Languages of Fear in Steve Tomasula’s VAS, an Opera in Flatland

Languages of Fear in Steve Tomasula’s VAS, an Opera in Flatland

Anne-Laure Tissut

Is literature a medium for handling our fears? Anne-Laure Tissut argues that the polysemous multimedial procedures of Steve Tomasula’s VAS collapse body and text in a way that both amplifies and cushions fears of mortality, instability, and otherness.

Square, the main character in VAS, is to undergo a vasectomy, as required by his wife who has gone through too many problems with pregnancy. His fear at the prospect of losing the highly emblematic reproductive function mingles with philosophical musings about the manipulation of bodies and technological advance, with its consequences on our relationship to space and time. Like most of his contemporaries, Square feels trapped in a whirlpool of acceleration, distances fading away as communication means develop. VAS – which possibly is the very novel that Square is writing – conveys a criticism of man’s illusory mastery and of his attitudes of blind conquest, while bringing to light the fears inhabiting language.

1. Propitiatory rituals

As he is well aware of the many points in common between text and body, one being metaphorized by the other throughout VAS, Square hopes to act upon his body by working on his text. “Just a little editing” is one of the recurring phrases bringing together text and body, this one aimed at belittling the consequences of the operation, seen as but an amendment brought on the manuscript of Square’s body.

He tries to become more familiar with the surgery awaiting him by playing on words, their sounds and mutations, as well as by calling upon earlier examples of similar “procedures”, to use the term referring to the vasectomy in VAS. The novel develops from a structure of embedded narratives, endowed with a delaying function as well as a poetic one. Yet the network thus created proves so consistent that Square ends up being trapped in its proliferating references, all pointing to the obsessive surgery. Such verbal games must have another purpose than postponing the operation (besides, from the start, his name is written on the hospital admission form). It is as if Square needed to first find an appropriate means of expression before he can bring himself to undergo surgery, his writing compensating for the lost bodily fertility so to speak. Playing with language brings out its inherent fears.

2. Fears in language: oblivion and faults

The very human fear experienced by Square concerns degradation and aging. On the contrary the daunting factor in language is fixity, as characteristic of mainstream contemporary speech.

The latter relies on the repetition of empty phrases or slogans, many of them playing on fears. In its very structure, VAS conveys a criticism of the communication means used in advertising, namely their overload strategies. As visible on the advertisement web pages pasted in the novel, aggressive promotion brings about confusion and illegibility. Graphs and diagrams have replaced speech, according to a trend favoring evaluations and assessments to the detriment of reading. The increasing tendency to use abbreviations is parodied in the novel, as the symptom of an ever-rushing civilisation, and is opposed to the branching out, demanding text of VAS, requiring that readers take the time to read it over and over again. Square’s unease comes not so much from the prospect of surgery as from the contemporary atmosphere of oblivion. Mainstream speech offers the mirage of eternal youth but at the cost of a terrifying ignorance, created by media strategies of fragmentation and deviation which are largely responsible for the loss of memory and history. VAS exposes the censorship at work in mainstream speech, acting like a blinding screen:

Out of 8000 abortions performed in Bombay in 1985, 7997 were of female fetuses.

Put another way, 0,04% were male.

An invisible history.

And that’s what scared him. (196)

Statistics are also presented in a specific way meant to influence public opinion: “Likewise, by reading court convictions it can be concluded that no white man in America ever raped a black woman before 1957.” (64) In the absence of written testimony, the facts omitted from history have but a tenuous existence. VAS rises against the daily disappearance of words, languages and facts by militating for the preservation of the diversity of languages. Then the novel may seem to be animated by the same fear as Square’s contemporaries are, triggered off by the awareness of the precariousness of life. Yet mainstream individualism radically stands apart from the writer’s enlightened altruism, as Square sets out to save languages rather than his own life. A richly varied language is a token of a richly varied mental activity, but such language also risks misinterpretation and misunderstanding. The ineradicable discrepancy to be found in any use of language is pinpointed in the elliptical remark: “If it’s in the language, it’s in the thoughts. And that’s what worried him.” Because the context is unclear, made as it is of several narrative threads, the antecedent of the pronoun “it” remains uncertain. It may refer to those that were left out of historical speech, evoked earlier, but also to what language cannot but miss, for lack of precision and immediacy, speech out of necessity coming after the facts or states that it depicts.

According to this second interpretation, what is “in the language,” hence “in the thoughts,” is instability, discrepancy and fallibility. No frozen sequence of words can give an account of living reality. The main character in Square’s stories, gazing at the stars or at the human body, cannot match what he sees and what is represented in his book, in a fashion that betrays an ever-shifting reality. A tangential approach, made of successive amendments, as imposed by the imperfections of language, brings out the tremendous effects of the most minute form of human intervention or of artifice at large. The “invisible history” of tiny shifts and changes should not be neglected. Contemporary society is wrong to stop at major changes and events, revolutions and catastrophes, following its thirst for clear-cut distinctions and rigorous classifying systems. Obstinately trying to understand, our civilization freezes reality in the vision it gives or imposes of it.

If we take up the previous example - “If it’s in the language, it’s in the thoughts” - and pay attention to its very form, we may see in its peremptory and definitive quality the very object of Square’s worrying. Its arrogance is but a screen, that blinds people to the variety of idiosyncrasies, according to a strategy of avoiding and evading, maybe for fear of being unmasked through one’s writing. Words tell what we are, “languages, like bodies, always having the last word.” VAS reintroduces in the denatured language of mainstream discourse the very fear that contemporary society tries hard to put to sleep, and invites readers to accept it. Though unstable and fallible, language is all we have. 

3. The risk of saving language, or poetic writing against fear

VAS opens the frozen modes of mainstream discourse to associative polysemy, as though in an attempt to let each word utter this line of Whitman’s, quoted in the novel, “I contain multitudes” (298), the aesthetic powers of which are underlined by the layout – large-font letters displayed in the center of the page. Through its structures, that seem to undergo perpetual mutation, VAS encourages the readers to give up on a linear, consistent and complete text and find their way through the elements of an ever-shifting constellation, a most uncomfortable situation indeed, but the very condition of the reflexion that the author aims at triggering off. Much like in the Chinese Laozi, “Each term obviously does not work as a “term” that would delineate and fix meaning… . [M]eaning has hardly been sketched that it is changed …: the sentence itself appears to be in transition” (François Jullien, Silent Transformations, 52-53, my translation). The fear of being stifled that arose from proliferating discourses is thus countered, as VAS introduces breathing space between words, perpetually offering them to new interpretations; drawing from the gaps constitutive of any language form, VAS opens space for thinking. Readers are free to reorganize the text, call upon others or other artworks, according to the dense reference network and their own culture. Language is staged as being involved in a process of aging and engendering.

4. Regenerated language

VAS invents a language that makes its propagation, transformations and renewal perceptible, giving the illusion of a process of self-generation of speech. The inordinately numerous gerunds are but one mode of addition working to the development of discourse, together with dialogues and the association of images and ideas, while declensions and mutations contribute to the recycling and circulating of words. Interestingly enough, repetition itself underlines the plasticity of language. Recurring adverbs such as “obviously” or “of course” end up ruining certainties through irony while exploding the unity of speech into several competing points of view, also introduced through marginal commentaries that influence one another. The field covered by language expands, mostly through intertextual play, as well as the use of foreign languages and all forms of other media, from which the aesthetic dimension of the text is born. So many varied forms of representation being appropriated may seem to open the reader to the experience of the sublime, through a tension between extraordinary means of communication and an acute awareness of precariousness and vulnerability. Yet as VAS perpetually reminds us, we are but one ring in the evolution chain rather than “that being who stole fire from the Gods.” VAS oscillates between the sublime and the grotesque aesthetics.

5. Staving off fear thanks to aesthetics

Although the sublime tension may be felt in VAS, throwing the bridge of imagination over the apparently impassable gap between our finite condition and the infinite prospects opened out in the novel, it also partakes of the grotesque aesthetics, be it only for the strong attachment it evinces to material qualities, namely by valuing the book as an object. The fluidity of structures and language in VAS, its emphasis on the bodily and its carnivalesque dimension, relying on inversion or upheaval are so many grotesque features, all following a powerful trend of renewal. The instability of language and of the world compel us to consider anew the hierarchies and values that provide them with their structures, through a perpetual adjustment of scales and proportions.

VAS may owe its efficiency to such in-between condition, as the dynamic, open work nevertheless remains as a trace through the book, a fossil of sorts, loaded with history hence with suspended life that can become animated again at a glance. “if his story was to be of any use, he realised, it was in this way; the way no one read Hippocrates any longer but as literature.” Texts change genres, natures and statuses along their successive interpretations, thus owing their survival to mutability.

Between the grotesque and the sublime, VAS raises the question of aesthetics anew by underlining that any representation is self-representation. As language is acknowledged as non-definitive, the gap between the author’s intentions and the receiver’s perception is neutralized, and with it the fear that it generated. Meaning arises out of a collaboration and writing is transition throughout. It expresses artistic resilience - man becoming creator, at least of himself - thus moderating his fear of death.


Can literature help us lessen our fears, or at least adapt to them? According to the cultural virtues of games, as expounded by Roger Caillois, among others, reading VAS is likely to promote the slow changes in collective mentalities through its influence over individual conceptions and behaviors.

With an increasing sense of being out-of-scale, the reader yet takes part in setting discourse into perspective in VAS, thus discovering the faculties of his own imagination. The network that develops throughout the apparently fragmented but actually extremely coherent novel indeed reaches far beyond the reader but also is partly the fruit of his / her aesthetic and interpreting activity. Such involvement, especially because of its playful form, seems likely to contribute to changing mentalities.

One may wonder about the aims of an aesthetics of instability and incompleteness though. Is the artist trying to frighten or comfort? Indeed reading VAS is an unsettling, if not terrifying experience. Through the proliferation that destabilizes and impresses, staving off all attempts at deriving a definitive meaning from it, Tomasula reminds the reader that everything is larger and reaches beyond her. “We are but dwarves perched upon giants’ shoulders,” as Bernard de Chartres wrote in the XIIth century. Then we might as well play and make the best of the wealth passed on to us: literature, music, sciences, languages, indeed a daunting, but priceless heritage.

Works Cited

Tomasula, Steve and Farrell, Stephen. VAS, an Opera in Flatland University of Chicago Press, 2002.

Caillois, Roger. Les Jeux et les hommes, Gallimard: Paris, 1958.

Jullien, François. Les Transformations silencieuses, Grasset: Paris, 2009.