Author Tama Janowitz has seen the future of America, and she recounts the poisonous, frightening chemical desolation in vivid detail in her new novel, They Is Us.
California has fallen into the Pacific. Mountains of garbage stand testament to rampant consumerism. Refuse, unavoidable, becomes an attraction. One particularly high mound is covered in melted rubber to create a kind of skate park. Huge amusement parks stand empty because no one can afford to visit them. Fuel is scarce—20-lane highways stand full of cars where their owners have abandoned them when they ran out of gas. Squatters have taken over and formed camps and communities around the vehicles. Jobs are scarce.
The novel opens with Murielle bringing her 13-year-old daughter, Julie, to a strip club to try to get a job. Murielle tells Julie to lie about her age and sends her in alone. Julie balks at the air of desperation in the reeking bar and is relieved to be turned away. She ends up working in a genetics lab where DNA is spliced to create new species. Scientists develop feathered rabbits in pastel colors and impossibly adorable (though ill-tempered) miniature lions. When a genetic combination fails or the animals are too weak to survive, they’re tossed in a dumpster (whether dead or not), and Julie rescues many of them. Bringing them home because she wants to help, she ends up with a totally illegal and completely bizarre menagerie in her basement.
Constant exposure to chemicals and pollution has made human genetic mutation and constant illness widespread and inevitable. Certain species have all but disappeared as their habitats have been sabotaged. Julie has never seen a bird of any sort despite living in a New Jersey suburb, until she sees a chicken kept by one of the families who live in the abandoned cars mentioned earlier.
Marketing ploys keep the struggling majority in America from gaining any ground in their constant drive for economic survival. Murielle despairs at an empty fridge, but is even more despondent over her outdated wardrobe when she wants to make a good impression. There’s a permanent sense in Janowitz’s story that all the characters have lost any control over their lives they might have had in the past. Wall-sized hologram TV sets are ubiquitous, and frequently taken over by the President, who is often accompanied by his fiancé, Scott. No one bats an eye at any mention of same sex marriage—possibly the only positive trend in a novel filled with toxic chemicals, scientific research used to fuel fashion trends, and hundred dollar rides on the transit system.
The President operates as a celebrity entertainment show host / home shopping network fixture / pundit all wrapped up into one—and if you attempt to change the channel, he’ll speak to you personally. ‘Don’t do it, Murielle, for only $19.95 you can…’
In the electronic store the President is having a press conference, which means that all one thousand channels, all are receiving the same thing: the President, saying, “And these are the countries we’ve helped to become Safe Democratic Homelands and these—” he points to the board on the right “—are the countries who are still waiting for us to liberate them. And now I am going to ask the American people to call in on our hotline, at 10 dollars a call, to help decide: which country do you think we should pick next? The money we as Americans spend will be used to repair the chosen land after we have fought and liberated them.”
“The chosen land”? Janowitz takes certain themes from today’s political climate and puts them under a microscope, zooming in on the ridiculous implications of trending policies. In the world outside the novel, more people in the US are playing video games than ever before, and the American education system is turning out high school grads who are unprepared to enter university. In They Is Us, if you can read, you’re a freak. “Generations of ancestors playing video games have frozen any ability to read.”
The narrative of the novel is fractured, with characters taking turns telling of their immediate experience, then left to disappear. Human relationships are strained as the world makes less and less sense. When Julie sees a chicken for the first time the people around are betting that it will lay an egg. An egg from a chicken? She thinks. How unnatural. Most food comes from labs, made of a protein that is later molded into recognizable shapes and textures.
They Is Us is illustrated sporadically with photographs of dolls, and small grainy images you might see in an outdated science textbook. Occasional poems and correspondence also break up the text. Frequently choppy visually as well as narratively, Janowitz delivers a doomsday scenario that balances the ridiculous, the inane, and the depressingly sinister possibility of a future that is worse than we can possibly imagine.