Research Notes · 10/09/2015

The New and Improved Romie Futch

Our Research Notes series invites authors to describe their process for a recent book, with “research” defined as broadly as they like. This week, Julia Elliott writes about The New and Improved Romie Futch from Tin House.

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My debut novel, The New and Improved Romie Futch, describes the plight of a floundering South Carolina Taxidermist who, one drunken evening, replies to an ad and becomes a research subject in an experiment conducted by the Center for Cybernetic Neuroscience in Atlanta, Georgia. After neurologists download the equivalent of a humanities PhD into his brain, the enhanced taxidermist returns to his small town to revolutionize his dioramas and win back his ex-wife. After his return, Romie develops an Ahab-caliber obsession with bagging Hogzilla, a monstrous feral hog that may have escaped from a biotech lab.

Among other things, this novel allowed me to synthesize my upbringing in a rural South Carolina town with my experience in academia, equipping my inner hick with hifalutin diction and critical theory that hopefully express the surreal complexities of living in the contemporary South, a world in which the Internet floods the brain with diverse forms of information, where the boundary between science and sci-fi is blurry, where “reality” is a jumble of tech-mediated experiences and encounters with the natural and post-natural worlds. In this novel, I was able to combine years of academic research with more casual investigations of brain-enhancement technologies, modern taxidermic techniques, and contemporary hog-hunting culture.

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ACADEMIC RESEARCH

The New and Improved Romie Futch allowed me to make practical use of the eight years I spent in grad school studying contemporary fiction, creative writing, critical theory, and Renaissance lit. Every so often, I visit the cache of unpublished essays I wrote in my youth, marveling at the absurd intricacy of abstruse arguments that .0002% of the English-speaking population would find relevant. Romie’s transformation from a clever small-town hesher into a cerebral Renaissance man allowed me to revisit critical theory in a more vibrant and practical context.

In the novel, Romie’s mind expands with each new download, beginning with enhanced vocabulary and rhetorical tropes, moving on to mastery of the traditional Western canon, and concluding with an understanding of critical theory and postmodern lit. The last installments not only interrogate the canon, but also, ironically, arm Romie and his fellow guinea pigs with theory that helps them make sense of their own institutional subjection and what Romie calls “the clusterfuck of the 21st century.” For example, among the array of “knowledge sets” downloaded into Romie’s brain, Foucault’s concept of the Panopticon and Harraway’s formulation of the cyborg become centerpieces of both Romie’s new identity and his taxidermic dioramas. After he returns home, he challenges the “Disneyesque” romanticism of life-like mounting styles by creating animatronic dioramas that incorporate mutant and biotech specimens. He even builds “a four-foot reproduction of Jeremy Bentham’s eighteenth-century prison,” the so-called Panopticon, equipped with a “central inspection house” that “enabled guards to potentially check on any given prisoner at any minute of the day or night, instilling a compulsive fear of perpetual observation.”

For Foucault, this architecture provided an analogy for modern hierarchical surveillance. As Romie fills his miniature prison with stuffed biotech lab rats and mutagenic squirrels and frogs, he explores both human subjugation and the ecological problems of the 21st century post-natural world.

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BRAIN ENHANCEMENT TECHNOLOGIES

In the novel, Romie receives “a series of bioengineered artificial intelligence transmissions” (or BAITS), during which “technicians install biotech brain parasites (Naegleria fowleri), nanobots that rebuild Romie’s neural pathways, making his brain compatible with the master biological computer and ‘wetware’ accessories that transfer data ‘nanobiotically.’” Before coming up with this scheme, I read dozens of internet articles and research abstracts describing potential methods for creating “brain-computer interfaces” and downloading artificial intelligence into the human brain — articles describing neurofeedback training, electrode-studded brain-computer-interface caps, and implantable microchips containing “terabytes of data” (whatever the hell those are). One article described brain-mapping by decoding patterns with fMRI scans and transferring abilities and knowledge from one person to another. Other hypotheses involved downloading info into the mapped “jellyware” of the brain via compatible “wetware” computers. To me, the most disturbing potential method involved using configurations of nanoparticles to penetrate cells, “control ion channels,” and revamp neural pathways.

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TAXIDERMY

In order to understand the culture and craft of Romie Futch’s occupation, I visited a couple of South Carolina Taxidermy Association shows, which featured the kind of romantic “wilderness” scenes that Romie mocks with his postmodern taxidermy dioramas. I read how-to articles on the internet and watched slews of YouTube videos, both serious documentaries and DIY home masterpieces like “WILD BOAR HEAD CAPING AND FLESHING**********VERY GRAPHIC VIDEO.” Perhaps the most helpful resources, however, were online taxidermy supply stores, which provide an elaborate and surreal array of artificial “lifelike” components, many of which have vivid details and poetic names. For example, among the thousands of products offered by McKenzie Taxidermy Supply are “Van Dyke’s Wild Boar Eyes . . . , premium quality aspheric glass eyes blended with soft marbleized veins and precise species coloration.” Browsing earliners, jawsets, chemicals, and mounting and tanning supplies gave me the best understanding of how wild animals are deconstructed and reconstructed into static works of art.

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HOG HUNTING

As a person who has never shot a gun, I had to figure out what kind of firearms and ammo Romie would use to hunt the various animals he slays to create his dioramas — precision became especially important when his obsession with Hogzilla, a one-hundred-pound feral boar who may have escaped from a biotech lab, kicks into high gear. Of course I spent hours poring over online hunting tutorials — both written and on YouTube. But the best venues for conveying the contemporary hog-hunting fever (particularly since ferals have become a nuisance), are online message-boards and forums, which combine the old-school romanticism of epic beast-slaying with a slew of fancy new technologies. Not only was this research entertaining, but I was bowled over by the knowledge, wit, and lyricism of some of the “tusker” enthusiasts who ranged from primitivists who worked with arrows and spears to “night hunters who installed remote-operated corn feeders and rifle-mounted target illuminators.” The hunters were bursting with know-how and strong opinions, like one bow-and-arrow expert who opined that shooting hogs from a helicopter isn’t “real hunting” but “vermin control.” I also spent entire afternoons exploring gun catalogs and online hunting supply emporia, which sold, among other things, special hog attractant potions like Feral Fire™ Sow in Heat Spray.

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CONCLUSION

Could I take out a feral razorback with a Savage .45 loaded with safari-grade ammo? Nope. Could I skin and flesh a boar, pickle its hide, reassemble a mishmash of real and fake parts, and reupholster it into a convincing beast? I seriously doubt it. Could I hold my own among a group neurologists and computer scientists researching brain-computer interfaces? For five minutes, tops. Finally, could I manage a critical essay titled “Deconstruction and Slippage of the Post-Lacanian Phallus in Moby Dick”? The lameness of that mock title speaks for itself. But hopefully The New and Improved Romie Futch conveys a convincing picture of critical theory, brain enhancement technologies, taxidermic techniques, and contemporary hog-hunting culture.

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Julia Elliott’s fiction has appeared in Tin House, the Georgia Review, Conjunctions, Fence and other publications. She has won a Rona Jaffe Writer’s Award, and her stories have been anthologized in Pushcart Prize: Best of the Small Presses, Best American Fantasy, and Best American Short Stories. Her debut story collec­tion, The Wilds, was chosen by Kirkus, BuzzFeed, Book Riot, and Electric Literature as one of the Best Books of 2014 and was a New York Times Book Review Editors’ Choice. She is currently working on a novel about hamadryas ba­boons, a species 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 the music collective Grey Egg.