Imagine an alternate twentieth century. One that’s been plagued by a deadly pandemic, a multi-decade-long war, and a ton of social upheaval. Imagine that in the wake of all of this chaos, a unifying global government rises to power. And imagine that you’ve played a part in the development of one of that government’s key policies. That’s the world of Jeffrey Cranor and Janina Matthewson’s You Feel It Just Below the Ribs. Taking the form of an in-universe memoir, You Feel It Just Below the Ribs explores the history of this New Society through the eyes of a scientist who worked for them, Dr. Miriam Gregory. At times, it’s a bit meandering. The pacing is all over the place, and there’s often a lack of urgency. But at its heart, it’s an emotional, thought-provoking reflection on the fragility of memory and the importance of trying to do the right thing. (3.5 out of 5 wands.)
NOTE: I received a review copy of You Feel It Just Below the Ribs from Harper Perennial/HarperCollins and Edelweiss+. All thoughts are my own.
You Feel It Just Below the Ribs
Written by Jeffrey Cranor and Janina Matthewson
A fictional autobiography in an alternate twentieth century that chronicles one woman’s unusual life, including the price she pays to survive and the cost her choices hold for the society she is trying to save.
You Feel It Just Below the Ribs follows Dr. Gregory’s life from childhood through her time working for the New Society. Divided into four parts, each one focuses on various important events in her life – all of which revolve around her use of a therapeutic technique she calls the “Watercolor Quiet”. As developed by Dr. Gregory, the Watercolor Quiet helps suppress memories – traumatic or otherwise. And as the story goes on, the technique is used in ways Dr. Gregory could have never predicted. When viewed as a memoir, You Feel It Just Below the Ribs actually works very well. The prose is gorgeous, full of the kind of introspection that gives you a perfect window into the mindset of Dr. Gregory. By the end of the book, you genuinely feel bad for her.
But it’s not just a sympathy piece. There are plenty of times where Dr. Gregory doesn’t make herself look that good. Plenty of moments where you get deeply frustrated with some decision she’s made. And like the best memoirs, this book doesn’t shy away from those darker moments. Those turning points where everything might’ve changed had Dr. Gregory made a different decision. Those moments where she should’ve been thinking about the bigger picture more than she was. Honestly, exploring the rise of a dystopian government through the eyes of someone who seems wholly unaware that that’s what’s happening is quite clever. And as a rumination on the fragility of memory, and the importance of trying to do the right thing, You Feel It Just Below the Ribs is a gorgeous, haunting piece.
But as a piece of narrative fiction, it doesn’t quite stick the landing. Cranor and Matthewson basically speedrun Dr. Gregory’s life, rarely spending enough time in any specific moment for us to get properly invested in what’s going on. This is most apparent in the first part of the book, which focuses on multiple years’ worth of Dr. Gregory’s childhood. Even though it rushes through these formative years, it’s easily the slowest part of the book. And it’s also the part that feels the most like a generic dystopian novel. Once you get past that, though, things do pick up. The parts of the book where Dr. Gregory describes her work for the New Society are quite interesting – both in what they reveal and what they don’t. She does some truly horrific things, and the less concrete information we have about them, the more horrific they feel.
However, there’s a general lack of urgency that permeates the novel. For as earth-shattering as Dr. Gregory’s revelations would be to the New Society, she’s very ho-hum in her way of revealing them. A big part of her worldview seems to be that what’s happened cannot be changed. So, her only purpose in recounting her past is to explain how things got to this point, to the point that she’s ready to blow the whistle on the New Society’s darkest, dirtiest secret. But for much of the book, it’s unclear as to why Dr. Gregory is writing this. She repeatedly mentions that there’s some dark secret she’s got to share, something she deeply regrets. But then she tells her story in the most rambling way possible. And sure, I suppose it makes sense for a memoir to be full of rambling. But it doesn’t make for particularly tense reading.
And that lack of tension is most exemplified by the book’s ending – or lack thereof. Dr. Gregory spends the entirety of the book teasing this big secret that’s weighing on her soul. A secret that could undermine the New Society, itself. And every time you think she’s gonna reveal that secret, and shift the story into exploring the aftermath of that secret becoming public, she doesn’t. Instead, it’s a constant build-up to a reveal that doesn’t happen until the novel’s final pages. And then the book basically ends. The entire point of her memoir is simply to reveal this knowledge in the hopes that it will spark the reader into doing something with that knowledge. Which makes perfect sense for an in-universe memoir. But as a piece of fiction meant to stand on its own, it ends up being all build-up with no payoff.
The closest the book comes to providing any kind of payoff is in the prologue, interludes, epilogue, and footnotes, all of which are written by an editor from a subversive publishing company that’s decided to publish Dr. Gregory’s memoir. So, throughout the book, an editor from the publisher leaves various notes either clarifying something Dr. Gregory’s said or disproving her recollections. And this creates a very compelling back and forth between two narrators who both seem equally unreliable. Dr. Gregory suggests the government is hiding something while the editor toes the government line, and suggests Dr. Gregory is either mistaken or is willfully making things up to damage the New Society.
Naturally, the audience is inclined to side with Dr. Gregory. But the genius of the book is that there’s an ambiguity as to exactly how trustworthy Dr. Gregory is. Neither Dr. Gregory nor the publisher is telling the full truth, but it’s likely neither is fully lying either. The ultimate truth lies somewhere in between, and that makes for an absolutely fascinating read. Unfortunately, much like the book’s overarching plotline, this doesn’t really resolve itself by the end. It starts to, but it never quite gets there. Still, these interjections are some of the most captivating parts of the book. I only wish Cranor and Matthewson had leaned into them more and created a sort of parallel, dueling storyline that coalesced into a more satisfying conclusion.
At the end of the day, You Feel It Just Below the Ribs is a bit complicated to review. When viewed as a fictional memoir, the novel largely succeeds at everything it’s trying to do. Cranor and Matthewson paint a deliciously nuanced, complicated picture of Dr. Gregory, exploring all of her positives and negatives equally. And much of the insight that comes from her reflection on her past – the fragility of memories, the ease with which one can do the right thing for the wrong reason, or vice versa – is both haunting and beautifully realized. But on the other hand, when viewed as the quasi-political thriller it seems to want to be, the novel doesn’t stick the landing and fails to pay off much of what it’s set up.
Still, it’s a deeply enjoyable, unique read. I love stories that take the form of found media, and I appreciate stories that experiment with the boundaries of their respective medium – which is exactly what this book does. For those concerned about whether or not they need to be familiar with Within the Wires, the podcast this book is based on, fret not. You Feel It Just Below the Ribs stands well enough on its own that newcomers shouldn’t have any trouble following what’s going on. So, if you’re interested in found media stories and unique takes on dystopian fiction, it’s worth giving You Feel It Just Below the Ribs a shot. It’s not perfect, and it doesn’t entirely work, but I still enjoyed it a lot.
3.5 out of 5 wands.
This review was also posted on Geek Vibes Nation.