Steve Tomasula's IN & OZ

Alex Flesher

In Steve Tomasula’s geographically ambiguous locale called OZ, there are no yellow-brick roads, no munchkins, and no witches, wicked or otherwise. Perhaps more frightening than cackling hags, though, there are “connoisseurs” of elevator music. In OZ, Vanilla is called “Crema de Las Angelitas,” and all books are “devoted to the beauty of Auto.” The counterpart locale in this dystopian world is called IN, where just across the bridge myriad factories and plants plume up a thick haze of smog, where “carcinogenic” is among the most useful words, and where “The Tractor Trailer is King, and the Mobile Home Queen.” Tomasula presents twenty-seven brief scenes from this world with an alarmingly distinctive style that avoids many of the pitfalls of contemporary fiction which tend to invite the label “experimental” as a kind of bitter afterthought. Rather, utilizing a breadth of innovative techniques, Tomasula has produced a unique, thought-provoking allegory about the role of art, artists, and artifice in the modern world.

IN & OZ is Tomasula’s fourth novel, and is a relative departure from his works like VAS: An Opera in Flatland, in which artwork, diagrams, and illustrations are a more prevalent, integral part of the narrative. Tomasula’s work has been called a “reinvention of the novel” for his trademark style—crossing written and visual genres to create a fresh and exciting reading experience.

Tomasula’s characters, whether from IN or OZ, suffer similar identity crises, feeling out of place within their jobs, their social class, or as artists at their particular cultural juncture. This struggle is manifested even in the names of the characters: Designer, Composer, Photographer, Poet (Sculptor), and Mechanic, the protagonist from IN who has a sudden epiphany while in his shop beneath a car, gazing up into its underbelly:

Though he had seen gears like this thousands of times before, it had never once occurred to him how eloquently their polished metal teeth explained his life: their mesh and power ratios may as well have been engineers, and foundry men, all on a shaft, with machinists, and mechanics, as his father had been, and the farmers and cooks, as his mother had been, who fed the factory workers, and highway builders who made it possible for everyone to get to jobs that brought into existence the need for marvels such as cars which needed transmissions which needed gears which needed him.

Shaken by this mystical experience, Mechanic begins "repairing" customers’ cars by re-mounting transmissions upside down, welding wheels to roofs, or welding doors to the bottoms of frames, in hopes that his customers might be able to grasp the “essence of Auto” as he had. These radical aesthetic tactics are recognized by two artists named Photographer and Composer, who hail him a genius, as they too embrace what one might call anti-art, composing silent symphonies and single-framed "films," respectively.

They, like Mechanic, aim to reveal the logistics underlying their craft, perhaps to inspire in observers a new way of looking, of listening—a way of interrogating experience that applies not only to the sights and sounds of elevator music and Autos, but to society as well. In an interview about the novel, Tomasula compares elevator music and wallpaper, saying, “It could be art, but usually it’s just decoration or background entertainment to hide the elevator’s mechanics, all the ugly parts that are doing the actual work.” Much the same could be said about the world of IN & OZ, where there exists a literal geographic separation effectively hiding the desolate industrial underworld of IN, the “ugly parts that are doing the actual work,” from the highly artificial, consumer-centric metropolis of OZ.

Tomasula’s style amplifies this theme, as he, the novelist (or shall we say Novelist), at times draws attention to the artificiality of the book itself, as when Mechanic takes a job as a tollbooth operator, the phrase “$1.00” is repeated continuously for four full pages. Tomasula contends that these kinds of passages “are meant less to be read than to call attention to the fact that the book [readers] are holding in their hands is a real object,” though the other uses of “$1.00” throughout the chapter function rather in a way that seems fruitful for the story. As the chunks of repetition appear interspersed throughout the narrative text of the chapter, often there are varying degrees of white space between each instance of “$1.00,” perhaps representing small deviations in the experience of each mundane transaction, concretely depicting a certain rhythm of consciousness—one that will surely not be lost on anyone who has worked within the banalities of such a service industry.

Throughout the novel, and especially when teasing out the reality behind certain absurdities permeating OZ’s culture, Tomasula’s prose recalls Donald Barthelme’s playfulness and acute attention to language, at once revealing and hilarious. He catalogues a few different versions of women’s jeans: “The Flare (Slung Way Way Low), The Boyfriend (The Relaxed Comfort of His Jeans), The Curve (Show Off YourS)…,” as well as describes Mechanic’s woefully ignorant customers, who, “with the erudition of medieval peasants on the topic of thermodynamics explained to Mechanic the symptoms of a slack timing chain by imitating a spastic tic.”

Some readers may find the novel’s tone a bit too didactic, as it seems to lack some of the subtlety of a comparable allegory like Orwell’s Animal Farm. After one of Photographer’s diatribes on his personal aesthetic philosophy, the narrator explains, “Mechanic always felt humbled by Photographer’s learning and ability to seize on the precise essence of a problem.” Or when Designer, seeking freshness, newness in her life and work, thinks back to a conversation with Composer, the narrator asks,

But what could she possibly get that didn’t come from a store and could shake up her work?

She snapped her fingers when it came to her: Art!—as Composer had said all along.

Despite this, IN & OZ may have permanently expanded the possibilities of the novel and presents a compelling take on aesthetics and its impact on society. Or perhaps it’s the other way around, as Mechanic, in a history museum, ponders his own history—how, had he not been the son of a mechanic, he might have been something else entirely, “And it astounded him to think that something so central to his being could be so arbitrary— Could it be the same for whole cities? Whole nations?”

Alex Flesher lives in Iowa City.

Steve Tomasula
University of Chicago Press, April 2012
$16 paperback, ISBN: 9780226807447
152 pages, with an afterward by Pawel Frelik

E-book also available ($7.00 to $16.00 from U. Chicago Press; March 2012)