ficition and the near dystopian future
As it launches today at LA Art Book Fair, we delve into the world of Sarah Harrison’s new novella All The Things.
How can we, in literature and art, imagine futures when the very idea of future has been rendered so inescapably corny? I thought about near-futures a lot while reading All The Things, a moving and chaotic novella by Sarah M Harrison, about how radical and exciting it was to suppose them once. How irresistible it was to read a novel like J. G. Ballard's High Rise, where the wealthy inhabitants of an exclusive apartment building gradually and then all at once begin to shed the social dignities that bound them together in the first place. Before they know it the pedigree pet dog is floating, murdered, in the communal pool; the prissy wife is hurled off the beautiful balcony. I'm speaking here not strictly about dystopian fiction set in a defined timeframe but also work set in a parallel present where certain flaws or hubris of current human society are seen to reach their inevitable conclusion. Douglas Coupland, less brilliantly than Ballard, made a career of this; we can see it too in the farcical bureaucracy in Infinite Jest. In a broad sense it's what makes Shirley Jackson's classic short story The Lottery (in which a small town ensures its continued good fortune by ritually murdering one of its citizens each year) work. The unnervingly narrow gap between reality and horror is a compelling one, but in an increasingly absurd society, such allegories become more difficult to pull off. Our lived experience catches up with and overtakes the parodies we attempt to create.
I was reminded of these precedents when introduced to the Simulated Workplace Environment by Tanya, the central character of All The Things. Tanya lives with her friend Bonky. They are overly close, incessantly bickering, hopelessly narcissistic. Tanya attends the Simulated Workplace Environment, a fake job for the unemployed to reap the benefits of being productive despite producing nothing. Here, the walls are decorated with signs imploring you to remember to smile, that even if your stars go out you have to keep looking at the sky. "Being busy does not always mean real work" we are told, and these parts of the book are written in the stylised incongruous corporate speak of the classic faceless dystopian ruler. It read like that to me at least, until I realised that none of what was being described was actually outlandish. Busyness as an inherent good, regardless or even in spite of what it produces, is the determining ideology of the failed welfare state. We are all infants now, and the state has determined that we will be safer enacting some sort of neutered performance of "work" than to be left idle. A little shiver, then, recognising Harrison's "'symbolic promotion', 'symbolic rewards incrementation', 'symbolic bonus packages'."
This is one of the real strengths of All The Things, the uncomfortable distortion of realism. This is not a plot driven work, unravelling mainly through terse exchanges between Tanya and the various cutely named people drifting in and out of her surroundings. A few continuous threads underpin the action- Tanya's "poisoned" Macbook which she perceives to be emitting some kind of unnameable toxic energy; a correspondence, both internal and actual, with two characters called Eggie and Cutlery Jane who seem to be deeply rooted in her past (siblings, parents, co-conspirators?); her fractious intimacy with Bonky. Between these, there is grim, ketamine-flavoured sex with dates met on Twitter, there is gossiping about some hot young Theory bro at a theory event, there is kissing a postman on the doorstep for no good reason other than boredom and loneliness.
Mostly there is Tanya, who is careening around her small habitat with furious abandon, willing cars to run her over as she rides her pushbike, willing them to take the responsibility for living from her, willing them to relieve her of carting all that flesh and bone around.
It's not just depicting futures that can be risky. Trying to represent a particular localised present can prove insurmountably self-referential and trite. There is something strangely dating about naming the technology we use in fiction, making Youtube and Grindr seem like they went out of date a hundred years ago. But here Harrison seems to be fully aware of the strange taste this can leave in a reader's mouth, and bats back and forth with herself about it. "Yoni, you need to stop speaking in netspeak, it comes off as fascist." Tanya yells to a friend at one point as she does an online yoga tutorial.
Space and its failings is a recurring theme. Tanya and Bonky move into their kitchen pantry in order to let the rest of their apartment on AirBnB. The cooped up mania of adults forced to live together for far too long is exaggerated to a hyper real degree. Tanya tries to get some sleep while the wet sounds and sharp pokes of Bonky fucking go on beside her. His boyfriend Bubs is reprimanded for shitting in a bucket under the bathtub. A performance art residency takes place in a toilet cubicle. The actual location they live in isn't made clear- it's generic enough to be any number of Western cities and it isn't the point anyway. That residency in the cubicle seems to me to be more to the point- these tiny acts of cultural territory-marking we engage in in these hopeless places, because what else is there to do?
The pain Tanya is in infuriates her because of its banality. We reach adulthood crippled by ludicrous traumas, historical slights, things we are aware are inadequate to explain away our rage. We suffer from our childhoods which are, as Harrison has it, "bland as hell, empty like violence nothing nothing nothing not a goddamn thing not a thing nothing nothing but white bread."
For all their bickering, when Bonky moves out of the pantry to live upstairs with his boyfriend, Tanya is lost and smashes every window, howling. I admired this most about All The Things - the ambivalent appreciation for the messed up alternatives to family we are all trying to forge now.
Text Megan Nolan