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VAS: An Opera in Flatland by Steve Tomasula

Sunday, July 1, 2012 § 0

The Science of Innovative Fiction: The Genetic Vertical Line of VAS: An Opera in Flatland

A Book Review by 
David Detrich


VAS: An Opera in Flatland (2002) by Steve Tomasula with book design by Stephen Farrell—published by Barrytown/Station Hill Press—is an innovative science fiction novel that considers the theme of modern genetics after the narrator, Square, contemplates a vasectomy to keep his wife, Circle, from experiencing any further miscarriages. For some unknown reason she has had trouble with pregnancy, and it might be a question of whether a baby is really wanted by the father whose views on science jeopardize the arrival of a baby. Written with innovative typographic design, VAS: An Opera in Flatland begins with a vertical line that represents an intertextual theme: a column guide that is centered on the blank space of the page to be filled in by the narrative logic of an intelligent narrator: a trend in science fiction that has kept it at the forefront of the innovative novel for the past few decades. Steve Tomasula has developed the themes of Edwin A. Abbott, who wrote Flatland: A Romance of Many Dimensions (1884), with the landscape of the novel existing in an unusual dimension of space where there is neither an upwards or a downwards direction. VAS: An Opera in Flatland (2002) by Steve Tomasula includes numerous quotations in variations of type fonts which make this novel an example of the new trend in innovative fiction that is both readable, and intelligible, with a narrative logic inspired by scientific investigation into the theories of modern genetics.

VAS: An Opera in Flatland begins with a series of quotations which become the interweaving of several narrative lines in this narralogue: a novel with an intellectual thesis that elaborates the scientific research that the narrator Square has been studying.

On The Nature of Flatland
Imagine a vast sheet of paper on which Straight Lines, Triangles, Squares, Pentagons, Hexagons and other figures move freely about, but without the power to rise above or sink below, and you will then have a pretty correct notion of my country and countrymen. 
                                                        Edwin A. Abbott
                                                        Flatland: A Romance 
                                                        of Many Dimensions 1884

The character names of Square, Circle, and Oval are abstractions that remind one of early modernism of Tristan Tzara and Pablo Picasso, where the characterization of geometrical forms creates a visualization that could be expressed as an abstract painting.

                                                        Bauhaus dimensions
                always made her face seem modern to Square,
                        symmetrical with her angular body unlike 
                          Ruben's puffy women. Likewise, Circle's 
                               wide smile, full lips were nothing like 
                                 the pinched mouths of Victorians, a 
                      heritage of genes giving her face and body 
                        proportions that happened to be in vogue 
                                     at their moment of history. A gift.
                                                      VAS: An Opera in Flatland
                                                      Steve Tomasula

The abstraction of character names also reminds one of the innovative novels 1998.6 (2002) by Matthew Roberson, and 98.6 (1975) by Ronald Sukenick, where the characterizations have followed the trend of abstract art: this branching out into a fine art context gives the 21st Century novel a sense of painterly inventiveness which calls for the reader to visualize the narrative.

                   ACT 1
                   A long time ago at a gay party in Paris, 
                   Alfredo falls in love with Violetta, a fallen
                   woman, and mistress of a baron (isn't it
                   interesting how both act are described as 
                  "falling"?).
                   But she only laughs at his youth and
                   seriousness (aria: Un dì felice, eterea) 
                   and dances the night away.
                                                     VAS: An Opera in Flatland
                                                     Steve Tomasula

The opera within the narrative involves the character Violetta who may be of romantic interest to the narrator, who has been noticeably unappreciative of his wife and child, even doing unflattering family portraits. His wife, Circle, has experienced a miscarriage, and perhaps it is because another child would not be wanted in this unpleasant situation. This is the beginning of the neurosis of the narrator, Square, who continues in his study of modern genetics, often finding unusual theories which call for the elimination of unwanted genetic groups, yet there is a certain beauty to his research.

                     Square stopped writing to look at the whorls
                        of his fingertips, little miracles of line, their 
                     repetition a swirling reification of his mother 
                    and father and their mothers and fathers and 
            their mothers and fathers... back through 125,000 
                generations to the ape, written in a language of 
                 four base letters of ACCT which combined into
                    words—CAC|ATA|ACC—the words forming 
                      double-helix sentences of genes which filled
                         pages of chromosomes within cells which 
                                            made up the book of his body. 
                                                      VAS: An Opera in Flatland
                                                      Steve Tomasula

From a lovable narrator who is writing about science in an intelligent way, Square becomes suspect when he studies unusual theories of genetics that create a rationale for the inhumanity of science to mankind based on genetic theories that led to the Fascism of World War II. Laws that called for forced sterilization, and the elimination of unwanted groups has driven the narrator a little insane: as if he is gradually giving in to these questionable rationales. This is where Square becomes a little psychotic with the fantasy of becoming a hero (committing a criminal act), and then finding himself on another world.

Before he realized what was happening, he was at the center of a crowd, having his back slapped in congratulations. The great crush of walkers who were trying to touch him began to move down the sidewalk, carrying him along. As they did, a whole new world opened all around: a world of joggers and mail carriers, and hikers. An organ grinder and his monkey tipped their fezzes in greeting. 
                                                      VAS: An Opera in Flatland
                                                      Steve Tomasula 

This story on colored paper within the novel is called A Pedestrian Story, and the narrator, Square, may be contemplating a crime after which he will hope to escape to another world. He has warned us that he is "serious" in his threats, and the reader is still not sure what type of crime the narrator is contemplating.

VAS: An Opera in Flatland is similar to my own novel-in-progress The Convergence of Two Narrative Lines Ascending, using typographic design with a vertical line signifying the column guides which align the text, and showing a similar thematic development that parallels my own novel in exact detail. The new trend in typographic design is also apparent in Only Revolutions (2006) by Mark Z. Danielewski, where the sophistication of double columns and poetic prose has produced a new generation of typographically designed innovative novels. 

VAS: An Opera in Flatland is expansive in style with variations in type font which extend the meaning of the sentence onto the space of the page in a way which further clarifies the idea into visible semantic structures.

The plot, however, is expansive, because it is spatially and graphically organized on the double register of the visual and the literal, both at work simultaneously, and both simultaneously engaging several, distinct materials on the same page.
                                                        Playing with Codes:
                                                        Steve Tomasula’s Vas: 
                                                        An Opera in Flatland
                                                        Cristina Iuli

VAS: An Opera in Flatland (2002) by Steve Tomasula is an exploration of modern genetics by a narrator who is gradually losing his sanity after reading genetic theories that have provoked the prejudice towards the unfortunate people of society that led to the Fascism of World War II. Science should be used for the well being of humanity, and the community should be protected from extreme interpretations of genetic theory, behavioral psychology, and law. The narrator of VAS: An Opera in Flatland experiences his own doubts about the validity of extreme science, and has produced a novel that is an investigation of the code of ethics, and the human values which give the human experience a sense of integrity and spiritual wisdom. As an innovative work of fiction VAS: An Opera in Flatland by Steve Tomasula takes the science fiction novel into the domain of the avant garde with an expansive narrative logic that reveals the psyche of the criminal scientific mind.

David Detrich lives in the Upper Peninsula of Michigan where he has just completed The Convergence of Two Narrative Lines Ascending, an ultramodern Surrealist novel written in minimal squares. This year he is working on Dream the Presence of the Circular Breast Starfish Topography, a monumental Surrealist novel written with innovative typographical design. His first novel Big Sur Marvels & Wondrous Delights (2001) is available from Amazon. He is the editor of Innovative Fiction Magazine and Surrealist Star Clustered Illuminations.

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