September 2013

Will George

fiction

Tomorrowland by Joseph Bates

Yogi Berra once said that the future just ain't what it used to be. That could easily be the tagline of "Tomorrowland," the eponymous short in the witty collection Tomorrowland by Joseph Bates.

Bates, who teaches creative writing at Miami University of Ohio, first published these stories in various journals from 2007 to 2013. The themes correspondingly vary, up to a point. Three of the ten are brief but canny investigations of futurism, past and present.

"Tomorrowland" shows the reader a 1950s "Home of the Future" in its last hours before demolition. (Think of those model bungalows pleasantly located on the atomic test sites of the Nevada desert.) Bates evokes an ersatz farrago of chintz fabrics and nuclear family values, TV dinners and atrocious hairdos, all perfectly preserved until the museum can be summarily rubbished. In the empty driveway, guests envision a smooth, oblong concept car, shaped like a rocket or possibly something else. The air is rich with asbestos. This is not The Jetsons. This is a pensive, sober still-life of mid-twentieth-century vanities.

"Tomorrowland," though it's the centerpiece of the book, completely fails to typify the other nine shorts. These are pronounced cases of social satire, superlative wisecrackery, and in at least two places, experimental literary humor.

Still reading? It gets even better. The quality -- though this is a matter of opinion -- ranges from good to flabbergastingly good. I'll start with the flabbergasters. "Mirrorverse" is a thought-experiment in which the narrator toys with a device that lets him peer, via his TV set, into the myriad parallel universes. These aren't just the "actual" parallel universes of science fiction and deviant physics. They represent whatever could happen: what most of us (after Leibniz) call possible worlds. Though this may sound high-concept, the action of the story is low-key. The narrator and his ex get their jollies with the optico-metaphysical gizmo, the "Multiverse Spectrometer," in a domestic yarn with more than a hint of bedroom farce. ("I am watching myself and my ex-wife make out in another universe." Then there's a knock on the door...) Repeated comparisons to Xbox and Nintendo make this story an express parody on videogaming. Bates writes with a persistently light touch, as in this put-down issued to the narrator:

...just incorporate the machine into your date night. You can use it just like cable TV, only better... Find a universe of erotic pleasures or something, and you two [you and your date] can watch it together on your couch and pretend not to be turned on by it. Then she'll leave, and you'll be frustrated and confused, and it'll be just like your usual Friday night.

Cerebral but unpretentious, the light-hearted, relaxed prose of "Mirrorverse" reads like a James Thurber story conceived by Philip K. Dick. Like I said, a flabbergaster.

"How We Made a Difference" lets rip with one of Bates's trademark pithy openers: "On Halloween the neighborhood children dress up like neo-conservatives and go door-to-door spreading lies." It sounds like political satire from a domestic angle. And it is. The children aren't really dressing up -- at least, not as neo-conservatives. Bates has jabs for lefties, too, but the main interest of the story isn't its politics. It's the technique. Check this hyperbolic account of the trick-or-treaters: "Their beady, innocent eyes steel-blue like the life has been syringed from them and replaced with the warm liquid metal of little fascist visions." And after that elevation, the unpoetic bathos: "It's the Village of the Damned dressed by the sales rack at Sears."

Bates is a master of bathos -- the abrupt move from the sublime to the ridiculous, and often back again, for comic effect. (If the reader didn't smile at that crack about Village of the Damned, try the John Carpenter version.) Many of the stories are pointedly bathetic, or marked by similarly jarring shifts. How about this use of zeugma: "I think about razor-blading some apples, or perhaps my wrists," says the narrator, hopelessly vexed by the pint-sized neo-cons. "How We Made a Difference" impresses hugely with these mood swings; the heights of the descriptive highs and the brisk, casual come-downs.

Thereafter the appeal of the book grows more selective. "Gas Head Tells All" and "Survey of My Exes" are humor concept-pieces -- the kind that turn up at Mcsweeneys.net, only longer. Both use a question-and-answer structure. In the interview of "Gas Head Tells All," the interviewer looks up from his notes and blandly remarks that the interviewee's head is on fire. Without giving anything away, this premise is not developed the way you might expect. "Survey of My Exes" is just that. Eight ex-girlfriends write their replies to the same seven questions, each respondent funnier than the last. Like most concept-humor, these shorts can be demanding on the reader. They require some tolerance for gimmicks. The endearing "Boardwalk Elvis" gets us back to a more conventional humorous narrative, starring a malodorous impersonator with a rash: "Sufferin' for mah art," sighs Elvis in one of the book's most priceless lines.

The remaining stories -- "Guilt City", "Yankees Burn Atlanta," "Future Me" and "Bearing a Cross" -- are strongly absurdist, counterbalanced by Bates's fine-tuned deadpan delivery. Deadpan (not just an expressionless tone, but specifically the presentation of a humorless line in a humorless way) isn't an easy device to use in writing, because the deader the pan, the greater the risk that the reader misses the joke. Here's an example from "Bearing a Cross": The town of Walhalla, South Carolina, decides to abrogate both regional and national constitutions, suspend all rights and privileges, and establish a local theocracy. "To our credit," comments the ultra-dry narrator, "I think we went into theocracy with the best of intentions." Either this is effective deadpan or I've merely confabulated the keen humor in this line.

Or again, "Guilt City" memorably opens, "You build a city in your backyard and invite everyone you've ever wronged to live there rent-free. The place fills up quickly." Read too rapidly and this dead-dry, compressed shred of insult humor blows right past. Elsewhere the insults are more overt. "Yankees Burn Atlanta" features a baseball coach with an attitude like Don Rickles if you find his barbs funny or a drill sergeant if you don't.

The more I reread the stories of Tomorrowland, the more I'm tempted to regard Bates as a literary humorist, primarily working in shorts, loosely in the tradition of Thurber or Leacock. What stands out about the stories, much more than their themes or even their whimsical characters such as Boardwalk Elvis and Mr. Gas Head, is the variety and frequency of the rhetorical devices deployed specifically for comic effect. One more example for good measure: "Do you know what God writes in the Bible about pigs?" a bumpkin character obtusely cries. "He calls them swine." Pleonasm doesn't get much funnier than this. The subject matter isn't always original -- "Future Me" could've been called "Back to the Future Me" -- but the execution can be first rate.

Nine-tenths of Tomorrowland is satire amply dosed with verbal humor, and even some situations approaching comedic predicaments. If it weren't for the straight "Tomorrowland," you might almost have found Tomorrowland filed under Humorous Short Fiction. In a possible world close by, you certainly will.

Tomorrowland by Joseph Bates
Curbside Splendor Publishing
ISBN: 978-0988825819
160 pages