When I saw Caren Beilin’s Spain in the Small Press Distribution Handpicked December newsletter, I became excited, then anxious, then excited again. Her first novel, The University of Pennsylvania (Noemi Press), was the type of book I had to take breaks reading, for even its short chapters were densely packed with imagery and outrageous syntax. Reading it felt like someone had given me a goblet’s worth of a schnapps meant to be sipped in a much smaller quantity. I was both embarrassed and captivated by its bounty.
Where The University of Pennsylvania was a deliciously strange version of a campus novel, Spain is travelogue/autofiction on Beilin’s artist residency in Aramingo, Spain. Forgoing the sections and chapters that structured her previous work, Beilin supplies a series of entries ranging from two sentences to a few paragraphs in length, and gives them titles like “It was Raining,” “Henry,” “Sheep,” and (my favorite) “I’m not Married, I’m Content.” In a loose chronology, these read like journal entries and vignettes. A highlights reel where an afternoon bike ride by a flock of sheep feels like the best thing that happened to her that day, and the arrival of a man who refuses to learn her name and then humiliates his girlfriend in front of the other artists quickly becomes a villain. Beilin reuses the entry titles throughout the book, amplifying the sense that one is reading sporadic and vehement musings of a writer taking advantage of scraps of free time to work in a world that threatens to waste her energies at every opportunity.
The majority of these threats stem from men quick to demand Beilin’s attention. The first entry, “Sanjay,” features Beilin and Kristen, another writer, forced to listen to the titular Sanjay drone on about an emergency evacuation he experienced on a cruise. The women notice he peppers his ceaseless retelling with the word man: “It was crazy, man.” Beilin’s reactions are both humorous and bitter, noting that she and Kristen must think about “how a woman has to be interesting, or mean something soon, or explain herself or demean herself or be sex to be read, heard.” Droning—to have a guaranteed audience to drone at—Beilin regards as another odious form of male privilege.
To ridicule Sanjay and the other male droning she’s had to endure, Beilin parodies Sanjay’s chill[-/,]bro rhetorical trick throughout the book to call out the mystifying and petulant behaviors of awful men: “I had a professor in school who told us all the time like a siege on education: ‘My wife is hot.’ No one said she wasn’t, man.” Her reaction serves as one part ironic echo and two parts incredulous dismissal of the professor’s objectifying remarks.
Beilin extends this critique by incorporating references to the novels she reads before and during her residency. Marlow, from the Heart of Darkness, “mansplains colonizing Africa to a handful of sleeping people, other men, on a small boat in an eddy twenty miles from London. He goes on and on, Sanjay does, about the cruise and its alarm system.” That second sentence, incidentally, contains one of my favorite aspects of these sections: an unyielding critique that shadows a stylistic playfulness. “He” in that context has an ambiguous antecedent—an ambiguity Beilin exploits to confirm Sanjay as just another Marlow. Later, with a repetition emphasized by the episodic structure of the book, Beilin sighs “when a man begins to Heart of Darkness your whole goddamn time…” It is a stale phenomenon, one that becomes more tragic when the reader realizes the potential scope of all the art lost because bores expected any woman in sight to offer them her time.
Or to read their work. Beilin does not, would not, spare male writers, especially those deemed worthy of the canon. On Flaubert: “Emma swollen with wants and he kicks her. He actually kills her. It’s not fair….Emma was so done, man.” On Toussaint: “I hate his writing…Raison d’ecrire, to shill women. Go on, spend my time.” Beilin’s continual criticisms of the patriarchally-upheld canon builds over the course of the book to underscore a somber observation on her artist residency. Such little space is offered to emerging women artists, and the extent to which Beilin suffers through her encounters with men suggests even the notion of offering is fraught with questions of agency that challenge the goals of her creative work.
Throughout Spain, Beilin continues to convince me that she’s one of my favorite living writers, producing work that I savor when I revisit it. At her best, Beilin offers sentences that feel like they could discuss anything and get away with it, as evidenced by some of my favorite lines in this book: “A cloud masturbated against the mortar of a castle—the heap of a ruin that was in view;” “Like an embarrassment of bird graphs;” “I’d like to kill a star to eat its dark buoyant lard.” Occasionally, as with her mid-book frustrations with a broken coffee machine, Beilin reverts to an American abroad complaining about creature comforts. Thankfully, the restless structure of the book hurries the narrative away from her frustrations with a broken percolator, and one enjoys each entry while also anticipating something unexpected lurking nearby. For all of its dark assessments of how rarely men will leave women alone, the sincere and weird observations Beilin offers her readers feel like private and joyful gestures, each one an undeniable victory.
If, as Beilin notes years after her residency, artists work to “[make] the world soft” it is a work complicated and threatened by patriarchy. As a white male writer, I benefit from the world Beilin outlines and resists in this travelogue. I am thankful for her resilience while I also contemplate what the necessity for that resilience has cost all of us.