The New and Improved Romie Futch
By Julia Elliot
Tin House Books, 2015
388 pages, $15.95
Reviewed by Nick Sweeney
There’s something about seeing an animal have the space to maneuver. Seeing a bird in a cage or a fish in a tank, regardless of how beautiful it is, only shows short bursts of its full and incredible nature. There are always glimpses of what could be. Julia Elliot did that in her first short story collection, The Wilds, released last year. She created worlds and characters that moved beautifully in the dimensions of the short story. Her new novel, The New and Improved Romie Futch, breaks down the cage and wreaks havoc like few debut novels truly can. The journey of our hero, the good intentioned yet overly reckless Romie Futch, is one that many readers are familiar with and yet Julia Elliot creates new expectations—similar to the genetic mutations included in the novel—that will keep the reader silent and still until the very last page.
The novel opens up with our protagonist in need of something, anything, to do and regain the respect of someone he once knew and loved. Seems simple enough. Vague and mysterious online ads certainly adds some intrigue. Would you do this?
HAVE YOU EVER DREAMED OF BEING A GENIUS?
I could almost year Crystal’s husky voice whispering into my ear: What’s the universe trying to tell you, Romie?
I clicked and read with a crazy sense of fate:
Males between the ages of thirty-five and fifty-five, without coursework or degrees from four-year colleges or universities, are invited to participate in an intelligence enhancement study at the Center for Cybernetic Neuorscience in Atlanta, GA. Testing period starts on June 30 and ends on August 15. Subjects will undergo a series of pedagogical downloads via direct brain-computer interface. Subjects will receive $6,000 compensation—$4,000 upon finishing a series of bioengineered artificial intelligence transmissions and $2,000 upon completing follow-up tests. Travel expenses paid. Room and board provided. Serious inquires only. Contact Matthew Morrow, MD, PhD, 404.879.4857, firstname.lastname@example.org.
This is the calling, this is the hook that gets Romie, and the reader for that matter, interested. Julia Elliot is able to mix reality and fiction in such a way that blurs the line almost completely. Romie is a beaten down soul, a man with little ambition and control over his own life. It’s not to say that he’s locked into anything—quite the opposite actually. He is in physical and emotional freefall and this posting is his chance to change that. In many ways, it does. He becomes a savant in every way, the “perfect” thinker. But some things are better left untouched, and as Ian Malcolm once said in Jurassic Park: “Yeah, yeah, but your scientists were so preoccupied with whether or not they could that they didn’t stop to think if they should.” In many ways, this quote can apply to many aspects of this novel: the characters actions and intentions, the exploration of science, and the need for us to do the right thing.
Julia Elliot knows how to make a scene, both figuratively and literally. The first line is a staple of all her fiction: “On a Friday evening in June, stoked by the awesome weather, Chip, Lee, and I were doing tequila shots on the patio of Noah’s Ark Taxidermy. Out on the blood-spattered bricks, we talked about old times—when we’d skip biology and get baked in the parking lot of Swamp Fox High.” She creates characters that are real for the story, characters that all serve a purpose but at the same time are not contained to the perimeters of the story within the covers. There are Romie’s drinking buddies: Chip and lee; the somewhat Frankenstein-like scientist Doctor Morrow and his assistants Josh and Chole; the experiment volunteers code-named BAITs: Needle, Vernon, Irvin Mood, and Trippy and most importantly, Helen, the Helen in more ways than one for it is her that starts an Iliad like war between Romie and a fellow experiment known on the internet as Hogzilla. Helen, the queen of rising action. There are others, varying in importance, but Julia makes sure to give them significance in a world filled where they are by and large insignificant. She gives light to the people treading water in one way or another.
While many have, and will continue to, compare Julia Elliot to the likes of Karen Russel, that Swamplandia and the Center of Cybernetic Neuroscience are probably in the same area code, there is evidence that Elliot is digging deeper into literature. This story beckons Frankenstein and Moby Dick, fueled by sugar, a wealth of knowledge from the humanities, and of a man who must either live to own expectations or that set forth for him. He must hunt the beast and give himself purpose, much like Ahab and the White Whale. By the end of the novel, Romie has the chance; he’s allowed to act or not act depending on what he wants to do. Agency is one heck of a thing. Russell is brought up begrudgingly because Elliot deserves, rightfully so, to stand on her own accomplishments. This isn’t a slight towards Russell or Elliot, both should be read widely. This is continuing a new form of blurred fiction, the kind that hits on the corners of genre and sticks with a deeper meaning. This is the kind of thing we need to see more. Early on, Romie tells himself that it will all work out, that “It’ll be okay, Romie. You’ll make good in the end.” Whether his choice to hunt down and expose BioFutures is the right one, readers know it’s his choice and not Elliot’s to make. There is a future, one to be made on our own time and not dictated to us.