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In Print: dystopia means unhappy endings

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One nice detail from A.D. Nauman's Scorch, a dystopian novel leavened with black comedy, would be pedantic if it weren't rendered trivial by her ocean of wordplay: in the future, Chicagoans spell "cell phone" as "sellphone." When the thing rings it usually means you're getting an ad, not a call from a friend, but since sellphones have pictures and advertising's considered an art form, you probably won't mind. In fact if you grumbled you'd sound stupid.

"Stupid" is the trump put-down in Nauman's consumerist hell. The protagonist, Arel (an anagram of "real"), is mortified by her chronic inability to grasp "common sense" with the ease of her peers. In the hammy fists of lesser writers who've groped the sci-fi subgenre, the hero is often annoyingly immutable, smugly aware of "the truth" and paranoid only because he is surrounded by sheep. Not so Arel. In such wretched financial straits she's got to choose between a car and food, she keeps on truckin' and tells people she's on a killer diet. If her constant struggle to think isn't jammed by relentless group-sex fantasies, it's torpedoed by a TV at her night job--at a videocassette library--that turns on at random to blast ads in her ear. She reads books, and in Nauman's Chicago, nobody reads books.

Nauman lived on the northwest side for 13 years before moving three years ago to Oak Park--which she describes as being run "not by wild dogs, but by salivating fascist-liberal yuppies!" She says the city--"the cars burning on the roadside, the crowds, and the poverty and the affluence"--inspired her vision of a violent existentialist dystopia. "I think Chicago is the perfect place for Arel's story," she says. "The jungle at the turn of this century may look different from that of the last one, but its origins are the same."

A graduate of UIC's creative writing program, Nauman's published several short stories over the years; Scorch (published last year by Soft Skull Press) is her first novel. In love with science fiction since childhood, she says the genre doesn't hem her in--she uses conventions when they suit her, ignores them when they don't. "As for 'genre fiction' versus 'literary fiction'--what a strange, snobby, useless distinction that is," she says. "Litfic," she'd argue, has been so thoroughly codified by university creative writing departments that it's just another genre now, possibly the weakest of them all: "There are rules about verbs and adverbs, how you begin a story and how you end it, what you do with exposition, what you leave unsaid." The American litfic aesthetic, she argues, "defines fiction as personal experience and current events, primarily for the purpose of reinforcing our existing beliefs about ourselves and our culture. We wallow in the personal."

Nauman's appropriated the best of litfic conventions for her purposes, but, she says, "Sci-fi is a good genre for escapism, and I had a lot to escape from. My parents had a poor marriage that manifested not in fighting, but as an emotional deadness and general neglect that felt like perpetual winter. When I was eight years old, my mother was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis, which prompted my father to run off, leaving us close to poverty." When she went to college she got into "real" literature and became increasingly fascinated by darker fantasy.

Her love for the dystopian novel frequently takes the form of parody. In Scorch, all schools are private, and instead of honking on the Dan Ryan people just open fire. Homelessness appears to be the only punishable crime, and corporations let citizens freelance as police. None of this bothers folks much (until their neighbors suspect them of "invisible homelessness"), since having a government would mean living under everybody's favorite movie villain: Big Brother. The irony's not mocking or gratuitous--Orwell was an early model. We don't live in his age, however, and his overtopical cautions became common rhetoric in a generation.

Unlike Winston Smith, Arel never manages to put a consistent face on her enemies--they're too slippery and amorphous. But like Orwell, Nauman denies her hero a triumphant fate, which some readers have found unsatisfying. Too bad, she says. "It isn't my intention to 'satisfy' readers; I want to shake them up. I want to whack them on the head." One prospective agent suggested she write a new ending--one "in which Arel realizes she was wrong all along and that the world is a good place."

"Some people," she says, "seem incapable of understanding satire."

Nauman doesn't consider Arel a tragic hero, though an archetypal lust for revenge causes her downfall. "In the classic sense," she says, "the notion of 'fatal flaw' refers to something inherent in a person's character." Arel slips up in letting herself be swallowed by a cutthroat set of cultural beliefs. "The conflict of person versus society is reproduced in her own thinking, the culturally defined self pitted against an emerging, individual, original self that tries to think thoughts that wouldn't occur to her." It's a common enough theme in old-fashioned sci-fi, but now, as then, many authors still indulge in the unlikely happy ending that so many readers seem to feel entitled to. "Could Arel have found a way out? That's, I suppose, my ultimate question to the reader."

Nauman and Charles Cannon, author of Soul Resin, will read at 1 PM on Saturday, July 27, at Books on Vernon, 664 Vernon in Glencoe (847-835-5810). At 3 on Sunday, August 4, Nauman, Cannon, and Sarah Smith, author of the short story collection No Thanks, will appear at Quimby's, 1854 W. North (773-342-0910). Both events are free.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Cynthia Howe.

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