Eimear McBride is known for writing about the female body. Her visceral novels (A Girl Is a Half-Formed Thing, The Lesser Bohemians and Strange Hotel) depict women’s desire and agency as well as their attendant perils: an inner life dogged by self-doubt, sex that seamlessly pivots from ambivalent to violent.
Something Out of Place: Women & Disgust is McBride’s nonfiction debut, and it places the daily traumas she’s previously flooded with rich, intuitive prose in a critical context. The precarities that plague women’s lives are rooted, McBride argues, in “a disgust that appears to mystically attach itself to the female body at birth”. It is this disgust that accounts not only for the double-binds women live by but the high price they pay for their perceived transgressions.
But where does it come from, “this additional standard” that girls and women must negotiate at every turn?
McBride tells us she is "tired... bored... and constantly infuriated", and that may be true. She is also out for blood. In her fiction, McBride is direct; her sentences are unmediated dispatches fresh from the female psyche. This same directness is at play when she tells us this is her "shift, her turn to contribute" the view from where she's sitting, and that any "gaps in nuance and knowledge" are for others to fill in.
As such, what Something Out of Place traces isn’t McBride’s arrival at anything she didn’t already know but an attempt to exhaust what she knows all too well: the “barefaced presumption” of a misogyny so ubiquitous we often struggle to see it when it’s right in front of us – let alone call it by its name.
Somewhat appropriately, then, “disgust” becomes a synecdoche of sorts for “misogyny” as McBride sifts through psychoanalysis, literary theory, sociology and pop culture on the hunt for its possible origins. Along the way, she spends time assessing dirt’s psychological composition a la Mary Douglas’s Purity & Danger; it is dirt that breeds taboo, after all, and taboo that breeds disgust. It is disgust, too, that continues to spur a “meatification” of women and underpins a capitalist dependency on their hopeful purchase of age-defying cosmetics.
This vein of critique occasionally runs askew. McBride’s condemnation of women’s enslavement to their social media brand, for instance, pales beside her deft evisceration of the illogic that sees them blamed for acts whose very definition – such as revenge porn – requires they are blameless.
Like other recently published works that tackle the pillars of desire and consent post #MeToo and the Trump presidency (Katherine Angel’s Tomorrow Sex Will Be Good Again comes to mind), she serves us a timely reminder of misogyny’s enduring resilience. Just when it seems to have been fatally maimed it proves itself a versatile parasite, happily leeching from Creationism and Darwinism alike.
Issue of shame
This brings us to Something Out of Place’s most potent offering: not the excavation of a possible root cause for gendered disgust, but the belief that it can be halted in its tracks – exorcised. What’s more, if women can cut loose disgust, they’ll also purge themselves of its close corollary: shame.
This issue of shame turns McBride’s attention to the future, and in these passages the writing feels timely, urgent. Having identified disgust as the source of shame, the ultimate “weapon within”, what weapons can women wield without?
“Women are not all the same, are not all trying to get to the same place”, but it’s a rare woman who hasn’t been treated with disgust. That this feeling remains women’s unequivocal common ground is a cruel reminder that their as yet “inadequately realised” liberation is still in its infancy.
Refreshingly, this compact volume has its eye on a future in which women have pulled the rug out from under disgust and cut the throat of the shame that haunts them. If the female body no longer connotes dirt and defilement, who knows what any given female life might look like? Who knows what vibrant shape the common ground between them might take?
Despite McBride’s earlier disclaimer, there were moments I longed for her insights on more forthrightly inclusive discourse. Recent years have seen a sustained disavowal of trans-identity and the onerous likening of refugees to vermin; where this kind of violence touches the lives of women would seem a rich addition to a book concerned with bodies deemed “dirty” and “out of place”.
Nonetheless, reading it I found myself returning to a line from Carmen Maria Machado’s In the Dreamhouse: “I toss the stone of my story into a vast crevice.” Something Out of Place is an erudite contribution to that growing impulse in contemporary nonfiction: to cast one’s testimony out into the void in the hopes that another will answer, and then another and another, and that each will be as exactingly executed, as deeply nuanced as the one preceding it.
Sue Rainsford’s latest novel is Redder Days (Penguin)