Escaping the Genescape: An Interview with Steve Tomasula

George Salis: Your debut novel VAS: An Opera in Flatland has been called a VASt innovation of the novel form by Lance Olsen and others. How did you end up creating a novel, a debut novel no less, such as this? Do you have a bunch of juvenilia in a drawer or what? And where do you get your literary audacity, as it were?

Steve Tomasula: VAS was originally supposed to be the last chapter of The Book of Portraiture, which is a novel about the different ways we’ve depicted others, and ourselves, throughout the ages. So The Book of Portraiture makes large historical jumps in the hopes that by juxtaposing the different ways we’ve depicted people, that is, created portraits of them, the assumptions embedded in the kind of portrait that’s created would stand out. I mean, there’s a whole different worldview embedded in depicting a person by making a painting than there is in making a photo. The same is true if we create a psychological portrait, use a surveillance camera, or sequence a person’s DNA as a way to create their portrait. So the first chapter begins with the invention of writing as a way to create a history separate from the oral tradition. The next chapter jumps to portraiture in the 17th century, told from the point of view of a court painter. Instead of the kind of surface features that get depicted in an oil painting, portraiture moves to the interior in the 3rd chapter, where a sort of Freudian analyst creates a psychological portrait of a patient. In the 4th chapter, surveillance culture is invoked as a means of portraiture, and in the last chapter, which VAS was supposed to have been, the body is the contemporary writing surface, especially the genome which we’ve learned to edit. Once I started writing this chapter, it sort of took on a life of its own. It became book-length. So I let it be a novel in its own right, and wrote a different final chapter for The Book of Portraiture. In a way, it was actually my second novel, though it was published before The Book of Portraiture.

I guess by audacity you mean all the different forms of writing with the novel? In VAS I was trying to use the body of the book as a metaphor for the body, and the human body as a metaphor for the book, in that both can be written, or rewritten, read, copyrighted, etc. So it was real important to me that the book itself be part of the story: an object in the world as material as real bodies. At the time, publishing was in flux in that there was a lot of talk about the end of the printed book. It seemed like everything was going to go electronic. So I made an effort to write a novel that couldn’t be read on a Kindle, that a person had to hold in their hands. At the same time, I very much wanted this body to be a discursive object—and again, putting all the modes of speaking in juxtaposition with each other—e.g. science writing, history, comic books, opera librettos, etc.—would help bring this out. My hope was that in showing how different styles of writing change what’s said, that the socially constructed nature of how we think of ourselves, and each other, even our very bodies, would come to the foreground. Plus, it was just a lot of fun to put all these ways of speaking in dialog with each other.

GS: VAS covers the topic of the genome which of course bleeds into the inevitable topic of eugenics. What are your thoughts on tampering with genes to, say, eliminate diseases in children, and at what point does gene manipulation go too far, entering a possibly arid Aryan genescape?

ST: Yeah, that’s a good question. And probably one that’s unanswerable. While I was writing VAS, I hung out in some labs in Chicago that were doing experimental surgeries, and that led me to this one medical library that had great stacks. Several of the old journals in it had names like The Eugenics Review. Eugenics was pretty much mainstream science at the beginning of the 20th century. But then the atrocities of the Nazis were exposed and overt eugenics began to die out. But these journals didn’t stop publishing. They just changed their names to things like Genetic Counselling. One constant, though, was that the techniques described were always promoted “for the good of the patient.” This was true even when it meant sterilizing unwed mothers or alcoholics. Today there are amazing cures for all sorts of things—such as the vaccine for the current pandemic—and much of it rests on our ability to manipulate genes. While I was writing VAS, Dolly the Sheep was born. All of a sudden, biologists working on cloning were in the news, and a lot of them were talking about the brave new world that Dolly ushered in: the possibilities for curing disease, but also engineering designer children. It was as if the eugenics movement had never happened. We also have the ability to create disasters for the human race, which is the reason that it’s illegal to clone people, or alter the genome in ways that would affect all of a person’s descendants for the rest of humanity. VAS tries to speak to this tightrope walk we seem to do without coming down on any one side; it tries to perform this balancing act, or raise the questions, rather than provide answers. Essentially it asks, Should we do something just because it’s technologically possible? Should we let parents pick their child’s skin color or try to increase their IQ or resistance to cold? If anything, the book asks us to match every technological advance with an equal amount of reflection: a situation that seems analogous to that with nuclear power.

GS: Speaking of which, is there any possibility of escaping the genescape? I’d imagine that if our consciousnesses were uploaded to a computer, we would still be beholden to 1s and 0s, as it were.

ST: Yeah, this has always seemed like a kind of fantasy to me too. Like you say, there’s no way to escape material nature. Even speech has a ‘material body’ in the form of air pressure. When it comes to consciousness being translated into 1s and 0s, all you have to do is look at how fast technology becomes obsolete to see how feasible that would be. I’m wondering if anyone has ever written about consciousness on a computer with an obsolete OS?—like if the characters in Neuromancer were housed on the floppy discs of a Commodore 64? It would be in a museum or landfill, I guess. So the whole idea is an interesting thought experiment, or metaphor as a way to think about consciousness, even if it isn’t taken literally (maybe something similar can be said about the soul, btw). By coincidence, I’m working on a story about consciousness, and uploading one to the cloud, and how that’s sort of asking the wrong question. I keep coming back to what Wittgenstein said about language and bodies: if a lion was given the power of speech, we wouldn’t be able to understand it.

Pages 266 and 267 from VAS: An Opera in Flatland

GS: You’ve mentioned how myths tend to be a bare-bones type of storytelling because details about a character’s hairstyle, for instance, simply don’t matter in that context. Is this something you kept in mind while writing IN & OZ, a slim novel that has a parable feel to it?

ST: Yes, I’m glad you noticed that. One of the things I’ve always admired about parables is how minimal they are; they have such a lean, economic style, with almost none of the ancillary details you’d find in the story told ‘realistically.’ How tall was the Good Samaritan? What color is his hair? None of these sorts of things matter in a parable, while an author like Proust, for example, might go on for pages about these things. I really wanted IN & OZ to have that sensibility, for readers to see the characters as generic types, or templates, that others could fit into, given the right circumstances. Sort of a ‘there but for the grace of god goes I’ idea of humanity. That’s why none of the characters have names. Or rather, their names are their functions: Mechanic, Designer, Poet/Sculptor, and the others. Mechanic can never quite tell whether Poet/Sculptor is a sculptor or a poet because her medium is dirt, the most democratic of all mediums (and getting back to your question about the material nature of language).

GS: If forced to choose, would you rather live in IN or OZ and why?

ST: Funny you should ask. I don’t really write autofiction, but this novel is the most autobiographical of my books in that I basically grew up in IN, a dirty, industrial area on the south side of Chicago. We use to fish at night by sneaking onto the breakwater of a power plant at the most southern tip of Chicago that straddled the Illinois-Indiana border (the fish were drawn to the warm water of the power plant’s cooling discharge). That’s where the IN of the title comes from: Indiana. From there, looking across the lake, the lights of the skyscrapers downtown would glitter beautifully—the skyline looked like some amazing, distant land—OZ. Most of the other events in the book are more reportage than fiction, though I rendered them in a narrative, parable-like way: for example, the river that wound its way between the mills and refineries we lived by was so polluted that sometimes it caught fire in the summer. We’d ride our bikes out to it to watch firefighters spray water on the river to put it out. Growing up there, that, and things like the sky being orange at night because of the blast furnaces in the mills, never seemed odd—it was just part of nature. I never noticed that the air smelled like factories till I grew up and left, then came back. And that’s part of what this parable is about—how whatever you grow up in seems natural to you; how once you leave you can’t go home again, and mostly how all of this is a function of the realities our words and stories create.

GS: What is a novel you think deserves more readers?

ST: I don’t know why this bothers me so much, but for years I’ve been peeved that R.M. Berry’s novel Frank doesn’t have a wider reputation. The novel itself is brilliant—maybe too smart for its own good, if you know what I mean: it asks a lot of its reader. The story is basically a rewriting of Mary Shelly’s Frankenstein, only in Berry’s retelling, Frank Stein is a cousin of Gertrude Stein. And instead of making a monster, he makes an experimental novel. Or rather the novel is his monster. And like the monster in Shelly’s original, the monster in Berry’s retelling is the most articulate character in the book, using language, to come into his own being the way Frankenstein learned language from spying on that family, learning French, in their cottage. Only here it’s as if Berry’s monster learned language from Derrida. It really helps if the reader knows Shelly’s book, as Berry’s is full of puns and wordplay, undercutting the original, translated into the American south. The linguistic fireworks in the book, the hybrid monster speak, is sort of awe-inspiring. The monster kind of invents a language, trying to learn language, and undoing it at the same time—it’s sort of like reading A Clockwork Orange where you have to learn the language of the book you’re reading by reading it, but once it stops being a struggle, you see all the mashups and in-jokes (like Finnegans Wake in this regard): the novel is just so smart, and so funny.

GS: You mentioned in 2012 that you were working on a novel about extinction, featuring a flea expert among other characters. Did this project go extinct or are you still wrestling with it?

ST: Yeah, the novel is coming out in the spring of 2022. Though the flea expert has since evolved into an expert in feather-lice, the parasites that birds carry. It’s called Ascension, and it’s not as much about extinction as we normally think of it as it is about the end of nature, or rather the end of three different “natures”: each chapter is set in an era that is about to go extinct. Chapter one is set just before Darwin changes the nature of “nature” and how people looked at themselves and each other. The second chapter is set in the 1980s just before the analog world goes digital, biology is revolutionized by genetics, and the concept of “nature” is eclipsed by “environment.” Then there’s the third chapter: our period, with global warming radically changing the planet, and the assumptions about it and each other that we’ve always lived with on the verge of becoming anachronistic. So it’s a story of how Nature exists in our imaginations, and how our imaginations bring the natural world, and our place in it, into existence. It’s mainly a story of how we continually remake the world and are in turn remade by the new nature we’ve created. Like my other novels, it tries to take the medium of the book serious, making the book itself part of the story: there’s a reliance on those gorgeous 19th-century illustrations of nature in the first chapter, set at a time when art and science were much more intertwined; the last chapter kicks out to the internet, where readers can access things like earthquake trackers, phone tracking, databases….

GS: Your multimedia novel TOC involved a range of artists, including actors, musicians, and even a programmer. This kind of innovative literature is not often in the limelight but George Saunders’s Lincoln in the Bardo, which uses a kind of Burroughs’s cut-up method, won the Booker Prize in 2017. And its audiobook included a cast of 166 people. Did you read this novel? Does its success give you some hope for innovative literature receiving a wider audience?

ST: Yeah, it’s a pretty great novel—I actually listened to it first, and didn’t get the changes in voices that you mention until I bought the printed book and saw how it was laid out; it made total sense. As far as innovative literature goes, this has always been a mystery to me. I wonder if the book would have been published had it been George Saunders’ 1st book? House of Leaves is another book that seems to be one that would break the waves for others like it—dense, in the best of ways, and a bestseller too—but it doesn’t seem to happen. Lucy Ellmann’s Ducks Newburyport is practically a 1,000-page sentence (with interludes about a lioness); I think it was shortlisted for the Booker. As your question implies, I think part of the reason there aren’t wider audiences for innovative writing is that novels are a mass medium, and so publishers are always looking for, and putting their promotion behind, books that will appeal to that great bulge in the demographic curve. And as you know there are libraries full of innovative writing that don’t get a lot of attention because they are published by presses without a promotion budget. It’s pretty much like poetry. So people have to come to them, rather than the other way around. I think this is why a lot of innovative authors are pushed toward poetry. The expectations are different: there’s no hope or expectation that someone will buy the movie rights to your poem. For electronic literature, the art gallery begins to look like the best venue. And that’s sort of the model everyone is operating under anyway. The expectation for a lot of music or visual art is to be innovative. For literature, not so much. But maybe that’s okay with the fragmentation of audiences in general.

GS: TOC also incorporates the medium of film. You’ve mentioned that, these days, artistic films have been mostly pushed to the shadows. What are some newer films you find still hold true to the essence of the art form? Or is everything coming out of Hollywood just too formulaic and plastic?

ST: I don’t watch enough movies to have a view of the movie landscape (esp. during the pandemic; if I can’t see a film in a theater I usually don’t bother), but I guess I’d say that it’s those movies that make me want to stop the film and just look in amazement, the burning scene in the silent film, The Passion of Joan of Arc, or the battle scenes in Bondarchuk’s War and Peace, where you can’t believe what you’re seeing on screen—thousands of extras before CGI. Or the visual poetry of 2001: A Space Odyssey, or the incredible animation in Cristobal León & Joaquín Cociña’s The Wolf House. I mean it’s a visual medium, so that’s such a huge part of the interest for me, the visual language that’s being used, and what the visual language is saying.

I guess this is another way of saying that I’m drawn to films that are aware of themselves as film, that work the medium as an art medium, rather than a craft. Which is why you have to see these in a gallery instead of theater: e.g., films by Francis Alÿs (see his Sometimes Making Something Leads to Nothing.) Bruce Conner’s A MOVIE—a great film!—says it all about your question. The Clock by Christian Marclay is also brilliant. As is Godard’s Goodbye to Language 3D (Adieu aux language). I think you can find all of these on YouTube, though the Godard film doesn’t work unless you see it in 3D.

GS: On a similar note, what are some of your favorite older films?

ST: Oh wow, I had to go back to a list of movies that I liked, and there’s so many, just films I liked, uncritically, and it was hard to sort them out so just thought I’d give an info dump here:
Aki Kaurismäki’s La vie de Boheme [my all-time favorite—I watch this one at least once a year]. Right behind it would be: The Wall (German: Die Wand) by Julian Pölsler [not the war movie]. It loses the Cold War subtext of the novel and is all the more relevant to today for it. Apichatpong Weerasethakul’s Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives. See also his Cemetery of Splendour, another great film. 2001: A Space Odyssey has to be one of the greatest films made, both for its visual poetry and its philosophy (especially if you read it through a new-materialist lens).
Ulysses’ Gaze [great film, probably my #2 or 3]
Kiss of the Spiderwoman
Romeo + Juliet by Boz Lehrman
Also for Shakespeare, see Caesar Must Die, performed by prisoners in a way that can’t be duplicated
Meek’s Creek
Under the Skin
Hirokazu Kore-eda’s After Life
And the Ship Sails On (Italian: E la nave va) by Federico Fellini.
Koyaanisqatsi: Life Out of Balance by Godfrey Reggio
What Farocki Taught by Jill Godmilow
Synecdoche, New York (read Tom McCarthy’s novel, Remainder, first)
Apocalypse Now
Woman of the Dunes
Herzog’s Fitzcarraldo
Amadeus
What Ever Happened to Baby Jane
Ghost in the Shell
Princess Mononoke and pretty much anything by Miyazaki
Moby Dick (the 1956 one with Gregory Peck)
Moulin Rouge
Adrift in Tokyo
Parasite by Bong Joon-ho
Cohen films: A Serious Man, Inside Llewyn Davis, and The Big Lebowski
The VVitch
I Am Not Your Negro
Alejandro G. Iñárritu’s Birdman
Bicycle Thief
Okay, this list is getting long….

GS: What about video games, have you engaged with them at all? ‘Playing’ games like Detroit: Become Human, Death Stranding, or A Plague Tale, it seems as though the medium has firmly established itself as an art form and possibly a narrative form to rival others.

ST: Sorry, I don’t know enough about video games to have an opinion, other than I’m horrible at the ones I’ve played, though I suspect that any time you have millions of dollars poured into any project, it has to be made in a way that will recoup the investment. As Ronald Sukenick said long ago, every time there’s a new medium it’s proclaimed to be the death of the old, e.g., photography was supposed to be the death of painting, movies the death of theater. What actually happened, he said, was that the old medium was forced to be more itself. The reality is probably closer to Jay David Bolter and Richard Grusin’s take on it though, in that the old gets remediated: the book won’t go away, though it’s not the same as it was before, say, television, or movies—rather it’s influenced by them even if it can be more distinctly invested in aspects that other media can’t do as well (e.g. a chase scene in a book is usually kind of boring). For me this would be the immersive engagement with the language that’s inherent in reading (just like reading in a movie would be kind of boring). If you stop reading, the story stops. I find the most pleasurable books to be the hardest to get through—not because they’re difficult, but because they make me want to stop and think. Or reread a sentence that’s especially elegant, or insightful.

GS: Unlike some writers, you’re quite hopeful about the future of the novel as an art form, but you’ve emphasized that the form will become even more conscious of itself, the fact that it’s made from paper and ink, for instance. What are a few recent works you’ve read that have some of the seeds of the future, or is it too early to tell?

ST: The novels themselves are what make the form so compelling, so interesting as an art form, and yes, I am drawn to the novels that don’t try to be a movie in print form. I’m thinking here of Anne Carson’s NOX and Claudia Rankine’s Citizen. These are both classified as poetry, but they are prose poems, which read like novels. Both also work with their materials, language, of course, but also the medium of the book, Carson’s NOX being a facsimile of a handmade book, an elegy and meditation on what it means to mourn, and—it comes in a box: a box that resembles the box her mother kept old letters in. The materials of this novel are part of its story, the associations that are created by the box and paper in your hand as powerful as the content of the text. Likewise, Citizen really starts with the image on the cover: a hood that’s been ripped from hoodie that was its body, and you can’t help but think of the guillotine, the beheadings, the citizen uprising during the French Revolution, as you begin to read this tale of daily repressions Blacks live under in the U.S. system. This interplay between word and image carries through in a reading experience that is powerful both aesthetically and politically. But I don’t think all novels have to have this attention to their “bookish” nature. Again, Lucy Ellmann’s Ducks, Newburyport comes to mind—which comes across as a reinvention of those 19th-century novels that try to capture all of life. Only she’s doing it today, without using those old plot-driven forms; instead, it’s this incredible weave of anecdotes and wordplay and associations that range across every conceivable aspect of contemporary life in America—it’s an amazing, high-wire act that you can’t believe she can pull off for 1,000 pages, but she does more than that, having all these threads come together in the end. Roberto Bolaño’s 2666 is another novel that’s experimental in a really different way—a centerless novel that captures the centerless, global culture we live in, where the desire for cheap appliances in the first world mean poor people end up dead in the poorer countries. Joanna Ruocco’s DAN, Lance Olsen’s soon-to-be-released Skin Elegies, then there are some very cool, electronic lit being created—see David Clark’s 88 Constellations for Wittgenstein—that doesn’t get talked about much outside of e-lit circles…. That’s what’s cool about all of these—they are each reinventing the novel in different ways, or rather, finding ways to tell the stories they tell, and that’s what makes them exciting.

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Steve Tomasula is the author of the novels The Book of Portraiture, VAS: An Opera in Flatland, an acclaimed novel of the biotech revolution; TOC: A New-Media Novel, and IN & OZ. He is also the author of a collection of short fiction, Once Human: Stories.Incorporating narrative forms of all kinds—from comic books, travelogues, journalism or code to Hong Kong action movies or science reports—Tomasula’s writing has been called a ‘reinvention of the novel,’ combining an ‘attention to society in the tradition of Orwell, attention to language in the tradition of Beckett, and the humor of a Coover or Pynchon.’

His writing often crosses visual, as well as written genres, drawing on science and the arts to take up themes of how we represent what we think we know, and how these representations shape our lives.  His essays on genetic and body art and literature have been published widely, as have been his short fictions. He holds a doctorate in English from the University of Illinois at Chicago. He lives in the Uptown Neighborhood of Chicago, and in South Bend, where he is on the faculty of the University of Notre Dame, and teaches in the program for creative writers. His website is here.

George Salis is the author of Sea Above, Sun Below. His fiction is featured in The DarkBlack DandyZizzle Literary MagazineHouse of ZoloThree Crows Magazine, and elsewhere. His criticism has appeared in IsacousticAtticus Review, and The Tishman Review, and his science article on the mechanics of natural evil was featured in Skeptic. He is currently working on an encyclopedic novel titled Morphological Echoes. He has taught in Bulgaria, China, and Poland. Find him on FacebookGoodreadsInstagramTwitter, and at www.GeorgeSalis.com.

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