“The New and Improved Romie Futch” by Julia Elliott
Of the many excellent qualities this book possesses, my favorite might be the care author Julia Elliott takes with each character. She lovingly writes their darkest dreams, childhoods, hopes for the future, secret vices, and noble acts. She fleshes them out with nose hairs and birthmarks. Then, when they feel so real readers swear they can hear their beating hearts, she tosses in lines like this:
“Let’s draw straws to see who gets eaten.”
I am in red hot love with Tin House, this book’s publisher, and Romie Futch will show you why. The settings’ realism (a neglected southern town, a hipster-haven art gallery, the hunting blind from hell) grounds the sci-fi elements (brain downloads, mysterious biotech multinationals, genetically modified superhogs) and provides spaces for those wonderful characters to flourish. The subtexts of digital alienation and the meaning of identity in the postmodern era enrich this novel, but those who don’t understand or appreciate them can gloss over the words that had me reaching gleefully for the dictionary and enjoy this as an epic adventure in the line of Moby Dick (which is referenced explicitly) or a thriller kind-of-sort-of like The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo.
This book is far more well-written than the latter and significantly less dense than the former, and it’s much weirder than either of them alone or put together. If tangled conspiracies, existential crises, quasi-mythical beasts, and the hero’s journey interest you, it’s the kind of weird you’ll enjoy. At the same time, there is so much familiar here, from the middle-aged man pining for his ex wife and stymied by his inertia to the washed-up high school athlete turned vehicle salesman and the woman who cannot see past the child she doesn’t have, you’ll forget the premise of this book is built on a technology we don’t yet possess. You’ll read and recognize the bottle-strewn frat house Romie can see from his back yard, the mother lost to dementia, and the insufferably cool young people with the same haircuts populating the trendy eatery.
It is this familiarity amidst the deeply strange that makes this novel so special. The unsettling notion that these events occur in a world just a step beyond our own permeate every mundane act Romie carries out; the nearness of the surreal feels distinctly uncomfortable. Luckily, Elliott’s humor and charming turns of phrase temper the urge to toss the book across the room and check your skull for electrodes.
The New and Improved Romie Futch by Julia Elliott (Tin House Books | 9781941040157 | October 1, 2015)