Saturday, April 18, 2015

Einstein's Taxidermy: Julia Elliott's "The New and Improved Romie Futch"

by Gregg Chadwick

Julia Elliott's new novel, The New and Improved Romie Futch, takes us on a Southern adventure that seems inspired by the absurdly picaresque world of John Kennedy Toole's A Confederacy of Dunces, the cyber/ historic cosmography of David Mitchell's Cloud Atlas, the dangerous science of Mary Shelley's Frankenstein, the obsessive hunt of Herman Melville's Moby Dick, and the eerily foreboding scape of Don De Lillo's White Noise, blended with the environmental warning of Rachel Carson's Silent Spring, all played to a soundtrack by the pioneering electronica musician Delia Derbyshire. 

Romie Futch lives in an alternative yet still contemporary South Carolina, where hipsters seem to have swarmed South from Brooklyn and East from Portland to mingle and clash with characters that still haven't moved far from their High School glory days. Romie Futch is one of these down at the heels locals.  Romie's ex-wife haunts his dreams and waking memories while creditors are poised to seize his house. Romie has become an expert at avoiding his less than booming taxidermy business with a daily regimen of internet distractions and it must be 5 o'clock somewhere beverage choices. Challenged in pecuniary matters, Romie decides to answer an ad searching for well paid research subjects for the mysterious Center for Cybernetic Neuroscience in Atlanta, Georgia. 

Elliott's novel shifts locales here in a Tardis like fashion as Romie finds himself in an eerie world of lab coats and human experiments. Memories, always untrustworthy, erupt at inopportune times as Romie and  his fellow test subjects gather nightly at dinner to spar with their new neuroscience-enhanced cognitive abilities and burgeoning artistic powers. The neurally enhanced taxidermist, vows to return to his hometown and finally pursue his long dormant dream of becoming an artist. Life and the lingering effects of the neural experiments on him and his fellow guinea pigs intervene as well as the shadowy form of a seemingly mythical thousand-pound feral hog that has been terrorizing Romie's home county. 

Julia Elliott's language is rich and well played - at times darkly humorous, but also poignantly life affirming. Elliott's story is deftly crafted like Delia Derbyshire's haunting theme song for Doctor Who, originally composed by Ron Grainer, but transformed by Derbyshire into a futuristic swirl of spliced snippets of sound. Julia Elliott's The New and Improved Romie Futch is a literary swirl of Southern Gothic and dystopian Science Fiction that helps us laugh at our own foibles even as we try to create a better future. Highly recommended.

Julia Elliott’s The New and Improved Romie Futch goes on sale on October 19, 2015.
Her fiction has appeared in Tin House, the Georgia ReviewConjunctionsFencePuerto del SolMississippi ReviewBest American Fantasy, and other publications. She has won a Pushcart Prize and a Rona Jaffe Writer’s Award. Her short story collection, The Wilds, was published by Tin House Books in 2014, and she is currently working on a novel about Hamadryas baboons, a species that she has studied as an amateur primatologist. She teaches English and women’s and gender studies at the University of South Carolina in Columbia, where she lives with her daughter and husband. She and her spouse, John Dennis, are founding members of Grey Egg, an experimental music collective.

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