VAS: An Opera in Flatland by Steve Tomasula

About Steve Tomasula: 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.

I interviewed Steve Tomasula here.

Abstract: “And he marveled at the malleability of the system—people, orchids, amoebas, elk—all cognate.”

“…Creation one continuous expression of Divine Letters-Proportions-Harmony-Laws-Spheres without separation, the symmetry of a snail’s shell, of a flower’s bell, of an inner ear, a breaking wave, a moth’s flight or comet’s tail all features of a single face…”

Introduction: The words “innovative” and “hybrid” are often tossed around willy-nilly. However, VAS: An Opera in Flatland embodies, embooks, those qualities and more like nothing I’ve seen or read before. There are intimations, though, intimations, literary genes to be traced, essence of DeLillo, of David Foster Wallace, of Mark Z. Danielewski of course, but also Fiction Collective contemporaries like Lance Olsen and Vanessa Place. A novel that’s VASt in its preoccupations even as it stems from the notion of a private de-stemming; that is, the question of a VASectomy. The ostensible location is borrowed from Edwin A. Abbot’s Flatland: A Romance of Many Dimensions, published in the late 19th century and considered a classic of mathematical allegory and philosophy. Tomasula’s Flatland isn’t flat as such, and his borrowed characters, Square, Circle, Oval, are human-shaped despite their names.

Father + Mother ○ = Daughter ⬭. In other words (more precisely, symballs), 8===D~~~V. Hoopsa girly-girl hoopsa!

After giving birth once and going through the decision of an abortion, Circle tells Square that it’s his “turn” now. Meaning, after all the stress, strain, and stigmata on her body, the misery of muliebrity, it’s time for him to snip his pizzle, a seemingly quick and minor operation in comparison. The prospect of mincing his manhood, “the fear of closure,” is essentially what triggers existential anxiety and a multiplicity of ruminations. After all, vasectomies are more permanent than one might like to believe, and aren’t so easily reversed, as The Office’s Michael Scott will explain: “When I said that I wanted to have kids, and you said you wanted me to have a vasectomy, what did I do? And then, when you said that you might want to have kids, and I wasn’t so sure, who had the vasectomy reversed? And then when you said you definitely didn’t want to have kids? Who had it reversed back? Snip, snap! Snip, snap! Snip, snap! I did! You have no idea the physical toll that three vasectomies have on a person!”

VAS begins with the “first pain,” in a comic book bubble, referring to a papercut Square endures, a prelude to the cut to come, born from the hospital form for the euphemistic if not ominous “procedure,” which he then buries beneath his work-in-progress, “the world he’d been writing into existence.”

Materials and Methods: The word “unawares” (or variations of it) is used a handful of times. This is because Tomasula is trying to make us aware, of software and hardware both synthetic and genetic, to see as clearly as glassware. This he does by posing questions and exposing history, even going so far as to spell out 25 pages of the code for gene SHGC-110205, which comes from chromosome 12, a language from which we are built and born yet most of us can’t read, reduced to burbling babies again, abandoned at the foot of the Tower of Babel.

In his quest for enlightenment, if you will, Tomasula also highlights anatomy and associative biological functions within the prose itself, including a sexual but not sexy scene of coitus, fucking wrought in the language of science: “…a biology of selection often pronounced by these apes, naked, ‘love.’” Or the seemingly quotidian curiosity of a cat: “…the cat cautiously approached the wrapping paper, smelling it with the 19 million nerves of its nose…”

Only dust bunnies live in a vacuum, thus Tomasula offers us echoes of other cultures and ages, perchance to show connection through disconnection while fracturing book formulas as general readers know them. Here are two small-scale examples from the same page: “She suppressed her burp, Flatland etiquette differing from that of ‘Mohamedan who expresses gratitude at his entertainment by eruption after the meal,’” and “…Oval handled her equipment as expertly as savage Papua children hunt lizards with miniature versions of adult blowpipes.”

This also relates to the childhood memory of Smithsonian exhibits that Square meditates on, melting his sense of time: “…Square saw the generations unfold the way astronomers study the evolution of stars without seeing an iota of change in a single one, each more convinced of its place than the last, each in turn adding weight to the proof that it had never been nor would ever be any other way.”

There are even passages written as though Square is a Cro-Magnon living in the modern age but not. Later, Square must reconcile being in a world in which genes are as easily edited as computer code and children are created almost like fluffy teddies at a Build-a-Bear Workshop: “Children engineered to repel mosquitos, engineered to not develop an appendix, or wisdom teeth, or any anachronistic appendages—who could not want that for their descendants?—and all for the having by simply creating a litter of embryos from which they could select the one with the best genetic profile.”

Tomasula’s VAS mixes various traditions even if it’s not as varied as, say, Gilbert Sorrentino’s Mulligan Stew. The latter is more firmly set in the panoply of literary traditions while Tomasula includes visual media too, from the comic book to what one might call concrete or found poetry. Injected every so often are several milligrams of epigrams and epigraphs as lapidary as epitaphs. There’s even a pedigree of the shape family in a fold-out page that uses the etymology of words, their geometric names. Speaking of names, there are two on the cover of this book: Steve Tomasula, the writer, and Stephen Farrell, who is credited for the art and design. Indeed, it’s his talent that heightens the experience that Tomasula has envisioned, from the placement of words on the page to the scientific-feeling lines and shapes and beyond. The hardcover version of the book is practically dissected, the spine a shade of flesh which ends to reveal a thin strip of sheer muscle which ends to reveal the actual exposed cardboard of the book’s cover.

And let’s not forget the experimental opera that escapes the page (even if you don’t have the rare edition that pairs this book with a CD that looks like an enlarged drop of blood under a microscope, you can listen to the audio on various streaming platforms under the album title Bodies in Flatland), which is closer in spirit to Tom Phillip’s Irma than it is to, say, Mozart’s Don Giovanni. What you might find disappointing is that there isn’t any actual singing, only reading from the text, some more performative than others.

Square and Circle attend that opera of three acts near the end of the novel, which sort of rehashes if not remixes the themes that come before and ends with a “primate cephalic transplantation” that has an unavoidable VAScular association, snip echoing snip. Thus the opera concludes with curtains, lights out, a double set of mourning pages that continue the tradition of Sterne’s blacked-out leaf in Tristram Shandy, as with Alexander Theroux’s Darconville’s Cat, Lee Siegel’s Love in a Dead Language, and Guillermo Cabrera Infante’s Three Trapped Tigers. Not only does Square have the procedure, but he more palpably empathizes with the plight and fight of women, which makes a VASectomy almost nothing: “He looked on Circle with awe now, now that he understood the routine élan with which women lived within their edited, critiqued and rewritten bodies. And what a luxury he had had in being able to take his ‘natural’ body for granted.”

Results and Discussion: There are many questions broached in this book, but few if any are answered, yet such is the complexity behind these topics—there are no clear answers here: What does it mean “To be your body, and not just have your body”?

The book of the body—DNA—is as much the book of the living as it is the book of the dead. Tomasula calls into question ‘scientific’ practices of eugenics and the racism that follows therefrom. Comparisons reveal a kind of retrospective terror that comes with this territory, from Churchill who sounds like Hitler to Darwin and the author of the first Flatland who espoused eugenic notions to some degree. Of course, eugenics, like science as a whole, is a type of tool, one that needs to be at the very least tempered if it is to be used at all. Then there are broader but still related historical facts, the Jews barred from America who were sent back to their deaths, the fact that sterilization was legal in the US well before other countries, including Germany.

And then there’s the astounding and disgusting fact that there’s been at least one if not more Africans in American zoos, specifically Ota Benga, who was eventually removed not because of an issue with racism or human rights violations, but because people didn’t like that the exhibit explained how he was part of an evolutionary chain, no, not evolution, they wailed, all people are made in a God’s likeness. Rather than go into radioactive oatmeal fed to children, I’ll stop here and save the rest for when you read the book yourself.

Is this experiment of a novel without errors? Of course not. Most experiments have some outliers if not outright liars (*cough*cough* Marc Hauser).

Objective Errors:

  • Tomasula refers to doggie style as a beast with two backs when, in fact, the opposite is correct; any position in which the chests are pressed together and the backs are facing outward is the true form of that lusty beast.
  • There’s mention of Albert Einstein’s breath in a vial in the Henry Ford Museum. Having looked it up, I discovered that the vial actually contains essence of Edison. The Mütter Museum houses slices of Einstein’s brain, but that’s a different story.
  • The Selfish Gene by Richard Dawkins is listed among literature that espouses genes for something. Not only is Dawkins employing a metaphor, but he has written against the oversimplified concept of a single gene for specific traits, such as homosexuality, for instance. Genomes are a recipe, not a blueprint. Thus, his book shouldn’t really be listed there.
  • I counted three instances of the word “loose” being used instead of “lose.” Doesn’t that make you want to loose your mind like Einstein?
  • Small portions of the audio, which I listened to via Spotify, don’t align with the text, as if an earlier draft had been recorded.

Objective errors breed distrust and make one wonder what other errors exist, although in a way this seems to fit with the theme of questioning and probing the methods of science and the history of humans. Indeed, they could be “the typos that would eventually spell out ‘cancer’ or ‘consumption’ or other antique formations in some other flatland….” In other words, trust no one, not even those who tell you to trust no one, because then you’re one breath away from donning a tinfoil hat.

Subjective errors:

  • VAS is somewhat heavy with the fractured nonfiction and I would have liked to see more of a balance between that and the prose narrative.
  • Whether intentional or not, there are a few instances where the black text is put over images and made unreadable in spots where it’s black on black.
  • Some images and text were also difficult to make out when printed within the tight trench between pages.

Objective or subjective, this researcher would like to see some or all of these errors amended in repeated experiments or reprints.

Conclusion: Rather than science fiction, that antiquated formula, VAS is a science novel or novel of science, in at least the same genus if not species as Joseph McElroy’s wonderful experiment Plus. While it wasn’t as revelatory as this researcher had hoped, there’s no doubt that this book is bending and breaking the boundaries of what fiction is or could be. If this daunts you, it shouldn’t. As long as you know what to expect (and having read this far, you do), then any average reader will be able to enjoy this book with ease. If you’d rather dip an appendage into Tomasula’s work, then try his brief and mostly traditional though fable-like novella IN & OZ. As for me, I look forward to reading The Book of Portraiture next and anything else that Tomasula creates in his literary laboratory.

Editor’s note: The aim of Invisible Books is to shine a light on wrongly neglected and forgotten books and their authors. To help bring more attention to these works of art, please share this article on social media. For early access to literary content like this and other awesome benefits, consider supporting The Collidescope on Patreon.

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 FacebookGoodreadsInstagram, Twitter, and at www.GeorgeSalis.com.

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