This review originally appeared in the Kenyon Review Online.
In many ways, Steve Tomasula’s fifth book, Once Human, is a very good introduction to the work of this conspicuously unconventional writer. Venturesome readers will find that this collection indeed exhibits Tomasula’s trademark assimilation of visual elements—photos, illustrations, graphs and charts, drawings—into the verbal “text,” as well as the inveterate manipulation of typography and page design. But encountering these devices through a selection of stories allows the reader to contemplate Tomasula’s strategies in shorter samples, perhaps encouraging readers to appreciate that these strategies are both purposeful and ultimately accessible. Tomasula’s unorthodox methods provocatively reinforce the themes he usually addresses, and although Once Human is somewhat varied in content, it nevertheless introduces several of those themes that are developed more intensively in his novels.
Tomasula’s approach is evident in the book’s first story, “The Color of Flesh.” The story of protagonist Yumi’s discovery that her boyfriend has a pornographic obsession with disfigured female bodies, and may be attracted to her not despite the fact that she has a prosthetic limb but because of it, is enhanced by drawings that give the story most immediately the look of a graphic novel. But the story actually contains plenty of text, and the drawings are not themselves the medium through which the narrative is presented. Neither are they merely decorative, although they are certainly well-rendered. So striking are they, in fact, that it soon enough becomes clear we are meant to do more than just glance at the drawings as a kind of accompaniment to the written text, but to consider them a constituent part of a reconceived “text” that integrates writing and visual devices, with each contributing its own effect to the new, hybrid work. Thus, in “The Color of Flesh,” the illustrations impress as more than ornamental, with a drawing of prosthetic limbs “dangling from the ceiling” of a “shop that sold such things” adding a spooky (if stylized) palpability that isn’t quite achieved by the prose description alone, not even the comparison to “Geppetto’s workshop.”
It might be tempting to call Tomasula’s approach “multi-media”—especially since he has produced one “book,” TOC (2009), that was not published as a book at all but on DVD and predominantly takes visual form—but the goal does not seem to be to blend prose fiction and visual media as much as to extend our conception of what prose fiction might be. Is it the case, a story like “The Color of Flesh” asks us, that when visual art is added to literary art a work of fiction becomes something else, no longer fiction but precisely a hybrid, something separate that should be judged by standards other than those traditionally applied to fiction, or does it remain within the boundaries of that form as historically established, albeit questioning where those boundaries should lie? Readers could come to different conclusions about this, but arguably Tomasula’s fiction is most consequential if we think of it as still belonging to literature, as an attempt to reckon with the status of fiction at a time when visual representations are more pervasive than ever.
Tomasula has cited the influence on his work of such writers as Raymond Federman, Gilbert Sorrentino, and William Gass, all of whom similarly unsettle our usual way of reading—on pages with blocks of text, read sequentially from top to bottom—although none of these writers (aside from Gass in his novella Willie Masters’ Lonesome Wife) includes pictorial elements. Tomasula’s own work is thus perhaps best understood as extending their experiments, proceeding under the fundamental assumption that the page—all of his books aside from TOC do take the printed page as fiction’s native medium—is infinitely pliable, a site where the literary artist might create aesthetic effects not confined to the usual felicities of prose style, and might also contribute to a reconception of form that includes but goes beyond reliance on traditional verbal narrative. If we judge much conventional fiction by the degree to which it encourages us to transcend the page, to give ourselves over to the illusion of “world” the author is creating, that good writing is supposed to cast, Tomasula’s stories and novels keep us firmly rooted to the page, refusing to let us forget the materiality of the medium.
The drawings and photographs in Once Human—some of which are quite complex and detailed—are the most conspicuous of the elements used to suspend illusion, but Tomasula’s attention to the dynamics of the page is also manifest in typography and typeface. No two stories come in the same font size, and the page layouts follow no rules of prose composition other than those the author has invented. Pages shift in appearance, in some cases multiple times. The text of “The Color of Flesh” begins in a single column, switches to double columns, and in the second half of the story kaleidoscopically changes fonts, page color (black on white to white on black), and page design (the text presented in something resembling thought balloons). “Self-Portrait” at first seems a more or less conventionally printed story, free of both visual aids and typographical oddities, except that a closer look reveals a column of words running down each of the inner margins, one column repeating the work “stroke,” the other “snap,” the two actions performed by the story’s protagonist, a lab technician responsible for euthanizing mice used in testing.
If at first this might seem a random, even frivolous gesture, ultimately it does have the effect of continually reminding us of the “work” the technician carries out, even as the story appears to develop the situation in other, tangential directions (the protagonist’s romantic involvement with his co-worker, for example). This sort of literalization of motif or image can perhaps be seen most clearly in stories such as “The Atlas of Man” and “The Risk-Taking Gene as Expressed by Some Asian Subjects.” The narrator of the former is a researcher who collects data on human body shape. He falls in love with a fellow researcher (unhappily). The text of this story includes several illustrations of bodies and body types, as well as various graphs representing the work the narrator has done in studying the human body. Together, these visual elements reinforce the contrast between the narrator’s usual impassive approach to the world as filtered through his work and his growing self-awareness of the implications of that work in relation to himself, a contrast that ultimately works to create some sympathy for the man’s emotional confusion.
“The Risk-Taking Gene” again focuses on a researcher, in this case studying the purported “risk-taking gene,” the “genetic propensity discovered by Cloninger, Adolfsson, and Svrakic for some people to put themselves at risk in order to feel the level of arousal most of us get from the petty concerns of our day.” The narrator in this story is conducting interviews in an Asian-American neighborhood (or trying to), and winds up being surprised by the identity of the “subject” who is indeed most willing to take risks. The story relies less on pictorial devices and more on page design and typography for its effects. Reflecting the narrator’s line of work, some of the pages are printed on a facsimile of a questionnaire, others on what appears to be a representation of a DNA gel. Both of these stories employ a non-conventional fusion of text and visuals, each playing off of the other, that typifies Tomasula’s literary method. Since his fiction does not at all abandon narrative—some of these stories have rather dramatic plots—it offers not an alternative to “story” but an alternative way of telling a story still anchored to the printed page.
Both “The Atlas of Man” and “The Risk-Taking Gene” are also obviously related in their focus on a character doing “research” on the human body. In this they share a dominant theme of Tomasula’s work, exemplified most notably in VAS (2004), his best-known novel and probably greatest achievement to date. Subtitled “An Opera in Flatland,” the novel is first of all a kind of pastiche of a previous novel, Edwin Abbott’s Flatland, a geometry-based science-fiction “romance” published in 1885. Tomasula takes over the premise of “people” living in a two-dimensional “flatland,” people who are themselves geometrical figures. Thus the main characters of VAS are “Square” and his wife, “Circle.” The plot of this novel is minimal but, narratively speaking, straightforward. After a series of pregnancies terminating in miscarriage or abortion, Circle has asked Square to get a vasectomy, to which he has agreed, although as the novel begins he has not yet signed the consent form required. Most of the rest of the novel follows Square as he ponders the implications of his decision and the state of his relationships both with Circle and his daughter, Oval.
VAS becomes “operatic” in the way it illustrates and embodies the story of Square reckoning with his situation by depicting it through very elaborate drawings, photographs, and other visual elements comprising a large portion of the text, with these elements becoming something like the music that transforms a play into an opera. The novel is an “opera in Flatland,” of course, because it takes place not in the three-dimensional space of theatrical operas, or even the simulated space of film, video, or cyberspace, but on the page, through the “flat” surfaces of text and graphic image. Thus VAS is still dedicated to literary experiment, to testing the limits of the page as literature’s traditional medium. Online publication has obviously challenged the seemingly necessary connection between literary works and the printed page, but Tomasula continues to take the page as his focus, aside from TOC. Indeed, most of his published fiction depends for its realization on pages, and its effects would be almost totally lost on, say, a Kindle.
Tomasula employs his effects to fulfill one of the most traditional of literary goals, developing “theme.” If anything, Tomasula’s fiction is even more devoted to communicating theme than most mainstream literary fiction. The researchers and scientists in his fiction are engaged in work ultimately intended to help overcome the supposed limitations of human biology and genetics, to remake our physical existence. VAS is probably the work in which Tomasula most intensively explores the implications of scientific intervention into nature as represented by the human body (one thinks of Hawthorne’s stories about human beings “playing God”) and the creation of a “postbiological” future. Square familiarizes himself with the history of eugenics, human experimentation, genetic engineering, and various other “advances” in medical science, his contemplation of these subjects accompanied by an almost dizzying variety of visual and typographical devices that make the motives behind and ultimate consequences of the rise of the “postbiological” even more disturbing. Square confronts the possibility that the human body may become its own kind of “hybrid,” as the novel’s content comes to mirror its form—and vice-versa.
Remaking reality is of course the ambition of fiction as well as science, and Tomasula’s work can be taken as variant of metafiction, subjecting fiction to the same scrutiny as these other efforts to reshape and reorder the world. The representations of the body offered by the scientific methods of mapping and measuring it are represented literally in Tomasula’s pictorial imagery, provoking us to reflect on the extent to which literature aspires to the pictorial even while doing so through the descriptive and figural powers of language. Similarly, his typographical variations insistently remind us that the arrangement of print on the page has also always reinforced a particular, narrow way of organizing literary representation, one that is assumed to be the “natural” form that reading takes but that Tomasula’s work proceeds to show can be altered. “Representation” is itself the subject of his 2006 novel The Book of Portraiture, the title of which is taken from the supposed journal of the painter Velasquez, which among other things chronicles the creation of Velasquez’s “The Maids of Honor,” a notoriously self-reflexive painting that depicts the painter himself among his other subjects, standing at his easel and apparently staring at the viewer outside the painting. The other sections of the book (including a reworked version of “Self-Portrait”) also invoke the human urge to re-present reality, to both productive and destructive effect, making The Book of Portraiture the most avowedly metafictional of Tomasula’s books. The Book of Portraiture doesn’t just expose the inherent artifice of narrative, but reveals the transformative effects, potentially liberating but also potentially dangerous, of human beings’ capacity to reimagine themselves.
Once Human is not as intently focused as VAS on the scientific and technological manipulation of nature, nor is it as concerned with the implications of representation as The Book of Portraiture. The most explicitly metafictional story in the book is probably “Farewell to Kilimanjaro,” which is more conventional parody than metafictional self-reflection. This “what if” story portrays an elderly Ernest Hemingway (the character is named “E”) experiencing degradation in an old folks’ home. “Medieval Times” has a family resemblance to one of George Saunders’s theme-park stories (“CivilWarLand in Bad Decline”), although it satirizes current events more directly than Saunders does. “The Color of Pain and Suffering” is of a piece with “Self-Portrait” and “The Atlas of Man” in its focus on the romantic travails of a medical illustrator. Once Human may be something of a miscellany collecting Tomasula’s shorter fiction, but that very quality gives readers a valuable sampling of the work of a compelling and genuinely experimental writer.