The Importance of Being Earnest in Flatland

The Importance of Being Earnest in Flatland

Gilbert Pham-Thanh

By working through the resemblances between Tomasula’s Vas: An Opera in Flatland (2004) and Edward Abbott’s much earlier Flatland (1884), Pham-Thanh establishes how Tomasula “orchestrates the downfall of the traditional hegemonic masculinity” that defined Abbott’s time.

In earnest, I should flatly admit—and this is important—that my field of research is dandyism in nineteenth-century British fiction, which makes my contribution a somewhat wild(ean) one. Fortunately, it is not without its own logic, and can therefore embrace the fact that although VAS, Steve Tomasula’s embedded “Pedestrian Story” (149), is set in a complex semiotic system, his “simple story/With a plot as conventional as a museum’s base boards” (38), is found to stage in a rather geometrical way the reluctance of a would-be writer, Square, to undergo vasectomy, as agreed with his wife Circle. This plot introduces a character whose existential as well as diegetic itinerary reconfigures the very notion of masculinity, one that would no longer be based on the phallic capacity to spread his semen and semantics. And yet, the mode of composition gives it a larger scope and qualifies VAS as a radical ultra-contemporary work—novel seems reductive. The opus, or rather opera, as indicated in the subtitle An Opera in Flatland, actually combines a CD with music as well as readings and a book with fictional, scientific and political narratives, comic strips, drawings and plates, graphs, blank pages, black pages, extensive DNA encryption, all set in a thick transparent Plexiglas box. The written page is usually subdivided into apparently free floating sections with shifting fonts and variable margins that destabilize the reading process – the semiotic collage of Flatland first appears to be a chaotic jigsaw semantic marshland. An early metafictional mention of the encyclopedic Big Book of Opera that Circle’s Mother offered Oval for Christmas (19) provides a key to the cumulative, erudite epistemology that underlies Tomasula’s work. Another key rings in unison in the final description of an opera performance, when the setting turns into an operating theatre complete with its “ENORMOUS OVER-HEAD SURGERY LAMP” (356). It reveals Tomasula’s intention to account for men’s experience of post-modernity by balancing the discourses of science and the arts reconfigured into a typical mode of composition that finds a metaphorically programmatic formulation in music: 


The topic of music and perception represents another way for Tomasula to disseminate his broader interest in the body. Physicality is introduced in the title, but also in the metafictional definition the writer-narrator gives of his ars poetica, directing himself to “us[e] all five senses, to make her (and you) experience the text as an object in the world, real as a brick” (284). Against what the narrator calls a “linear plot” (75), thus, a multimedia operatic scheme is devised, juggling semiotic networks, with the concept of Gesamtkunstwerk by tutelary Richard Wagner, who is conjured up twice (71-367), along with his “Rhine maidens” (19), even if the narrator also summons Friedrich Nietzsche (71), which might be an invitation to qualify the reference to Wagner. 

This reliance on a trans-artistic and trans-disciplinary approach is framed in Tomasula’s decision to call VAS “A NOVEL,” extending the dominion of novel composition beyond the formal limits it inherited, in particular from the nineteenth century. The same distantiated proximity underlies the narrator’s puzzled questioning: “Walking through a library, have you ever gotten/the creepy sensation of walking through a vast/Victorian collection of mollusks?” (69). His reticence encourages the readers to distrust state-of-the-art science, construed as the heuristic equivalent of outdated Victorian knowledge only fit for museum display. This warning rings out in the narrator’s remark that today’s blood-screening and future technologies “seem absolutely Victorian” (365)—which implicitly justifies the resort to nineteenth-century experts.

In a similar way, the subtitle, An Opera in Flatland, claims kinship with Flatland; A Romance of Many Dimensions, which late-Victorian Edwin Abbott published in 1884. This visionary novella features a prototypical narrator also called Square, who is trapped in a flat land of limitations. In consequence, this corny Victorian-mind of mine came not to feel entirely disoriented in Tomasula’s flatland of infinite possibilities where “some more dimensionable Dimensionality,” in Abbott’s terminology, keeps being added. Moreover, various references to Charles Darwin, Thomas Robert Malthus or Francis Galton, for instance, partly relocate the narrative in familiar nineteenth-century grounds. To the same effect, the reference to some opera entitled The Strange Voyage of Imagining Chatter is also an occasion to mention Charles Willson Peale:

[…] his hand pulling back a tasseled Victorian curtain to reveal a vast collection of odd bones, minerals, shells, fossils and creatures, dead and alive—props that he had used for still lifes before they took on a life of their own and his art gallery metamorphosed into the first museum of natural history. (328)

It operates as a mise en abyme of the whole work, and turns the Victorian area into the backcloth of the narrative, since Tomasula’s exploration of the past mainly deconstructs today’s ideology by disclosing its questionable origins. Taking the cue from the writer-narrator’s rhetorical question: “Was it possible to write a story that didn’t have gender?” (320)—and for lack of any dandiacal figure—I choose to focus on the construction and representation of masculinity in the post-modern context of VAS. Two elements substantiate such a decision. First, there is the title whose contracted shortened form encourages the readers to interpret vasectomy as symbolic castration—or the deprivation of symbolic power and authority on the social scene. In the second place, VAS resumes the traditional plot of Victorian matrimonial narrative, extending the span beyond the institutional ending of three-deckers—tales in three published volumes which usually abandon the hero and heroine after their official engagement and before they pass the bedroom doors of legitimate union. In consequence, the analysis starts with the polysemous meaning of vasectomy and then restores it to the general economy of the work to produce a definition of masculinity according to Tomasula, or at least extrapolating from his fiction.

Since in VAS the polemical approach to vasectomy is so strikingly original and earnestly documented, it is important to start dwelling on it, all the more so since Tomasula turns this operation into a literary and ideological site of conflict, or rather a site of conflicting negotiation. He organizes the confrontation of three different perspectives in a power game aimed at securing hegemony in the definition of and response to this increasingly common contraceptive method for western males. The topic is introduced through the male narrator’s earnest inaugural statement written in lyrical bold letters: “FIRST PAIN” (9), immediately connecting the title and the text through physical and possibly psychological suffering. However, this complaint is muted by the understatement of Circle calling vasectomy “[j]ust ‘a little snip’ ” (15). Semantics, morphology and biased perspective combine to convey an impression of trite banality for what is considered unobtrusive, minor surgery. The wording “a little snip” both reduces it to one single insignificant cut—which it is, but only for a start—and distorts the common phrase “to have the snip,” in which the definite determinant seems threateningly mythical. Resorting to the adjective “little” instead of “small” also reveals Circle’s subjective approach and rhetorical belittling strategy aiming to goad Square on with it. As for the adverb “just,” it points to Circle’s decision to consider merely the first incision and overlook the surgical severing and separating of the vas deferens before at least one side is tied or sealed by ligature, clamps or cauterization, not to mention her husband’s potential post-vasectomy pain syndrome, psychological trauma or likely loss of sexual drive—all of which are alluded to through the description of Square’s unrest. 

An objective configuration apparently comes up to counter-balance the personal responses with a reference to the technical side of vasectomy, which is acknowledged in the plates representing scalpels of several descriptions (163). Yet, these are double-barreled material which immediately conjure up unsettling images of torture. They are reminiscent of nineteenth-century medicine, and even if they can no longer qualify as rocket science, they are ironical reminders that in current human experience, “SCIENCE ROCKS!” as Tomasula insists on several occasions (50, 59, 83, 242, 322). In fact, however square and tacky Square might be—he is just an average unexceptionable man in Abbott’s hierarchy—his testimony earnestly exposes the alienation of victimized men in techno-science, hence his hallucinated vision of “drums and fire light” (288) with Dr. Silverstein “danc[ing] into the examining room, his nude body tattooed with medical diagrams…around Square, splayed atop a pyramid, a jeweled ceremonial knife raised high over his testicles, a scream, a plunge—” (288). In spite of this melodramatic leaning, Tomasula avoids pathos by echoing scientists like Dr. Silverstein, who prefer calling vasectomy a mere “procedure” (17), ominously using not so much technical as administrative terminology. The narrator’s final decision to go through with it completes the deflation of vasectomy into just another medical intervention securing increased comfort and freedom for sexual partners, as anticipated by Tomasula’s imaginary biblical scene in which Onan ejaculates: “I don’t even have to worry about spills” (288).

The topic of vasectomy branches out, giving the work both aesthetical and political relevance, while meaning keeps flowing through, before the severing puts an end both to sperm emission and word inscription. At a diegetic level, the narrator piles up information from various sources in order to create suspense and delay the character’s operation, which, in the end, is imminent. In the meanwhile, VAS stages a dallying male gathering testimonies and viewpoints in recent history to make what remains a difficult decision. Square’s doubts and apprehension give Tomasula an opportunity to revisit significant moments he deems relevant in order to analyze the ideological construction of vasectomy as a reliable method of contraception offering safer “[r]ecreational sex” (147). In this archeological perspective, the “contraceptive method” is linked to former forms of “forced sterilization” (54) in a gesture that expresses Square’s anxiety. His repeated references to eugenic programs betray emotional unease and possibly moral reluctance. From Tomasula’s viewpoint, these documents are an occasion to publicize the identity of their advocates, transforming VAS into both a wall of shame and a pamphlet against the members of the Establishment. Square may identify them with bullying Circle, while he implicitly sides with the helpless individuals targeted, for instance, in Dr. Aschafenburg’s list: “the chronically ill, the criminal, the handicapped, the elderly, the alcoholic, the homeless and other ‘incompletes,’ i.e. burdens on society” (156). 

Tomasula implicitly points at the violence of internationally recognized experts who earnestly propound forms of management for the so-called “vermin of the nation” (156), which are considered poor human stock. In his demonstration, 1820 Malthusianism represents an early stage of this muting of the supposedly unfit “undesirables” (53) that just prove embarrassingly inconvenient in a world of growing scarcity, and so are declared to be expendable. Malthus reveals the social discourse underlying medicine, since the final objective is to control the so-called dangerous classes, when he suggests that a threatening “we” “encourage the lower classes to live near swamps and adopt unhygienic practices likely to breed typhoid” (189). Tomasula reinforces his line of argumentation by introducing, among many others, a 1962 Malthusian Nobel Laureate, Dr. Francis Crick, who advised governments to add contraceptive chemicals in food and deliver antidotes only to vetted citizens (125). For maximum intelligibility, VAS connects these forms of oppressive mass control to the 1933 Nazi Sterilization Act (53) and Hitler’s propaganda (97), but they also network with the Republic of China’s 1995 regulations (152) or Winston Churchill’s declaration that “the rapid growth of the feeble-minded classes” should be checked for the danger they pose for “all superior stocks” (96). In other words, what is construed as a barbarous act could be found in twentieth-century England. 

More importantly, the narrator flashes the fact that to his surprise America legalized “forced sterilization” programs twenty-six years before the Germans (54). This leads to the paradox that in “The Land of Free Choice” (54)—”the Land of 1001 Salad Dressings” (120)—certified citizens are reduced to consumers whose artificial demand is shaped by unlimited offer, while the others are pathologized and repressed by Flatland’s narrow-minded authorities or ideologues exerting bio-power.For the exploration of “bio-power” and “bio-politics,” see Michel Foucault, La Volonté de savoir, L’Histoire de la sexualité I, Paris: Gallimard, 1976. Their biased norms are often exposed by juxtaposing more or less open criticisms, making full use of the different margins in the page composition to separate the two series of viewpoints. A good example is found with the report of 1962 Noble Laureate Hermann Muller’s warning: “probably close to 20 percent of the population…have inherited a genetic defect….To avoid degeneration, then…20 percent should not be allowed to reach sexual maturity” (119). The statement is instantly qualified with a shift in paradigms: “The difference being that differences in mollusks were seen as variation not deformity and classifying them” (119). Discriminating between two grand narratives constitutive of the epistemology of science, the narrator pits taxonomy or understanding of bio-diversity against the intolerant policing of mankind. On the other hand, the impact of this short history of “forced sterilization” (54) remains relatively limited and does not deter the narrator from opting for vasectomy. 

And yet in this account, the ideological context of and subjective response to vasectomy can arguably be said to contribute to laying down Tomasula’s complex ars poetica, based on an interpretation of the wording “vas.” To put it differently, the title VAS is programmatic in more ways than one. Of course, vasectomy does conjure up a radical process of sterilization with little room for a reversal. The contracted form “vas,” however, signifies the threefold resistance to bio-power, the separation of artistic genres and the conventional consistence of set discourses. It antiphrastically denies the actual operation by snipping off the “ectomy” part of the word. As an incomplete form, it mimetically renders Square’s attempt to postpone surgery by interposing narratives between the “vas” of the title and the actual “ectomy” of the ending, resisting Circle’s pull. 

At a different level, the anecdote points to a transcendent plane of meaning that is already perceptible in the insertion of non-fictional texts. Social discourses are activated to provide the site of Tomasula’s critical intervention. In other words, the decision to cut off the signifier of the severing operation—using “vas” for vasectomy, or in other words, reducing vasectomy to “vas”—symbolically disables the State apparatusFor an analysis of the State apparatus and ideology, see Louis Althusser’s article “Idéologie et appareil Idéologique d’État” (1970), Positions (1964-1975), Paris: Les Éditions sociales, 1976, 67-125. organizing the sterilization campaigns, literally depriving it of its capacity to contain people, vasectomizing the vasectomizers, so to speak. The morphological neutralization of vasectomy by subtraction finds a macro-structural equivalent in the strategic juxtaposition of biopolitical positions and their refutations. Such a layout desemanticizes the aggressive declarations by blocking their full deployment to avoid turning VAS into a platform for the ideas they propound. For instance, Tomasula graphically materializes his disapprobation by inserting three blank pages to mute his opponents, reinforcing his condemnation with the concluding note that “[s]ometimes silence is the most eloquent” (99-102). Only short passages are reproduced, curbing the flow of hate speech passing off as careful pragmatism based on expert analyses of the situation. 

From another angle, resorting to the shortened form “vas” to denote vasectomy restores the reference to the prime signifier vas deferens. In that configuration, the appellation “vas” signifies a vessel and a duct. This interpretation turns Tomasula’s novel into a literary museum collecting, displaying and communicating testimonies, reports, illustrations, allusions concerning vasectomy considered as a contraceptive method developing from earlier modes of forced sterilization. Gathering distasteful lines of argumentation complemented with the narrator’s qualifying tags does keep records and creates a conservatory reminiscent of nineteenth-century Charles Willson Peale’s first museum, which is mentioned at the end of VAS (328). In Tomasula’s case, though, the cabinet of curiosities resembles a paradoxical freak show exhibiting not so much the supposedly “unfit” or “degenerates”—as Max Nordau would call themSee Max Nordau, Entartung (1892), Dégénérescence (1892), Max Millo (Ed.), Paris: Condition humaine, 2006.— as the members of the Establishment uttering discriminatory ideas based on pseudo-rational demonstrations. These apparently decent monsters give a sensational turn to the novel, and it is their intolerant normative reflections that single them out as abnormal sadistic maniacs. 

Square earnestly admits that his input, no less than theirs, remains a situated one, defining his position as a potential “enactment of the mindset of [his] moment in history” (274)—thus a narrative that is probably at least partially subjective but also likely to be expanded into a full work of fiction. A consequence of this acknowledgement is that the museum seems to metamorphose into a literary battlefield, and the ensuing ideological contest alternates shock statements expressed in a variety of modes and media which may click or clash in a more or less vocal manner, giving VAS a dialogic—possibly polyglossic—dimension. 

Tomasula’s grasp partly defamiliarizes the quotes, transforming each one of them into an instrument or a voice, and slowly combining them to produce an ultra-contemporary opera not unlike The Strange Voyage of Imagining Chatter, which is extensively explored in the final sections (328-61). Jarring notes originating from modern science and politics are integrated in a master narrative of humanistic tolerance set in an artistic frame where the individual remains the ultimate reference. And yet, the tone can never be a pacified one, and even if Square seems to appropriate Circle’s “little snip” by calling it “snip, snip” (18, 131) himself before making his final decision, his main contention goes against the clippings snatched from institutional discourse, very much in a “nag-nag” fashion, finally uncovering biopower and its snags. 

It should be noted that Tomasula’s picture of Flatland set in a fragmentary architecture also mirrors his conception of the ontological structure of mankind—and in particular of males, which is introduced by formulations like “NO MAN IS AN I-LAND: FRACTURED EVERYWHERES” (316). It remains to be seen if in this case, his perspective proves as critical.

In other words, vasectomy is the center of a nexus defining post-modern masculinity, decentering dominant males that are disempowered in a universe no longer fitted for the traditional expression of genders and the axiology it brought along. It is then phallogocentrismPhallogocentrism is Jacques Derrida’s portmanteau word composed of phallocentrism and logocentrism, which he coined and explored in his deconstructive writings. It refers to a system ruled by men through their control of language and knowledge, and its subsequent symbolic domination. that is deconstructed through the ruling metaphor of vasectomy—the modern symbol of the crisis in masculinity and the symbol of modern masculinity as an identitary crisis. Vasectomy proceeds from increasingly impoverished semens to absolute azoospermia. This incapacity to procreate and play a seminal part in the generative system that is the base of society ultimately leads to meaninglessness and irrelevance or symbolic castration, as hinted at through the reference to Oscar Wilde’s mortuary statue with its “stone testicles…broken off by ardent mourners…becoming a paper weight” (286).  

The operation signifies the loss of males’ power to impregnate society and disseminate meaning through it. It is fictionalized by Square being submitted to interlocking forms of deprivation—among which the loss of some attributes of phallic potency. His inaugural “FIRST PAIN” (9) characterizes him as a passive figure undergoing minor surgery with major symbolic consequences in terms of self-representation and self-identification. Ironically, vasectomy is often treated not so much as Square’s fateful prospect but rather as the mere materialization of his existential position—and possibly that of the western male. An overdetermined incident shows his shortcoming, when he proves utterly unable to face physical duress while a pro-life demonstrator impersonating the Reaper starts at his family and finds this pater familias pathetically apathetic, in spite of Circle’s injunction to “[d]o something!” (118). Circle’s subsequent use of do even more tightly networks Square’s cowardly lack of agency with both vasectomy and his reluctance towards it, when she asks: “So why don’t you do it?” (178). Square’s fixating on his physical integrity is all the more paradoxical as his attitude and behavior no longer seem to call for the full paraphernalia of Bourdieusian male dominationSee Pierre Bourdieu, La Domination masculine, Paris: Seuil, 1998., for instance now that fighting a duel has become nothing but atavistic memories—possibly ontogenetic traces for Square:

Impulsively, Square had replied by producing his card from the ruffles of his shirt cuff…. A time and place to courteously exchange pistol shots was arranged…. Then the pistols…in Square’s hand…exploded…. Days later, he was convicted by an aristocratic court for “patricide,” then hung, and both deaths were recorded in a secretary hand […]. (279-80)

His current psychological framework complements his profile with his failure to be earnest and stand by Circle against Mother’s insistence that they should have another child: “He hadn’t meant to take sides…. They’d argued before about babies and always his gender [my italics] had made him a Switzerland [my italics] between [the two women]” (294). The rhetorical gendering of the anecdote and equation of an individual with a whole country both give Square’s attitude generic relevance. 

His defection might arise from previous social evolution leading to women’s empowering independence and self-reliance. As opposed to Abbott’s females being reduced to mere lines, the simplest beings in his Flatland, Square’s wife is named Circle, a geometrical figure topping Abbott’s finest males’ infinite number of sides and their passing off as circular perfection. In Tomasula’s Flatland, Square stays at home and can no longer compete for supremacy with a lawyer wife who is a bread-earner with a regular income and whose occupation consists in producing masterful interpretations of the laws of the city. In anthropological terms, she could be said to incarnate the new dominant gender. It is significant that from the narrator’s point of view, this shift in hierarchy seems based on a linguistic manipulation, since he reports Circle’s assertive use of the equalitarian phrase taking turn—invariably to her benefit. She argues that the time has finally come for Square to sacrifice himself for the sake of the couple, with a commanding “I want you to take your turn” (285), before she comes to the conclusion that “now, it is [her] turn” to be prioritized over him by catching a job opportunity that forces the whole family to relocate (286). Circle bends language to lord it over Square and thus, in a way, she masters the Law of the Father. Much to the same effect, Tomasula depicts the narrator’s puzzlement at Circle’s augmented mother reminiscent of Donna Haraway’s feminist manifestoSee Donna Haraway, “A Cyborg Manifesto: Science, Technology, and Socialist-Feminism in the Late Twentieth Century,” in Simians, Cyborgs and Women: The Reinvention of Nature, New York: Routledge, 1991, 149-181.: “How odd, thought Square, to realize that your mother-in-law is a cyborg” (144). Square then substantiates his impression: “The IV pump purred, its digital readout metering a drip that ran down tubing and into her shoulder, the flesh color of the implant making it difficult to tell where it began and she ended” (146). 

Women’s improved status echoes in the new episteme forced upon Square, in particular concerning sexual intercourse. Admittedly, he acknowledges the former forms of intelligibility—in terms of plot construction and aesthetic composition—but only to discard them as antiquated and awkward: “I suppose it would be natural to do a sex scene in a story like this, Square wrote. But how to depict it?…Pistil and stamen? Albrecht Altdorfer never wondered, painting Lot screwing his daughter. Fucking was dark back in 1510” (281). More importantly, he adopts a new cognitive paradigm to account for what used to be an exercise in male domination with every move being construed as a symbolic inscription of the phallic organization of society: 

A softening in Circle’s eyes, call it dilation, indicating that she was receptive. Hearts and flowers. And, 186,000 years of conditioning; the Pavlovian dog within secretes catecholamines. 

Estrodiol binds to estrogen receptors. Moonlit Serenade. Likewise, testosterone washes cellular organization of the male variety, hypothalamus, vaso-dilation following strictly the double-helix letter of the law, hearts beating with anticipation, vaso-congestion of spongy tissue flowering within the law of the letter, the alpha and omega of cells propagating themselves … a biology of selection often pronounced by these apes, naked, ‘love.’ (282)

Square’s representation of his own sexuality mixes terms borrowed from chemistry, biology and technology with traditional phrases lifted from heterosexual romance only to demote the rite of male self-assertion in love-making. Human dealings are thus conceived of as basically chemical, biological, technological post-sensuous experiences for post-subjects, that is humanoids finding it harder to individuate in their consciousness, feelings, emotions or psyche and being estranged from their own bodies, now turned attributes at best: “To be your body, and not just have your body…a body he had lived in and had come to know over these seventeen thousand some years and now could only stand and wave goodbye to” (180-1). 

In addition to defeating phallocentrism, the decision to picture Square and Circle’s depersonalized sexuality echoes the advent of technology diagnosed by Martin Heidegger (whom Tomasula alludes to on page 365, though in a different perspective), which decenters mankind—and doubly so for males. The set pattern of masculine legitimacy is further contested through sexual reproduction by alluding to a trans-species symbiosis that enables Darwin’s moth, “Xanthopan morganii”, to fertilize orchids (170).This spectacular pattern was extensively explored by Marcel Proust then conceptualized by Gilles Deleuze. See Gilles Deleuze, Proust et les signes (1964), Paris : Presses Universitaires de France, 1996. An equivalent destitution takes place in the institutional site of the couple, offering a variation on the theme in keeping with Tomasula’s compositional protocol. In VAS, what used to be an asymmetrical patriarchal structure is now a locus for democratic deliberation, where Square and Circle negotiate on an equal footing, as humans, “Homo being common to all men…and women (obviously)” (45). 

And yet, VAS resists equating the downfall of the western male figure with complete dislocation into utter irrelevance. The rejuvenating focalization of the text indicates ways to “step outside your own diorama” (88), in order to delineate comprehensive emergent existential forms that would acknowledge man’s dignity without being dogmatically normative or ideologically oppressive. The enterprise proves strenuous since the narrator pointedly remarks that “[t]o name [is] to impose an order” (171). Fortunately, the fascist grip of languageSee CF Roland Barthes, “Le langage est tout simplement fasciste (Language is flatly fascist),” Leçon inaugurale de la Chaire de Sémiologie Littéraire du Collège de France (1977), Paris: Seuil, 1989. can be loosened since “[e]xisting words change their meaning” (104) in time. In consequence, Tomasula is enabled to retrieve the old concept of masculinity and resemanticize it from a fresh, tolerant and liberating perspective, impregnating it with unconventional semes, although keeping the founding reference to anatomy. As a result, a situated acceptation of masculinity can be referred to an open concept embracing every feature found in any individual endowed with the natural, engineered or fantasized physiological substratum of maleness. 

Opting for an inclusive approach rather than the exclusive prescriptive one inherited from the past, Tomasula is at liberty to mention a diversity of cases in complex contexts at a given time. This attitude is hinted at in such a reconciliatory statement as “I contain multitudes” (298), which echoes in “ ‘I’ meaning us” (193). These ambivalent formulations can be interpreted not to mean exclusively that Square is a type or that he embodies the phylogenetic result of centuries of evolution. Socio-ethnological reports bring more diversity into VAS, while Tomasula’s cumulative regime of composition lays down an organic system freed to a large extent from the principle of narrative causation, which is bound to be oppressively ideological. Individuals and generic identities are loosely gathered to constitute a patchwork inserted in a book programmatically exploring the limits of masculinity. 

Onomastics indicates that Square can be viewed as the geometrical conceptualization of the twentyfirst-century Western male with his certainties, doubts and fears, but he is made to coexist and somehow coalesce with all the so-called marginals of American Flatland as well as with the idealized male embodiment of hegemonic masculinity found in a classified ad for sperm auction, for instance:

PERFECT HEALTH, HETEROSEXUAL SUCCESSFUL BUSINESS MAN AND MALE MODEL/I am an honest sincere man who understands the needs of parents and the love a parent has for child/I’m single, in my 30’s, 6’1” 180lbs., blue eyes, brown hair, and have a family business building custom homes for executive clients. I am one of 5 children—we are all one year apart. I am the middle child with two brothers and two sisters—all of us are in perfect health with no major illnesses, a height and weight proportional. My parents were married after they graduated from the same […] (265)

The advertiser’s proclaimed heterosexual orientation reinforces a topic already present through Square and Circle’s characterization, and constitutive of conventional masculinity.

However, in spite of the central part played by the couple in the general plot, the heterosexist scenario is no longer seminal. A gay subtext undercuts the domination of the heteronormative model and implicitly modulates the definition of masculinity. It condemns the pathologization of “the Homosexual Problem” (65, 246) and the subsequent elaboration of “the Final Solution” (65) or discriminatory research on the so-called “gene(s) that causes homosexuality” (89). Tomasula strategically turns the table on the essentialist conservatives by seeking his arguments in nature itself: “Did I mention that 437 species exhibit homosexual behavior?” (88). These factual indications combine with some innuendoes traditionally associated with the gay community, for instance a somewhat decontextualized reference to Michel Foucault (274), or a double allusion to gay icon Dorothy (365-6), to whom Square identifies: “he also couldn’t help but understand how Dorothy must have felt” (366). 

To be earnest, it is important not to forget Oscar Wilde, who is turned into a monument and an everlasting presence through the evocation of his funerary statue (286). This intertextuality serves to extend the concept of masculinity, which is not so much redirected as amplified by Tomasula’s equating the body to a narrative, with the remark that “rewriting your body seemed natural, suddenly” (98). This remark carries its load of worries for the narrator, but it can be construed as a means of emancipation for the subject, whose body becomes a locus of self-assertion and self-fashioning. A grand narrative stating corporeal plasticity and the shifts it brings about is being elaborated. Tomasula’s approach to identity is reminiscent of—though dissimilar to—Judith Butler’s work on the performativeSee Judith Butler, Gender Trouble: Feminism and the Subversion of Identity (1990), New York: Routledge, 2006., since VAS’s reference to authorship can more easily be reconciled with an optimistic perspective. It posits the basically fictional constructedness of twentyfirst-century masculinity and males’ representations of themselves or their own bodies. This illustrates Tomasula’s half ironical comment that “OF COURSE, THIS IS ALL FLEXIBLE. (AND NEGOCIABLE.)” (272). Such a narrative process breaks with the ideology based on a supposedly natural order of things and the social system it produced. 

It is significant that in a mainly homosocial text, the narrator stages the end of male statutory supremacy and possibly reversed gender hierarchy by introducing “George/Christine Jorgensen, Flatland’s first transsexual, [who] had to forget his/her body in order to remember her/his body” (56). Undergoing male to female sex reassignment surgery means surrendering masculine domination and indirectly positing the loss of prestige in masculinity—now turned into an undesirable attribute. Tomasula also deconstructs masculinity by fictionalizing the fall of patriarchy through his main character, who does not only agree to “the snip,” renouncing his generative powers, but also accepts to break the phallocentric line by producing a single daughter, Oval. Hence, he fails to protect and pass on the world he inherited, for “kingdoms [die out]…since not all men…have male children…Who have male children…Who have male children” (65). 

Supposedly genuine physical prowess and earnest personal merit disappear while male domination is on the wane. This is why in the Flatland Tomasula describes, male phallic empowerment tends to be seen as a myth and a fraud. One telling illustration is found in his reference to erection, which is increasingly secured, increased and prolonged by the artificial “uplifting experience” of Viagra (182). As a result, Square understandably finds it increasingly hard to stand his ground. He is not unlike Dr. Silverstein, for both men symbolically have to adapt to the others’ decisions and ultimately adopt them. They can no longer impose their own vision of the world or assert themselves. Tomasula pictures them unable to claim kinship with the great Siegfrieds of the world and driven to change their tune, as indicated by Dr. Silverstein: “I try to put on Wagner as I work but everybody in the office has different tastes and we’ve only got one sound system…So we take turns. But anymore, it seems as if it’s always the account manager’s turn to pick” (367). More than mere muzak may come of it, but it is undeniable that VAS orchestrates the downfall of the traditional hegemonic masculinity that was still so active in the nineteenth century. Tomasula indicates the way of the future, when dominant males are made to resign the perks of patriarchy and share with every other citizen the responsibility for the invention of society.

This overview does not account for all the leads Tomasula offers in VAS. In addition, the opus is set in an extensive literary corpus dealing with the more or less fortunate transformations of the conventional male figure, which accounts for a wide-spread, long-standing crisis in masculinity. It follows that the study might benefit from a parallel with other works coming from different contexts which illuminate the topic of masculinity differently and broaden the perspective. Only cursory indications can be given, pointing to complementary phallic configurations that fathom reportedly essential flaws in traditional patterns of masculinity, hence constituting its margins but also hinting at new perspectives for future reformulations. First, an anonymous eighteenth-century poem, “A Receipt for Modern Dress,”“Nor forget that his breeches be roomy between ‘em:/’Twill show that a great deal is missing within ‘em.” Anon., “A Receipt for Modern Dress,” in Satirical Songs and Poems on Costume from the 13th to the 19th Century, Frederick William Fairholt (Ed.), London: Percy Society, 1849, 249. hints at the ineffective, diminutive penis of a dandy, in a society that is criticized for its over-feminized ways. Then, Salman Rushdie’s Midnight’s Children tackles the problem of impotence and literary creativity in the context of independent India, and came out in 1981. As for Ahmadou Kourouma’s Soleil des indépendances, it deals with sterility in post-colonial Africa with a strong political angle, and was published in 1968. Finally, Max Beerbohm’s Zuleika Dobson is a remarkable work composed of the author’s atypical novel and his numerous illustrations. In his book published in 1911, Beerbohm could arguably be said to articulate a form of unpathologized post-genital masculinity in the dandiacal character of John Dorset. Each according to its own specific regime, the five works under consideration would offer stimulating material for a qualified understanding of masculinity today and could fruitfully be analyzed together. However, in earnest, I should flatly admit—and this is important—that my field of research is dandyism in nineteenth-century British fiction, which might make such an ambitious project a somewhat wild(ean) one.


Works Cited

Abbott, Edwin. Flatland; A Romance of Many Dimensions. 1884. Accessed 25 July 2013. 

Tomasula, Steve. VAS: An Opera in Flatland. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2002.