Once Human: Stories

By Steve Tomasula


March 2014

Reviewed by Yuriy Tarnawsky


Once Human: Stories is Steve Tomasula's first book after the fascinating TOC: A New Media Novel (2009), in which his carefully lathed prose dovetailed seamlessly with art, animation, and music provided by different artists. In his new collection, Tomasula describes for us a world that at first glance seems a sequel to Aldous Huxley's Brave New World where "brave" has been replaced by "strange," but which gradually, as you read the book, looks more and more familiar. It is because it resembles what is around us so much that we realize in the end it is our own. It is as if we have put on a pair of eyeglasses we have never tried before and it has taken our eyes a while to adjust to them to see clearly. The eyeglasses are Tomasula's insight into what our world has become, and in the end we must conclude that our eye(in)sight has indeed deteriorated badly and that we should be thankful to him for helping us see well.

Once Human consists of nine stories, ranging from eleven pages to over fifty. Some of the longer ones read more like novellas than short stories, focusing on character development rather than on the telling of a story. An aura of profound yearning for something dear that has been lost forever unites them into a tightly structured work that resembles if not a novel, then a discourse on a common theme—that of the loss of humanity. The source of the world's humanity used to be the humanity of each of us, but the latter has been lost in the process of industrialization, automation, globalization, and all the other "-ations" which define our civilization. Our world is like that epitome of successful corporate evolution, a marvel of Scandinavian efficiency—IKEA—and we are like the carefully designed, produced, labeled, and packaged items it offers its customers, waiting to be bought, picked up, and assembled by the life that awaits us, if it decides to do it. In the central piece of the collection, the shortest one, called "WeKEA," Tomasula says that we resemble the meat patty, which is composed of beef from fourteen countries, that you can lunch on inexpensively in the chain's cafeteria: "it's difficult to say how we, who were once human, got here from there, or where here [. . .] or there is." All of the stories in Once Human take place in the United States, but we know that the countries in the rest of the world are now the same as ours and that Tomasula's book is about all seven billion of us who now tread the globe—it is about the whole world, the United World of IKEA.

Here are some of the denizens of this world, our close and distant neighbors and perhaps ourselves:

Luke, in "C-U-See-Me,"—a former FBI agent who works as an investigator at a pharmacy chain installing and monitoring surveillance equipment. His world is that of endless strings of alphabet characters and numbers generated by cash register transactions and flickering monitor screens with blurry-faced phantom figures wafting through them. Hooked on spying and being spied upon, he exercises naked in his living room, watching and being watched by a naked hippy artist painting a mural on the wall in the apartment across the courtyard.

In "The Color of Pain and Suffering," there are Tomasz, a Croatian immigrant artist who works at an agency that prepares medical illustrations of accident injuries for court exhibits, and his American girlfriend Alice, an assistant in an agency that produces TV ads. Having brought over vestiges of his old-world attitudes from his home country, Tomasz has a hard time accepting the ease with which Alice deals with morals and facts and he grows progressively more jealous of her relationship with her supervisor. After their apparent breakup, he attends a trial, the outcome of which will be determined by which of the two sets of illustrations he did for the prosecution and the defense is deemed to be more convincing.

Jim, in "Self Portrait(s)"—a biology lab technician whose duties include killing mice used in experiments by snapping their spines, and his coworker and lover Mary, six years his senior, an artist who was forced by her parents to study biology instead of art and who makes art using the cloning technology she employs in her daily work. ("She hadn't made a painting in years; no artist she took seriously did," Tomasula casually observes.) She has won the Tokyo Prize for a synthetic gene sequence of amino acids that spell out "LET MAN HAVE DOMINION OVER ALL THE PLANTS AND ANIMALS OF THE WORLD" and is planning a new piece called "Resurrection" in which she will use her own egg, Jim's sperm, and junk DNA from Christ's foreskin claimed to be owned by thirteen churches in the area.

And then there are E., obviously for "Ernest," and C., presumably for "Catherine," the main characters in the final story, "Farewell to Kilimanjaro," a fictionalized account of the last days of Ernest Hemingway, who hasn't committed suicide back in 1961 but instead lives on at an assisted living institution someplace in California called Kilimanjaro for the Aged, Inc. He's attended to by C., a rehab nurse who has fallen in love with him. Skillfully splicing passages from "The Snows of Kilimanjaro" and A Farewell to Arms with his own text patterned on Hemingway, not unlike Mary, the biologist-artist who mixes different DNA in a single cell, Tomasula creates a moving account of a terminally ill person's fading away with a sad lament for a dying culture.

Sitting in his wheelchair, E. watches television to the sounds of the gurgling of his colostomy bag. Turning his head away in disgust, he can see through the window vultures "squatting obscenely" in the parking lot outside and circle in the sky above, casting shadows on the cars below. In the evening there is the "Circus of Celebrities" on TV and the vultures make themselves comfortable for the night in a nearby mimosa tree. The hyena comes by to check out the situation.

When death finally comes, it stinks like the hyena in "The Snows of Kilimanjaro" and sits down heavy on his chest so that he can't move. The pilot of the plane that takes him to the Mayo Clinic in the morning is Compton from the Hemingway story and in the long flight there, with a detour to the East Coast that he decides to make on the spur of the moment, Tomasula shows us what has become of America: plains of Taco Bells and McDonalds and Walmarts and Midas Muffler shops as far as the eye can see; Las Vegas as the cultural capital of the land; texts that aren't books; the beginning of History as fiction and the end of Literature as art; a land where there is writing, but not Literature.

At the clinic E. is hooked up to a life-support machine that sounds like a hyena. He will "remain this way indefinitely, a living corpse to be poked and examined by doctoral students, archivists, and the curious as [he] struggles with his ending."

It is a cheerful prospect and a depressing fact.

As was the case with TOC, Once Human is composed in a carefully-structured language Tomasula modifies for each story so that it molds itself smoothly against the subject it tells. As was said, in "Farewell to Kilimanjaro" it is patterned on the language of Hemingway. In "The Color of Pain and Suffering" and "Self Portrait(s)" it is the language of straightforward third-person narrations, which is what the two stories are.

In Once Human, Tomasula impresses not only with his literary skills but also with the range of his knowledge. These stories deal with such diverse topics as literature, art, Medieval history, foreign languages, surveillance techniques, the operation of chain stores, advertising agencies, TV commercials, cloning techniques, commercial logistics, sociological studies, the immigrant Chinese crime world, and a few more. I don't know where all this knowledge comes from, but you can't simply download it from the internet.

Does it mean we have a contemporary Renaissance man in our midst? Maybe there is hope for humanity in our times after all.