They Is Us by Tama Janowitz

theyisusCautionary tale of America’s apocalyptic future

Sunday Business Post, 01 March 2009

America may have elected its new president and laid the foundations of its future on a wave of hope – but, as Tama Janowitz’s fascinating and prophetic new novel warns us, its situation may already be hopeless.

Set at the end of the 21st century, a few years after the US has lost a major war with Palestine and Syria, They Is Us centres on one family’s existence in the polluted remains of what was once New Jersey.

An emotionally vulnerable single mother, Murielle is raising her young teenage girls in the rundown suburb, which now sits at the edge of a huge toxic swamp.

Fifteen-year-old Tahnee is the family beauty, but her younger sister, Julie, has all the brains and sensitivity, which she puts to good use in her summer job at a nearby biochemical plant. Here, she feeds and tends some of the bizarre mutant results of animal hybrid experiments, and even rescues some discarded or dying specimens, including feathered rabbits and a cross-bred dog which her beloved, but absent, father, Slawa, has trained to talk.

On a one-off visit to his daughter at the plant, he liberates some giant ‘SloMo’ flies with potentially hazardous consequences. In addition to her secret basement menagerie, Julie also harbours a ghostly imaginary friend, Sue Ellen, who manifests herself as a puddle in the corner of her room and steals food from the family fridge.

Through this dysfunctional family’s actions, Janowitz‘s vision of an apocalyptic America becomes stark and frighteningly tangible. The novel’s subtitle, ‘A Cautionary Horror Story’, shows its real purpose: that we ignore climate change, media manipulation, genetic modification and our superpowers’ military machinations and moral corruption at our peril.

This America, which has just voted in a gay president whose wedding is being piped into every home, is a land where people no longer open their front doors, where beaches are polluted wastelands, snow falls in August, traffic jams last for days and car parks have three-week waiting lists. The last remnants of those born in the 20th century now reside in care homes where they are chained to walls through their nose piercings and become sadly nostalgic for Soft Cell songs

It’s a future where a new lower-class of American citizen eats hideously flavoured ‘‘processed cellulose texture products” and have already forgotten what honey is, because there are no longer any bees; some now make crunchy cockroach snacks because some latent memory means they rejoice in eating ‘‘something that was alive”.

As the plot beats along at a ferocious pace, the characters branch out towards their various destinies: lovelorn Murielle naively entrusts Tahnee to her deceitful new boyfriend; Julie’s innocent actions get her embroiled in terrorism; meanwhile, Slawa himself plots his own new form of apocalypse. Taking in fresh forms of religious extremism and the relentless dismantling of a nation’s morality, almost nothing about this imagined future is welcome or even vaguely comforting.

While there are obvious shades of Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World, Janowitz peppers her vision with Orwellian flourishes; personal information is stored in microchips inserted into the ear and the public receive skewed fiction and partisan propaganda via wall-sized ‘hologramovisions’, through which viewers are also addressed by name.

Language has also degenerated into bursts of whooping and gibberish, while new forms of narcotic, like Tahnee’s beloved ‘steet’, exist to further blur reality.

Grim though these possible circumstances may seem in 2009, Janowitz’s engrossing and flamboyant tale conveys a darkly humorous sense that humanity will simply get on with life as it has always done. And that really is the best form of hope They Is Us can offer.

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