Published by Tin House Books on October 1st 2015
Genres: Fiction, Literary, Gothic, Urban
Format: Print ARC
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Thought provoking. witty and grotesque novel, jam-packed with rich language and dark humor.
“I felt a prickle in my phantom pinkie finger, a keening of imaginary blood. I felt a pain deep in the bone. As I ached for this lost part of myself, my missing finger became a synecdoche for all lost things in my life—women and mothers, youth and full-scalp coverage, soberness, and the bliss of solid sleep. Most of all, I ached for the future as a shimmering, distant thing.”
Romie Futch is a South Carolina taxidermist and total slacker who is down on his luck and still pining for his ex-wife. While surfing the web one evening, he spots an ad from the Center for Cybernetic Neuroscience that might be a solution to all of his problems. They are providing monetary compensation to test subjects who are willing to “undergo a series of pedagogical downloads via direct brain-computer interface.” Romie and other ne’er-do-wells agree to be part of this human experimentation, in hopes of financial reward and maybe a better life.
Romie returns home with an extensive knowledge of the humanities and a motivation to delve into taxidermy art, a creative outlet he abandoned after high school. He becomes obsessed with mutant animals, especially an enigmatic boar nicknamed Hogzilla. These results of animal experimentation are grotesque and a little revolting, as are Romie’s dioramas!
Armed with new knowledge and a drive to create, will the new and improved Romie Futch be able to get his life together and win back his ex-wife? Do artificial intellectual or physical enhancements change who we are or our deepest motivations? Not really. (Right now, I am thinking of the scene in the bar with enhanced humans; Ned received a 21-year old’s heart and a month later decided to celebrate his new heart “by eating a pound of fried bacon.”) Think of impact of the Internet, all of human knowledge available at our fingertips.
…I’d picked my lot voluntarily, while the men surrounding me had fought battles against tobacco and diabetes, the Southern diet and alcoholism, carcinogenic pollutants and Vietnam-era hand grenades, not to mention the inevitable entropy of the mortal body–the slow smokeless burning of decay. Yet we all dragged our cyborgian carcasses across the trashed planet every day. We all chased various forms of intoxication, hoping to soothe our savage souls. I could see myself some twenty years hence, a gray-haired troll slumped on a barstool, my nose a bulbous mess of clotted capillaries.”
Julia Elliot constructed a strange, complex and somewhat nauseating world steeped in weirdness. A thick layer of grit and grease hangs over every scene. I pictured the setting and people as somewhere between Deliverance and Tucker & Dale vs. Evil.
It did take me longer to read this book than Anna Karenina! The pages would fly by while I was reading it, but the writing is so dense and punchy that I was mentally exhausted after each session. Julia Elliot uses such rich language and the story is jam-packed with macabre descriptions, strong action verbs and witty, darkly humorous word play. It may have been overwrought if by another author’s pen, but the writing style suits this “southern gothic tall tale.”
Random excerpt as an example of the writing style:
Trippy was troubled but still witty somehow, still rattling off streams of purple verbiage that was wine to my parched ears. We compared notes on blackouts, and dreams, hallucinations and synesthetic episodes, uncanny sensations and acute deja vu. Trippy, too, had suffered bouts of feverish, visionary creativity. He’d spent most of his post experiment time in his sister’s Atlanta basement, sawing at his cello, noodling on a thrift-store Casio, composing experimental pieces that he recorded on an eight-track analog Tascam.
“Started off sober,” he said, “sipping home-brewed kombacha, an ancient Chinese elixir concocted from fermented green tea. Then I upped the ante with bhang tea and goji wine, which had my ass tripping old school, heat in my flow, game in my tunes. Spent the wee hours grooving to the likes of Alfred Schnittke, Lindsay Cooper, and Sun Ra, constellations exploding inside my soul, white dwarves collapsing into pulsars, black holes evaginating into white-hot universes, dog. I was on a fucking roll.”