In The New and Improved Romie Futch, debut novelist Julia Elliott punches above her weight class, which is not to say that she can’t pull off the crackling inner life of a middle-aged, divorced, biologically enhanced taxidermist, but to say with admiration, she has.
The premise is ambitious: Romie Futch answers an online ad that begins, “Have you ever dreamed of being a genius?” The Center for Cybernetic Neuroscience in Atlanta, Georgia, is looking for men “between the ages of thirty-five and fifty-five, without coursework or degrees from four-year colleges or universities…to participate in an intelligence enhancement study.” It’s unclear what exactly will happen—“Subjects will undergo a series of downloads via direct brain-computer interface”—but Romie doesn’t have much to lose. His ex-wife has just changed her “E-Live” status to IN A RELATIONSHIP; he’s falling headlong into alcoholism and Xanax addiction; he’s completely unmotivated and behind on his taxidermy work, not to mention in debt. He needs the money, but more than that, he needs a do-over.
The enigmatic Dr. Morrow presides over the downloads, pumping Romie’s brain full of the Oxford English Dictionary and Roget’s Thesaurus, followed by The Art of Rhetoric, Bullfinch’s Mythology, Rhetorica ad Herennium, and The Bedford Anthology of World Literature. Each download session throws him into a flashback-blackout, allowing the reader glimpses of Romie before he was new and improved, falling in love with Helen, his high school sweetheart, and watching his mother dissolve into Pick’s disease, an aggressive, early-onset form of dementia. Romie’s vocabulary multiplies exponentially and each download flips another lens in front of his eyes, sharpening his life into pretty harsh focus.
He makes friends with his fellow test subjects, comparing notes on each new download as they absorb Judith Butler’s Gender Trouble and Michel Foucault’s Discipline and Punish. “We had shit to talk. Our brains were on fire. And we still had at least a hundred downloads to go before reaching full cognitive capacity (FCC).
‘Fuck that punk Derrida,’ said Trippy. ‘Got game in his flow but no heat.’”
Did I mention how funny Elliott is? She is sharp. She clearly delights in performing linguistic triple axels, planting allusions like Easter eggs throughout. (At one point Romie thinks to himself, “The waitstaff move[s] to and fro, talking of Michael Cera and JLo.”) It’s mostly enjoyable, but I can also see how it could become exclusionary and frustrating. There were whole paragraphs that I skated right over, happily oblivious to Romie’s poetic references. The feeling of alienation serves a purpose. As jam-packed as this book is, it’s difficult to find an extraneous thread.
Elliott has wrestled several enormous themes into one novel in a way that feels just a hair shy of critical mass. Romie—full name Roman—was married to Helen. He undergoes a brain transformation at the hands of Dr. Morrow (Dr. Moreau?), then goes on to narrate his loneliness like Frankenstein’s monster. Back at home in South Carolina, he loses a finger to a genetically modified Hogzilla, sending him into a hunting frenzy that he is self-aware enough to recognize as Ahab-level obsessive. The English major in me is dying to write a paper.
While a lot happens in this book—I’ve barely made it to the halfway point with this summary—the impact comes in subtler ways. Romie’s fellow townies, Chip and Lee, who are presented on the very first page as his oldest friends, appear smaller and simpler after his enhancement. They can’t understand his references; he can’t understand their complacency. His new facility with words actually makes it harder to communicate with the people who knew the old, pre-improved Romie Futch.
He writes and rewrites, but never sends, a series of text messages to Helen: “You’ve internalized your status as Other…Why do you succumb to the socially prescribed role of cheerleader to a privileged white male?” And the grand finale: “you probably look down your nose at taxidermists now that you’re dating a possum-faced pen pusher and patron of the arts who wouldn’t know real art if it crawled up his butthole and painted Sistine Chapel frescoes on the inside of his rectum.”
Education, which we’ve collectively accepted as the path to success, actually makes Romie’s life more difficult, opening up a yawning chasm between him and the people in his life. Class issues are so obvious that they go unmentioned by our otherwise eagle-eyed narrator, which only serves to heighten their importance. Romie lives close to GenExcel, a sinister lab compound surrounded by a moat of security fencing. A client brings a new kill to his taxidermy shop: a mutant rat with a human eye looking out from the middle of its furry back. When Romie asks the local backwoods vagrant—the novel’s patron saint of old world experience over new world education—about the freakish rats, Jarvis Riddle tells him, “‘Sign of the end-time.’
‘My best educated guess says product testing: no-tears shampoo, waterproof mascara, that kind of thing.’”
The question left dangling in the air is, if the region’s animals are so horribly affected by the lab, what must it be doing to the human population? And is it any real coincidence that it’s located in a poor, rural part of the state, in a poor, rural part of the country?
Acquired knowledge is cold comfort, especially when it’s the cause of so many new doubts. When you’ve been opened up to countless new perspectives, it makes one’s own perspective looks rather insignificant. This push-pull runs throughout the book, pitting the power of ideas against that of experience. Man vs. nature. Man vs. science. Art vs. science. The novel is undoubtedly an argument for the power of education, but just as strongly a condemning of the academy, a town and gown rivalry inside Romie himself.
While still at the Center for Cybernetic Neuroscience, Romie is asked to write an essay on three pieces of fiction that “described subjected creatures brainwashed by authority figures of questionable objectivity.” At first he’s jazzed by the thought of digging into such a meaty prompt, but then he realizes that “the test designers were mocking my own recently acquired sense of postmodern self-reflexivity…Those smug little bastards!” Romie seethes. “I could see them as adolescents, talking smack to their poorly paid private-school teachers—these privileged bastards who could afford to blow two hundred thou of parental funds on fucking humanities degrees. These coddled creatures who dabbled in Marxism. These dog-walking brunch eaters who piddled with essays on the alterity of the colonized.”
Education—at least higher education—isn’t a right. It’s a luxury. As much as I don’t want to believe it, it’s true. Over three years teaching freshman composition at UMass-Amherst, from 2011 to 2014, I taught more pre-med, engineering, and business majors than any other, and I can remember only one student who planned to major in English. It hurt, definitely, to have a classroom full of bright eighteen year-olds who believed that a humanities major would be useless. To them, useless meant debt without the possibility of repayment, a degree that didn’t translate directly into a qualified applicant.
Romie’s predicament is similar. He returns to his old job, house, debts, addictions, with more knowledge, but not many tools to pull himself out of it. He finds purpose in the pursuit of Hogzilla, which he plans to be the centerpiece of his taxidermy sculptural exhibit, and which gives the novel an action-packed second act. When all is said and done, Romie is absolutely new and improved, much more likeable and relatable after he’s been pumped full of books. Whether his life will be new and improved is the better question.