By Joanna Howard and Joanna Ruocco
Reviewed by Jaime Zuckerman
Even an infrequent reader has to have noticed the swelling ranks of near future, apocalyptic visions written by women. From incredibly popular YA novels to lauded literary fiction, many female authors are finding audiences that crave something even worse than our current reality. It's clear why these apocalyptic visions resonate—each daily news item seems symbolic of "the end" of something (of the right to one's body, of environmental stability, of peaceful times, etc.). But why are women in particular becoming the driving voices of the apocalyptic writing revolution? Perhaps, after centuries of socially enforced silence, women are the most in need of a new world, however flawed; perhaps women are less likely to idealize the present reality because they have been marginalized by it. These woman-written apocalyptic texts are hopeful—they imagine a world where our own societal flaws are open and ugly (not tacit or implicit), where an inner life that includes romance, heroism, and, yes, beauty are all the more remarkable for their contrast to the outer world in which we live. In other words, an apocalyptic landscape exaggerates our contemporary world's flaws just enough to offer a vision for how we can save it, or at the very least, survive it.
Field Glass, collaboratively written by Joanna Howard and Joanna Ruocco, is the newest entry in the genre. However, this work distinguishes itself through its daring hybridity and cerebral language. Although the publisher describes the text as a novella, it could just as easily be called a book-length prose poem, a poetic sequence, or a verbal collage. Howard and Ruocco hint at how their text is different than other texts in the genre, how it seeks to act as some kind of savior from our current real-life disasters: "A war of pictures and sounds is replacing the war of things, places." Rediscovering a sensual and interior world through this text reminds us that the current mania over materialism isn't just unsustainable; it's robbing us of who we are.
The composition of Field Glass works like a mosaic: each piece, beautiful and abstract in and of itself, comes together to make a broader picture. Poetic excerpts of communications, memories, and narrative coalesce to create a world peopled by broken lovers, rebels, half-robots, and outcasts in constant war. Each piece varies in length from a few lines to a page and a half and, as with mosaic tiles, could stand on its own as a striking text. Some pieces are narrated memories by anonymous soldiers identified by ID and blood type, fighting for we know not what. Many pieces are the messages and musings of a romantic narrator to an anonymous "beloved" as they hide and wait for the encroaching conflict. Some pieces shed some light on the world itself. These pieces each ring with lines that are strange, lovely, and lonely. For example, one opens, "This year we've grown grain so bright that it frightens the beasts like fire." Or another: "Don't linger, handsome eyes, by the highway sides, footpaths, hornet's nest where knotgrass grows." In each piece, the language and imagery are surprising and make leaps that demand a slow and careful read. Each piece has a different texture and glint. Although there is a cast of recurring voices and characters and a loose general plot of hiding, waiting, and war, readers are not likely to feel connected to either plot or character. This book's rewards are found more in the moment-to-moment beauty of the language, scene, and voice that, when we step back, create a darkly hopeful future vision of a world where humanity as we know it is lost, but human connection and intimacy survives.
Field Glass is totally steampunk in its aesthetic. The title, referring to the kind of binoculars that would be used for either bird watching or military scouting, provides a lens that looks onto a world of nature and machines, both having overtaken human civilization. People are kept alive by machine parts, wires, and blood infusions. A crumbling Romantic aesthetic (think the ruins of Tintern Abbey) has risen and mingled with half-human, half-machine armies and a ragtag batch of survivors huddled around a fire. Even the outgoing messages filled with longing for another and the dullness of survival harken to a past era of telegraphs and Victorian letters. The book's aesthetic is unapologetically sensual, all dark beauty and emo hopefulness.
Howard and Ruocco imagine a world that has evolved from the world their readers know and live in. These days, it's not hard to imagine that our differences will destroy us. Howard and Ruocco even ask, "How to build an imagined world on the ruins of an occupied one. What details to include, what to invent to take from the extant world, or the world which is passing." While many in our currently divided socio-economic and political landscapes look to an imagined nostalgic past where our humanity may have been more valued, Howard and Ruocco invent a future that grows from the ruins of this one. In their future, our common humanity, physical and emotional, is all that's left and is all that matters in the end.
The other thing that remains in Howard and Ruocco's future is the role of language to connect us across distances. They are conscious of their own text, an assemblage of messages and field notes, as bridging the distance between writers and readers. Various speakers in the poem tinker with communication devices and use spooled threads of language to share their thoughts, knowing there is some value in this world for the mere chance of another being hearing you and understanding you: "Long ago, we wrote only as a complement to speaking. Text a coherent set of symbols in transmission, text an arrangement, a function of memory, which comes to the surface. Text as anything that can be read." Howard and Ruocco seek to have "text" transcend its usual tropes (of genre and form, as separate from one's thoughts and sensations); they want to elevate text to that intangible connection between humans. This connection—language that, in being a vehicle of understanding, is also an intimacy—is what we all need so badly now. The most frequent narrator, a companion to a character named Ivor, sends messages about their days, longing for the intimacy of having their words read by the recipient, not knowing if the recipient is even alive. The recipient is, of course, us, their readers.