- VAS: An Opera in Flatland
I did not know what I was in for when I volunteered to review this book. And the thing is, I should have known. I edited a volume of "experimental" fiction (read: "will not sell any copies") called Hard_Code a few years back, and Steve Tomasula, whose hyperfiction work I was familiar with, sent me a section from a work-in-progress. What Tomasula had sent me looked like something produced by a sleep-deprived, delirious genetic engineer writing concrete poetry with Adobe Illustrator while the genome database directly hardwired into his visual cortex filtered spam ads for cosmetic surgery. So it fit right into the book I was editing. But I was, and still am, intrigued by Tomasula's work, simply because it asks the reader how to read. Tomasula has since greatly refined his book and has teamed up with graphic designer Stephen Farrell to produce a unique statement on the relation between science and fiction. That work is VAS: An Opera in Flatland—a hybrid of fiction, biotechnology, science studies, the history of biology, aphorisms and even a touch of the comic book. We talk a lot about books that defy category, mix genres and so on. But this is among the few books that really live up to this description. The only recent comparisons I can come up with are Mark Danielewski's House of Leaves, Jeff Noon's Cobralingus and the works of Kenneth Goldsmith.
What makes VAS intriguing as a read is that it is a very diagrammatic book. The text always seems to be drawing lines, making connections, mapping loci, deriving genealogies, aligning text and so on. There are, of course, several stratified narrative layers in the book. As the subtitle indicates, it makes reference to Edwin Abbott's famous mathematical fiction Flatland, in which primary geometric shapes are a family of characters who inhabit a 2D world; adventures follow when 3D characters such as ourselves intervene in that world. VAS takes up this motif and maps it onto contemporary genetics, biotechnology and medicine. It makes use of Abbott's narrative as a kind of allegory for the way in which we are all making the dimensional shift from "human" to "posthuman." Like Abbott's Flatland , VAS also makes use of humor, mainly to point to the hubris and ambivalence that many biotechnological advances bring with them. As one drifts through VAS, there are genealogical pedigrees, bits of documents on eugenics policies, cranial measurement charts, IQ tests, illustrations of simian evolution, fragments of genetic patents, reproductions from anatomy textbooks, tables from natural history books, appropriated advertisements for aesthetic surgery, chromosome maps, medical imaging and of course the sprawling data of the genetic code (VAS is most probably the first fictional work to include a full GenBank sequence from an entire gene, covering some 25 pages—geeky, perhaps, but a noteworthy achievement nonetheless).
VAS threads together several narrative strata in such a way that it is actually very hard to read the text in a linear fashion. Now, this is of course a stock strategy of much so-called postmodern fiction; what makes VAS interesting is that this tension between linear-nonlinear in terms of narrative is played out against the same tension in molecular biology and genetics ("gene X causes or predisposes characteristic Y" vs. "polygenetic factors" and "systems biology"). At some points two or more text threads occupy a single page; at other points the narratives suddenly become a 1950s-era comic book; and at still other points the text becomes a natural history or eugenics textbook, replete with footnotes. Writing in The Space of Literature about the way that literature always questions its own possibilities, Maurice Blanchot notes that "the essence of literature is to escape any essential determination, or any affirmation which stabilises or even realises it: it is never already there; it is always to be found or to be reinvented." I wonder if the same can...