Reviewed by Rachel Gray
I LEARNED MANY things reading The University of Pennsylvania. The book showed me that it’s possible to write something poetic and call it fiction, and that it is absolutely fantastic when it’s pulled off. I learned that George Fox founded Quakerism, that he was depressed, and kept a journal, and believed women had souls.
Beilin posits that “A good book is a pamphlet on how to leave your parents. A great book is longer and tells you how to leave your town.” At her best, she is clear, difficult to disagree with, and gratifying in her articulation. Through Olivia Knox, a freshman afflicted with constant and heavy periods, Beilin welcomes the women, the struggling, the triumphant, who, like Olivia, see books as resources that can enact change in their lives.
When I began reading Beilin’s prose, I got a nervous and excited feeling, as if I were first discovering her in the halls of my large research university’s English department, next to sleeping freshmen in hoodies, walking on decade-old carpet, wondering what exactly would meet me when I went out into the world. Luckily, last week it was Caren Beilin, and her beating attempt at something better, which I have rarely encountered.
Beilin creates a mixture of striking and strange imagery. In the The University of Pennsylvania, kidding is “unsexual, sisternal,” the sunset has “ripe red horns,” cum is a serum all the way from London, and the children of doctors sniff cocaine—or perhaps gelatin. Never before had I considered the similarity between violet and violent, but this book asks its readers to ponder the relationship between the two.
There is something significant about the sound of Beilin’s prose, which is suggestive of forgotten connotations and relationships between words. Punctuation, too, is ruled by sound, and for this reason is not difficult to follow. Yet, I’ll admit, it takes a different part of the brain to read Beilin’s work—one accustomed to Charles Mingus and Joanna Newsom, to lyrics and music. Along with the musical aspect of her prose, Beilin fills her sentences with the emotion found in blues lyrics. Take this section, for example, and notice its isolation:
…it was so nice when I was fifteen and not understanding any English, to feel like my brother a little, a little like a beach bum in Thailand in the middle of Philadelphia and this new way of monotony and too many people I’ll never really know—I felt just like him, and I spoke to him in my smoking, our violet telephone.
There is something beautiful and connection-seeking in Beilin’s word relationships, specifically in the comparison between remembering a person while smoking cigarettes as if communicating with that person through a “violet telephone.”
People talk about the Manic Pixie Dream Girl, and we’ve all heard of Carrie, but the portrayal of the young female mind is somewhat limited in literature and popular culture. In The University of Pennsylvania, readers are offered a glimpse from a girl’s perspective, along with the perspectives of young men, statues, and historical founders of religions and towns. It is not always easy to orient oneself when reading, perhaps for this reason.
Olivia Knox is relatable. She is in constant pain, which she must conceal, and she sees penises everywhere. She is both questioning and promiscuous. Her English TA has a crush on her, but she is offended by his lack of intelligence. Only she knows how many tampons she wears—often eight at a time! Only she has to deal with it. “I could menstruate all over this chair,” she thinks, “and he’d only think I’d cut off my arm.”
The range of the book, which moves through time and perspective easily and quickly, is ambitious. A plot emerges, though difficult to graph and grasp. The dorm floods with period blood. People have sex. I found an anchor in Olivia, and in the music of the prose. Chapters end with a punch, in sentences that propel readers forward in search of more pleasure and tonal satisfaction: “He told me he was leaving, his lips baggy, eager. I died inside and stood forever.”
In the end, I’m left with questions: Why do young women keep the monthly feminine condition a secret. What is a book. What is blood. What is gelatin.
The University of Pennsylvania, Publisher: Noemi Press, 2014, 83 pages, paperback, $15