This first novel from Elliott (The Wilds, 2014) blends dystopia and Southern Gothic.
Taxidermist Romie Futch has spent his life with deadbeat dudes who like to drink—you know, people like him. Still smarting from the breakup of his marriage and needing some money, Romie signs up for a medical experiment at the Center for Cybernetic Neuroscience in Atlanta: he and his fellow subjects get all of the humanities uploaded to their brains. Soon, Romie and his new pals are discussing the highfalutin in the only vernacular they know: “Fuck that punk Derrida. Got game in his flow but no heat.” This, essentially, is the joke of the novel’s first third, and it wears a little thin. But when Romie leaves the center, Elliott tells a bizarre (and bizarrely moving) story about how he tries to put his life back together. Dreaming of an art career, Romie hunts squirrels, stuffs them, and makes them into dioramas illustrating Foucault and Bentham’s concept of panopticon. Soon, he’s hunting bigger animals, using the head of a wild swine to dress himself as “Lord Tusky the Third, a lean and refined gentleman with the head of a boar.” (This is Elliott at the height of her absurdity.) Eventually, Romie becomes obsessed with killing a mutant hog nicknamed “Hogzilla” (with, yes, plenty of Ahab references). How does all of this hang together? Surprisingly well, mostly because Elliott uses Romie’s heartbreak to underpin all the action, no matter how silly it gets. It’s not a perfect novel, but it’s always energetic. At its worst, it feels like an author showing off, in love with her central concept like a parent who can’t stop talking about her kids on Facebook. Then again, as this novel reminds the cynical, seen-it-all reader, sometimes strangeness is enough.
Elliott’s work, in its own snarling and unruly way, contains brilliance.