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JULY/AUG 2023 Issue

Sarah Rose Etter’s Ripe

Sarah Rose Etter
(Scribner, 2023)

Surrealist writers push the boundaries of language and plot, taking an oblique approach to the quotidian in order to hint at higher potentials for reality. It’s within this realm that Sarah Rose Etter plays, employing surrealism to unveil deeper revelations and risks in her writing. In her debut novel, the narrator is born with her stomach twisted into a knot; her sophomore novel features a girl, Cassie, followed by a hot, churning black hole visible only to her. She believes her mother gave her this black hole at birth, that the doctor inadvertently cut two cords in the delivery room. Each story is of inherited suffering, but Ripe applies this theme to a distinctly contemporary landscape. At the start of Ripe, Cassie is nearly a year into a job as the head writer at a unicorn startup valued for its opaque use of data to drive online purchases. Though she’d accepted the job for the doubled salary, moving from Pennsylvania to Silicon Valley, her income, after taxes and rent, doesn’t go as far as she’d hoped. We meet her on the train home from work, the black hole hovering above the empty seat to her left.

It’s a familiar narrative with an underlying nausea reminiscent of one book in particular: Anna Wiener’s Uncanny Valley, a memoir chronicling the author’s years at a tech startup during the 2010s. In both books, women find themselves alienated by the cult-like culture prevalent in the Bay Area, where work has been welded with identity. Cassie dubs its inhabitants the “Believers,” while Anna refers to their devotion as “startup fealty and fanaticism.” Both of them face pressure to learn how to code; Anna is teased with a promotion, while Cassie is threatened with her job. Outside work, Wiener records San Francisco’s homelessness epidemic with learned indifference, and Cassie recognizes herself shutting out the “boarded-up businesses next to new juice bars, people either defecating in the streets or buying gourmet groceries, eating at overpriced restaurants or out of the dumpsters in the back alley.” And both of them, naturally, share an unwavering desire to impress their bosses. But where Wiener’s memoir brims with self-loathing, Etter’s protagonist is engulfed by despair. She is waiting for a moment of awakening, for the truth of her life to “crack open and reveal itself.”

Ripe, unlike Uncanny Valley, wields hopelessness as a central theme. Cassie drifts through monotonous days, her hours at work broken up by struggles stemming from her dependence on cocaine, crumbling love life, and shallow friendships. Salvation appears elusive for Cassie; unlike Wiener, she lacks the financial safety net or family money to walk away from her job. The story doesn’t end with her trading the perceived security of tech for more personally fulfilling work and penning a book from the perspective of her evolved self. Instead, her redemption lies in stepping inside the black hole and surrendering to its metallic hum. And through this personal abyss, she forges an alternative future. The true nature of this decision remains ambiguous—it could denote the beginning of a new life or no more than the end of this one. Either way, her decision marks a surrealist twist on the morbid account of her days, reinvigorating the satirical office commentary and infusing the story with an unsettling aura.

Surrealist writing, with its disorienting, even anarchic associations, exposes the inherent absurdity of human behavior. It’s here that writers discover solace, the ability to transcend convention, and the freedom to imbue their characters and plots with a permeability, a malleability that stretches them into the domain of the gloriously unhinged. In 2023, we find no shortage of surreal stories centered on women trapped in their circumstances. Carmen Maria Machado’s Her Body and Other Parties, the recent translation of Barbara Molinard, the revived interest in Leonora Carrington, Dizz Tate’s Brutes, Aimee Bender’s The Girl in the Flammable Skirt, even Ottessa Moshfegh’s My Year of Rest and Relaxation—all contribute to this rich heritage of writers who owe a debt or contributed to the diaspora of twentieth-century surrealists. Building upon this foundation, Ripe offers a harrowing account of a woman repeatedly degraded within a workforce that promises to herald a better world. Her boss routinely berates her with phrases like “step it up” and dismisses her work as a “pile of shit.” When her boss walks away, Cassie sits at her desk, dejected, as the sharp lines of reality waver under the weight of criticism. Like countless other characters seeking escape within the pages of surrealist novels, Cassie doesn’t know what more she could give. The black hole looms in the background, tantalizing and redolent of outer space, offering Cassie a physical, unhindered expression of her mind and its higher reality. By succumbing to it—by slipping into her black hole—she sets herself free. An impossible conclusion, but this is exactly the point surrealism aims to demonstrate: that structures of power that rely on logical thought are stifling.

Ripe encapsulates a profound journey of self-realization and how one confronts the impending shadows of unhappiness, the haunting sense of isolation following a cross-country move for a job devoid of passion, the shocking realization of the cost of living, and the fear of retaliation for taking time off work, even for a medical emergency. The novel delves deep into the terrifying prospect of an unremitting inability to retire, own a home, or be satisfied at work. Cassie’s somber reflection resonates: “I didn’t know it then, but the cycle would continue for years: job after monotonous job, title after title, commuting back and forth on an endless highway, promotions and small bonuses, two weeks’ vacation, slowly losing motivation with each job, the black hole never far away.” Cassie, weary after trying to keep up for so long, yearns for an escape. With Ripe, Etter reveals the continued potency of surrealism, which breathes life into the vivid expression of our contemporary reality.


Brianna Di Monda

Brianna Di Monda is a contributing editor for Cleveland Review of Books. Her fiction and criticism have appeared or are forthcoming in Litro Magazine, Chicago Review of Books, and Full Stop, among others. She wants to know what you think about Camilla becoming Queen Consort.


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