Steve Tomasula, IN & OZ, University of Chicago Press, 2012
Reviewed by Adam Kullberg
I must say: Steve Tomasula's IN & OZ is a scintillating striptease of a novel. Set in a surreally familiar world divided into two cities—IN (a factory-laden, smog-filled wasteland described as a "brown stain on the horizon" where rain doesn't fall, but "slicks" with oily residue) and OZ (a plush, shimmering, faux-beacon of modernity, where poetry exists only on greeting cards and the heads on Mt. Rushmore have been replaced with models of best-selling "cars and trucks")—this books struts confidently along the lines between fiction, nonfiction, allegory, science fiction, fabulism, satire, and manifesto. Imagine Orwell's Animal Farm burned up and choked out of an industrial smokestack, mixed with a pseudo-apocalyptic dash of Brave New World, then all bundled up into a kind of urban fairy tale, a petroleum-fueled fable meant to reveal, layer by titillating layer, the jagged, threadbare edges of where money, power, art, class, and desire intersect/pull apart.
From a technical standpoint, on every page of its slender, 8.25" by 4.5" frame (all wrapped in an alluring lipstick-red cover), Tomasula's diction shimmies, his language catwalks—where everything, from a car's "polished metal teeth" to an engine's "honey-gold lubricant" to a skyline's "greeting-card sunrise enflaming spacious skies," shines like spotlit sequins on a burlesque outfit: seductive, voluptuous, mesmerizing. And that's how I felt as I read the novel: Sitting behind the double-sided mirror of the page, unable to put the book down (I read it in two days, in two sessions), marveling at how skillfully Tomasula strips away at the ordinary to expose the extraordinary, disrobes the everyday to show the artistic impulses that underpin our lives.
And, in a larger sense, IN & OZ is a book about structure. Or, more precisely, it is about how the structures we so often take for granted—from car engines, to photographs, to elevator music—influence our sense of self, altering the underlying structures of our desires, our passions, and our perception of art itself. Consider, for example, the following quote:
There can be no 'note' without an absence of sounds between other sounds. No downbeat without an upbeat, no beat at all without silence. And so it was with all genres of music that make them possible: No military music without a military. No church music without a history of churches.
This concept of structure also threads its way through the descriptions of the characters themselves, who are referred to simply as Photographer, Composer, Mechanic, Designer, and Poet/Sculptor, each stripped down to their function, their occupation, their usefulness. Yet, beneath these classifications there still remains a mutual desire for something more, something beyond—the ethereal "It" that each of the characters seeks as the novel progresses.
Tomasula reveals this desire most noticeably through Mechanic, the book's protagonist, who—much like Tomasula himself, who (as he explains in the interview that follows the novel) "grew up" in up in a Chicagoan neighborhood composed of "factories and cinderblock garages"—straddles the liminal space between the two cities: a toll road that connects (and separates) IN and OZ. Mechanic's epiphanic moment occurs at the beginning of the book, when under the hood of a car, eyeing the undercarriage, he says:
It was as if he had stumbled upon one of those forces that guide equally the planets in their orbits and the flight of an arrow—a force that had been there all along, making the visible what it was, though the force itself remained invisible, unspeakable, unrecognizable. Until now.
In this moment, Mechanic realizes that the brokenness of something, the exposure of its innerworkings to the outside world, is more in line with "the Truth that resided beneath the false beauty [people] mindlessly used to tool about their work-a-day lives." In contrast to Designer—Mechanic's foil, a car designer, and citizen of OZ who believes "each body she designed…was a body that her drivers could take as their own, and people could change themselves by changing what they drove"—Mechanic is able to see that he can change every car, and therefore himself, into "a shape that could never be taken for granted again." He no longer needs to rate his productiveness on money, or productivity, because he doesn't "need customers to [be a mechanic]—not if, as the photographer claimed, it was looking that made the photographer, or dancing the dancer." It's this recognition that propels him to shed the labels imposed on him, his line of work, and transforms his view of himself, his own body, from object (material) to subject (artist).
Each of the characters, in their own way, undergoes a similar transformation throughout the novel—grasping how the real world, the places we come from, the environments that form us, are what drives us toward art, rather than subsist in spite of it. As Composer intones, artistic and "aesthetic decisions have real world consequences." And the more I think about, the more the book seems especially relevant to today's world, where social media allows us to hide behind so many layers, and Tomasula employs the landscape and characters in IN & OZ to advocate for resisting this pattern, exposing ourselves nakedly on whatever canvases we can—whether the body, the musical score, the car, or the landscapes in which we live.
By the end of the novel, Steve Tomasula's IN & OZ too strips itself down, becoming a kind of manifesto that illustrates how, no matter our backgrounds or present status, we are all connected by the creative impulses that percolate beneath our surfaces, inching to get out. Thanks to his wit, humor, and philosophical insight, Tomasula is able to uncover how these impulses are fundamental to our individual and social growth, helping us to shape and reshape those cast/s into which we and others have been kilned. As one of the final quotes of the novel suggests, "Your art, your life, your love is not the place to be timid."