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Despite cyclical reminders of its presence, a healthy uterus is mostly overlooked. And why not? It’s safely ensconced in the abdomen, not sticking out where it could get into trouble. Size doesn’t matter; there’s no need to feel inadequate, even if it’s smaller than average. But as Laurie Foos’ allegorical novel Ex Utero points out, the uterus is the essence of womanhood. A woman who chooses not to bear a child, Foos suggests, can feel like a traitor to her sex and to herself.
Ex Utero is no ordinary feminist manifesto, though. It’s a flippant and fantastical yarn about 31-year-old Rita, who literally loses her womb while engaging in a stereotypical female pastime: shopping for high-heeled shoes and sexy underwear. Rita is so engrossed in her quest for these impractical symbols of seduction that she doesn’t even notice her uterus is missing. At home, when she finally realizes what has happened, her husband George can’t believe how irresponsible she’s been.
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Such intentionally ridiculous episodes are the mainstays of this story. Upon listening to Rita’s woeful tale, a woman named Adele “hears a clapping sound like a door being shut” and finds that her vagina has “closed up shop.” Although Adele lets her carpenter boyfriend try to reopen her orifice, she’s secretly pleased by her body’s defiance of sex. And in Ex Utero‘s most visceral sequence, another empathetic woman—who’d rather raise puppies than children—cannot stop menstruating. Foos plays even the bloodiest scenes for knowing laughs. Although so much satire becomes exhausting, she’s correct in her assessment of women’s ambivalence about motherhood.
In some regards, Ex Utero resembles a lowbrow offshoot of The Handmaid’s Tale. Like Margaret Atwood’s equally unsubtle novel, in which women are forced to advertise their fertility with red clothing, Foos’ female (and male) characters obsess over and later reject crimson high heels. In another Handmaidenly touch, childless women known as the Fruitless Wombs proclaim solidarity with Rita; their “church,” as it were, is the TV studio for The Nodderman Show, a talk show on which Rita pleads for her womb’s safe return.
Foos loads the book with facile symbolism. In between Nodderman appearances, Rita sates her maternal longings with huge, sickening portions of eggs, Cheerios (“tiny circles with milk sopping through their openings”), and unsweetened yogurt. Meanwhile, successful moms devour apples, the favored fruit of procreator Eve. Rita can’t eat an apple until she resigns herself to a potentially wombless future.
Of course, there’s a burgeoning buddy subplot. Rita and Adele meet on The Nodderman Show and run off to a motel, where they lounge around in red shoes and eat a few apples together (“How sad, [Rita] thinks, that one has to sink so low before finding happiness such as this”). No sex is involved; in fact, Rita and Adele are relieved to have escaped their desperate-to-breed, shopoholic culture. However, now that they’ve found the path to true contentment, they’d still like to restore their anatomies.
Prudish types will dismiss Foos’ debut as perverse, and rightly so. The author’s evocative descriptions of the missing uterus (“Believed to be pink and about the size of a man’s fist”) are dead-on and refreshingly shameless. Most men won’t like the book either: Its male characters are either sex maniacs turned on by talk of wombs, needy wanna-be dads, or macho types who pity post-menopausal women. But Ex Utero‘s frank discussions of taboos and malicious overexaggeration are notable not least because they belong to an uncommon genre: straight women’s cult fiction.