Bodily Shifts


Sepia illustration of a couple of frogs.I’m currently about five months pregnant with our second child, and I’m finding this state no less strange the second time around. It’s plenty of other things too—miraculous, exciting, fascinating, wonderful—and I’m very grateful for it; but in describing the actual daily, bodily experience, that’s the word that first comes to mind for me, strange. To have someone else living with you in your body for a period of time changes that body into a place that’s not quite recognizable. Not exactly foreign, just not as familiar as you’re accustomed to. Things move inside me that I have not moved. Foods I’ve always loved suddenly and for no understandable reason disgust me. Zucchini, my favorite salad dressing, yogurt: nope, nope, nope. When I have to fit through a tight space and instinctively turn sideways to make myself small enough to sidle through, I’m starting to get stuck; my mental image of myself can’t keep up with my changing dimensions. I’m due in December, and I know from last time that starting a couple of months before then (certainly by the time my first book comes out at the end of October; oh, life! You are hilarious!) even my actual stride, the way I navigate the world, won’t feel like mine.

I recently came across this piece by Lily Gurton-Wachter, which beautifully chronicles both the weirdness of pregnancy and new motherhood—the word “strange” is important to her, too—and literature’s relationship with this terrain. She notes that the oft-remarked dearth, historically, of literature that depicts the actual experience of pregnancy probably has to do with the fact that for most of literary history, men were the ones doing most of the writing. But I have noticed that the literary interest in setting off a dramatic change—a physical, bodily change—in a character and charting the consequences of that change is as old as myth. The Odyssey is full of shape-shifting: gods who assume false identities, the transformation of Odysseus’s men into pigs. To me, one of the most compelling of these transformations is one that isn’t actually in the story: the past of the fearful man-eating monster Scylla. In The Odyssey she’s just a vicious threat that Odysseus must get past, but other myths tell us she was once a beautiful nymph whom the jealous Circe changed into a hideous beast. So altered, Scylla starts acting in ways that accord with her new shape. If you get turned into a monster, it seems, you will start eating men.

Bodily transformation as the catalyst of further change surfaces in more contemporary literature, too. There’s the iconic Gregor Samsa, whose transformation into a giant insect in The Metamorphosis’s very first sentence is only the start of the changes he’ll experience: for the rest of the story we watch the effects of his new body on his sense of himself, on his family’s sense of him, on the way he engages with his surroundings. Gregor’s thoughts are still his customary thoughts, at first, but we can see what’s to come as soon as he first tries to open his mouth to answer a question his mother calls to him:

Gregor had a shock as he heard his own voice answering hers, unmistakably his own voice, it was true, but with a persistent horrible twittering squeak behind it like an undertone, which left the words in their clear shape only for the first moment and then rose up reverberating around them to destroy their sense, so that one could not be sure one had heard them rightly.

Gregor himself, like his voice, is the same as always—until he isn’t. His inability to interact with his world as he always has alters who he is. Part of what makes the novella brilliant is its investigation of the way our worlds and selves bend to fit our outward shapes.

Physical change doesn’t need to be surreal to be vast and shocking. In Megan Mayhew Bergman’s wonderful short story “Saving Face,” from Birds of a Lesser Paradise, a once-beautiful veterinarian, disfigured by a dog, finds that her old life no longer fits her. Here, she sees herself in the mirror for the first time after her injury:

And what Lila saw she did not accept, not at first. The sight of her blue and inflated face took her breath away and terrified her, the suture creeping across her mouth like a strange vine. The swelling and bruising hid a reality, she knew. She tried to demolish the hope that crept up, the banal optimism that promised she could return to life as a pretty girl.

Her life has always been defined, patterned, by one kind of appearance, in ways she only comes to understand once that appearance has been irrevocably altered. As part of her effort to “demolish the hope” that these old patterns will someday again apply, she also demolishes relationships, and her own customary sense of herself. Her whole life must change now that her face has.

In Edith Pearlman’s “The Noncombatant,” from Binocular Vision, our protagonist, Richard, a doctor, experiences a different kind of bodily upheaval: watching himself die of cancer. The story is set on a Cape Cod summer holiday at the very end of the second World War, and throughout Richard’s interactions with his wife and children, and his family’s fascination with their inscrutable war-widow landlord, he’s constantly aware of his disease. This awareness plays out in military terms, as a chronicling of a state of war inside him, the advances and temporary retreats of his pain. When August brings victory in the broader, historic war, Richard witnesses a celebration he can’t be part of:

“Victory!” he heard. “Defeat!” he heard. “Surrender!” Laughter thickened . . . the street was filling with people—all sizes and ages of people, all shades of clothing and hair: people singing, shouting, hugging, crying, dancing alone and in pairs and in threes and in groups. Someone was playing an accordion. Someone was blowing a trumpet . . . . He undid one of the lower buttons of his shirt and poured the beer into his garments. It spread onto his stomach. Some of it dropped below his loose waistband and cooled his abdomen, failing to quench the fire within, but diminishing it a little bit, for a little while.

The scene of ecstatic triumph Richard witnesses is almost universal—folding all those “shades” and “sizes” and “ages” into itself—but it can’t encompass him. He’s a man without a future that lasts beyond “a little bit…a little while,” so historical currents no longer apply to his life. His private inner war has separated him from the import of the larger one. His bodily change has created a new aloneness.

Part of what fascinates me about these stories is that in each of them, the physical transformation doesn’t come at the end, as some sort of dramatic capstone. Instead, it’s the starting point, the event that sets off and shapes other events, that shapes characters. In tracing the effects of a physical transformation on the self, these stories probe the physical nature of that self. After all, we and our bodies aren’t separate, not really. In another couple of months, all I’ll have to do is walk down the street, and notice how that walk makes me feel, to be reminded of this. Expansions, injuries, illnesses, alterings, are themselves reshapings. But the question that most interests me: what further reshapings might they cause?