a bizarre and gloriously unpredictable one, because this is a hero in pain. Each motion of the narrator requires concentrated effort, and it is through the articulation of this labor that we receive one of the most poignant emotional relationships in the novel—that of Iris and her feet. “When you are the scapegoat of your family, your body becomes your family. When you get sick your body begins talking to you, too,” (14) Iris tells us. Her feet are named Bouvard and Pécuchet, after Flaubert’s unfinished satirical novel of the same name (also perhaps a winking model for Revenge of the Scapegoat’s plot structure). Through Iris’ relationship with Bouvard and Pécuchet, we learn about the pain she’s enduring—she literally carries the weight of the world on her feet. They also serve as quite funny offshoots of Iris/Vivitrix’s already multiple personalities. The banter between Bouvard and Pécuchet does not include Iris. In this way we understand pain both as belonging to the sufferer, and as if a separate entity. Unlike the rest of the world, which is ignorant to the near-constant discomfort she’s enduring, Iris has privileged access to the inner workings of her suffering body, while unable to readily ameliorate its pain.

There is physical pain and there is emotional pain. Neither are visible. One of Beilin’s superlative strengths is her ability to describe invisible agony. “Pécuchet seemed to be fucking his own asshole with a knife, but it was weird. If I looked down at my foot it looked serene, like nothing, not like a person, first of all, or an old French man or whatever, but also like nothing at all was even happening. As though I were not in extreme pain” (27). Iris is hurting because of her rheumatoid arthritis, which Beilin evokes through meticulous description of the city as a locus of torture, with minefields at every turn, men who won’t leave Iris alone when she’s just trying to sit, to rest her feet from the agony of walking them on the sidewalk. But Iris is also in pain because of two letters, written by her father while she was in high school, recently sent again to her by her brother. Reminded of the ways she has always felt herself to be her family’s scapegoat, these twin pains cannot be extricated; she must flee to the countryside to escape the choking grip of the city’s fist. In this way, pain is manifest—throbbing is sourced in the letters themselves, and ache speaks through the voices given to her feet.

Letters throughout the novel are malicious: they have some wicked power. Iris maintains that the best writing she receives from her students comes in the form of “why-I-can’t” and “why-I-wont” letters. Letters can be an “evil archive” in the case of the package from her father; letters can be “devious marketing,” as in the letters of inquiry Iris’ friend Ray writes as a medical copywriter. But like Iris’ feet, the letters don’t initially appear to readers as sites of pain—by the time we finally see the content of the father’s letters, it’s somewhat anticlimactic. This delay is the point. The pain lies in the concealed immediacy, the “why-I-can’t” and “why-I-won’t”ness of the letters, and of her joints.

If there is a primary argument in this book, it is that the value of suffering might be salvaged through art. Beilin has a power for putting things together and then for complicating their placements. There is mundane trauma and unfathomably horrific trauma, and trauma that begets more trauma, and these multiplicities can lay beside one another. Much of the book is extended discussion: she tells us what she is going to do in the book, and then she does it; she tells us what shouldn’t be done, and she does that too. Iris doesn’t want to be didactic; she explains this to us. The conversations with Iris’ friend Ray are transcriptions of real recorded conversations between Beilin and her friend Ray. Much of the format of the book is extended conversation, whose content is drawn from real conversations Beilin actually had. And so much of the book is obviously fictional: there are Nazi cows that step on your heart but softly, just enough to detain you. There is a character who cured herself of her arthritis as a child, by using the public microscopes in the garden of a science museum to create an infusion from mouse enzymes. The book’s final section is simply two photographs of a typewritten letter by a young Caren Beilin, printed on paper and folded up. Each of these components enhances the others, creating a polyphonic reality that argues for the value of story itself.

The point of writing, Beilin contends with Revenge of the Scapegoat, is not to elucidate some grand theory of suffering any more than the point of art is to tell one individual’s experience. Neither result is interesting unless it engages an artistic project that transcends both the personal and the political. Living with pain is absurd, this novel suggests, and the project of telling a story is ultimately absurd, too. “It’s really mean to murder, to write,” Beilin insists (102). Indeed, she jokes that the most atrocious thing imaginable is dullness. A character is murdered for being boring.   

“You can’t simply make up a character,” Iris tells her students. Things appear one way but are actually another. This is true of art, of the body, of relationships, of stories. In Blackfishing the IUD, Beilin writes about certainty as the realm of the conspiracy theorist: “paranoid, conclusive, certain. Too certain” (BTI 131). This is Beilin’s final reveal in Revenge of the Scapegoat: the appearance of truth is a trick that ought to invite us to question its reality. And the most absurd, unbelievable, improbable, indemonstrable images are those that get at something closer to truth.

Works Cited

[1] Caren Beilin, Blackfishing the IUD. Oakland: Wolfman Books, 2019.

Juliet Gelfman-Randazzo is a recent graduate of the Rutgers University-Camden MFA program, where she wrote about deer, hand models, and trees. She is the author of the chapbook "DUH" (Bullshit Lit) and her work appears in Passages North, Afternoon Visitor, The Nervous Breakdown, and Bedfellows Magazine, among others. She can be followed @tall.spy (Instagram) and @tall__spy (Twitter) but she can never be caught.