Ofelia Hunt is the author of My Eventual Bloodless Coup (Bear Parade). She lives in Portland, Oregon. This is her first novel.
"This book would like to give you an ice cream, but you will have to get in the van."
"The ironic is a mere ancient whisper in this torqued narrative: its odd violence feels true. Today & Tomorrow crashes through the windows of strip malls and paints the hypertrophic aisles with bristly-creepy hilarity."
"Ofelia Hunt is the balladeer of the doe-eyed detrivores of over-stimulation. Within Today & Tomorrow, readers find the fried and the frayed nerves in the youth of the Hyperworld. All will be well, America, as long as the rims keep spinning and Hunt keeps writing."
Sorry for the radio silence, everybody. Today we have a special five-part guest post from Amber Nelson that takes a scientific approach to T&T, and manages along the way to connect the novel to Susan Sontag and Buffy the Vampire Slayer. Definitely a must read!
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T&T: Robots, the Scientific Method, & Dying
1. Ask a Question
In season 4 of Buffy the Vampire Slayer, we are introduced to a new villain: Adam. Adam is a scientifically engineered monster–part man, and part bits of various monsters–a modern-day Frankenstein’s monster. When he wakes, he kills his creator and goes out into the world. In the world he meets a boy. He asks the boy “What am I?” and the boy says, “A monster.” And he asks “What are you?” and the boy says “I’m a boy.”
In Today & Tomorrow, we are without a mystical guardian endowed with the strength and speed to slay all the monsters. Instead, we have an unnamed narrator on her birthday. A curious girl. Throughout the novel, we frequently flashback to certain memories.
“I’m a taxidermist.” He turned away. “I know what taxidermy is.”
“You should stuff people,” I said.
“You should kill people and stuff them and put them in life-like poses in their homes. Like a serial killer. You could murder and stuff whole families and arrange them carefully in their homes. You know, life-size dioramas–like playing Monopoly or eating a home-cooked meal–meat-loaf, or fish-sticks–or arguing about what TV shows to watch. You could be famous, the taxidermurder.”
“Why would I want that?”
“Why does anyone want anything?” I picked up my audio-tour head-phones and placed them on the taxidermist’s head. (70)
Our narrator asks a simple question. Why does anyone want anything. As human beings, we don’t need much–water, shelter, food, etc. And yet we want so much. But to ask the question also admits to lack–she doesn’t understand her humanbeingness. People do want things. Even our narrator mediates her experiences and observations around desire. Early on in the book, she admires Julia, the pretty WalMart cashier’s, arms. “I want to remove Julia’s arms and place them on my body and wear them like I’m Julia and like Julia’s arms are my arms.” (7)
And somehow, despite her living in the world going to McDonalds and AM/PM and drinking coffee, she is apart from the world.
[Merna, the sister, says] “Tell her about your work. Are you in school? We don’t know anything about you. Be a person. Send an email. A card, with pictures. Anything.”
“What do you mean? Be a person? What could you possibly mean? I’m not a person? What am I?” (155)
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Mother was a behavioral-psychologist. She worked at a university research facility with other psychologists and a thousand white mice and mazes and little white sound-proof rooms. She often told me about the white soundproof-rooms. “We keep the mice in there,” she’d say. “I wish I had a room like that. I’d take you with me to the soundproof-room…and stay there until all you can hear is your body-sounds, like your heart and lungs, your pumping blood, your lungs holding air like a machine, you know?” (76)
Several times throughout the novel there is reference to the human as robot, the body as machine, our narrator comparing various body parts to machines or robot parts. That, coupled with her violent fantasies and lies, her awkwardness in social situations, diverting attention away from feelings or talking about feelings, I can’t help but be reminded of The Sarah-Connor Chronicles. In this (really atrocious) television show based on the Terminator, Summer Glau (of Firefly fame) plays Cameron, a newer version of the Terminator model sent back by old John Connor to protect young John Connor from the evil Skynet and their evil robots. But Cameron, while she looks human, is often awkwardly not. She has to fake it to get by in a human world and without attracting unwanted attention. Because she lacks a true understanding of human emotions and human social interactions, she makes several amusing guffaws. And yet, it’s in those amusing guffaws that the character does manage to express some kind of feeling, some kind of struggle. She tries to appear more human, and she tries to understand these human feelings. At one point, there is even a reference to her being “in love” with John Connor (and he with her).
Our narrator is not actually a robot (so far as we know). But she does seem, in her interactions with other people, conspicuously uncomfortable, awkward, wrong. And in being this way, she makes other people uncomfortable.
So she’s left with that question “Am I not a person?”
She has family: sister, stepmom/grandmother, grandfather, memories of an absent mother and father and sister. She also has two “lovers.” One lover, Erik/Todd, calls her “so fucking hot” and mentions her tits. She has desires, like going to Lisbon, holding up an AM/PM, Julia’s arms. She has memory. She lies.
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3. Construct a Hypothesis
“It’s good. You’re a good person,” Merna says. “You can be a person.” (155)
Being a human can simply mean being a homo sapien– a sack of skin, bones, organs and viscera. Being a good person often has more to do with how you deal with conflict, struggle.
“Well.” Grandfather watches television for a little while. “I think it’s comforting to know that things have an end, small scale, lives etc…, and also large scale, world, universe. It’s good to know that things end completely.” (83)
Her grandfather is sick. He’s dying. Imminently. And while this may be a comfort to him, how does somebody who questions whether they are a person try to understand what it means to die–something with which people who are comfortable in their personhood struggle to come to terms?
It’s our narrator’s birthday. “On birthdays I always feel closer to death,” Merna says. (152)
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It’s clear, throughout the novel, that our narrator is a liar. But that does not mean there is no truth in the narrative. As Susan Sontag says in Regarding the Pain of Others “Memory has altered the image, according to memory’s needs.” And memory is one of the most direct ways that our narrator’s particular…eccentricities… are revealed in their true form: as complexities.
I was eight. A car had hit the raccoon, bisected it. The little raccoon-legs still shivered and pulled forwardly as though, through raccoon-persistence, it could drag its bleeding half-body to the field beyond the road. I thought I should hurry home, half-raccoon slung over my shoulder, place it in Mother’s hands or Merna’s–hand it to Grandfather maybe, beg him to repair the raccoon, to reassemble it with superglue, rivets, a rivet gun, to get the power-drill from the garage, to drill clean holes through which we could reconnect the raccoon with rope or string, steel wire, something, to sew the raccoon-pieces into one perfect whole, maybe, to resurrect it. I poked the half-raccoon with a stick, flipped it, inspected its fleshy holes and jagged misshapen bones, its little pink muscle-tears and everywhere the thick black blood. I understood that death was normal, boring, particularly for raccoons, and imagined my body bisected, just as the raccoon was, little arms twitching forwardly, a girl in a pink corduroy jumper slowly poking me with a stick, transfixed as a half-lung oozed from my open abdomen. I heard a little gasp. It was Anastasia and Anastasia was small with long brown pigtails, her white crepe dress crinkled near the sleeves and around the lacy hem. Anastasia’s mouth was open, her eyes little black dots. “I found it,” I said. “It’s our new pet.” I poked the half-raccoon again. “Come look. It’s a mutant raccoon. Look at it’s funny waving legs. Look here, what should we name her?” Anastasia stood next to me, hands clasped before her. “We should operate,” I said. “We’ll call it Flossy, make an experiment. Play with the raccoon-muscles and the lungs and heart and stuff. Remove the lungs, collect lungs, petrify them, put them in formaldehyde, keep lungs, and livers maybe, hearts, petrified in jars on your bookshelf. You’d like that, wouldn’t you? the formaldehyde-smell. We could make our own shelves for them. We could eat them. Or take the lungs, sew them together. An experiment, so we can discover things about lungs.” (133)
It’s a long excerpt, I know, but important. While her tone is almost cavalier, apathetic, it is not. As Sontag says, “The states described as apathy, moral or emotional anesthesia, are full of feelings; the feelings are rage and frustration.” Our narrator isn’t the kid shooting squirrels and torturing cats. Here, we glimpse our narrator as a little girl facing death for the first time, grappling with what it means to die. She wants to study death to understand.
Let’s go back to Adam, from Buffy. After the little boy calls him a monster, Adam ends up slaughtering the little boy. He cuts him open and hangs him from a tree, investigating the boy’s insides, trying to understand what makes something human.
Our narrator doesn’t actually cut anybody up. But we do see this attempt to understand through her rich fantasy life.
…instead I imagine slaughtering a small white kitten, a dozen white kittens, carefully cutting small kitten-pieces and placing the kitten-pieces in a large silver bowl, a billion kitten-pieces from a million kittens. Worldwide suffering must be like that, incremental and ongoing. (88)
It’s not a simple desire for violence. It’s the less simple desire for understanding. It’s observing something, gathering data and constructing a hypothesis.
“Merna’s hand touches my shoulder and we’re touching slowly and tenderly. Strange and human, I think. Strangely, I think. “Human,” I say.” (181)
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5. Analyze Data
In the end, Today & Tomorrow is a book about understanding, a book that asks questions in an attempt to understand what it means to be human, and so also what it means to live and to die.
“Artistic expression and stuff. I wanted to show the ‘innate ephemerality’ of the human-body as object.'” (142)
She is a person. She feels. She has fantasies. She eats. She sleeps. She can be injured.
But in the end, she is changed. She maybe learned something.
The body doesn’t move and the room temperature doesn’t change. There’s no sound and I don’t think or want anything. I watch the digital-clock. I slowly lie next to Grandfather. I look at the body. I close my eyes. (252)