Random generators for baby names, fantasy characters and plot scenarios are abundant online, so why not one for high-concept scripts? Click a mouse and voilà: “What if apes ruled the world?” Not random enough, obviously. Click again: “What if Judy Garland didn’t overdose on Seconal in 1969 and instead lives in dystopian Toronto, where, at age 138, she’s pursuing a PhD?”
Click once more, because in Come Back, Sky Gilbert is smitten with that peculiar notion.
Although in an “advanced state of decrepitude,” Gilbert’s Garland proves to be a testy and combative narrator. Over the course of seven meandering chapters, Come Back presents the world’s oldest graduate student careening from one topic (her back-in-the-day fondness for oral sex) to the next (identity politics) and back again.
If the novel’s concept seems eccentric but promising, the way Gilbert chooses to flesh out the story is regrettable. Evidently uninterested in following convention (or in the footsteps of William Gibson, Larissa Lai or Margaret Atwood) and exploring the social reality of some future awful place, Gilbert instead gives his setting the sketchiest of treatments: The new world order is an Islamic theocracy with origins in Turkey, and semi-permanent existence in cyber-reality is the norm. The specifics of Garland’s daily life, for example, and the changes wrought in Toronto by an apparently global religious governance are largely excluded from the novel’s scope.
Instead, the bulk of the novel is one-sided communication from Garland to Johnny, her post-gender dissertation supervisor, who has moved far away and become the PhD student’s sniping critic. Since we’re seeing text, Garland’s words read like a highly dramatic letter. Cyberspace is everywhere, though, so Garland’s communiqués may be virtual. Gilbert doesn’t explain.
Garland speaks in the familiar arch voice of other Gilbert novels while quarrelling with Johnny (whose replies the novel does not include). She rages with comic bite about aspects of her past: her hag of a mother and misunderstood father, lovers, June Allyson, gay fans. Garland’s post-1969 existence is barely touched on; her enrolment in a PhD program remains a mystery.
In addition to revisiting scenes from her former life, Garland defends her decision to choose a “footnote to history,” Dash King, as the topic for her dissertation. King, a miserable, Barbara Pym-loving former drag queen who left the theatre world in disgust only to find academia equally dissatisfying, is plainly a stand-in for Gilbert. There’s no clear purpose or payoff for this self-indulgence. As for how a former drag queen and failed gay academic can be an acceptable topic within a theocratic dystopia, that is left unanswered.
Apparently, Garland explains, King’s “decline is a significant metaphor for the decline of an entire era” and “the postmodern obsession with people as objects of disintegration” originated with gay men. Garland seems to be interested in King because he represents a bygone identity; over and again, she tells Johnny (and us) he’s important, but does not produce a compelling or coherent argument.
King gives Gilbert plenty of time to opine about continental philosophers (Derrida, Foucault, Cixous etc.) associated with post-structuralism. Though Garland is studying decades in our future, there’s extremely little attention paid to scholarly developments after the 1990s; who’s influential circa 2055 is anyone’s guess. Perhaps as a “relic of another era,” Garland rejects contemporary fashions. Given Gilbert’s disinclination to describe a dystopia of his own invention, the spectral vagueness of Garland’s scholarly context may also be by design.
While some of this “scholarship” might be of interest to a graduate student (e.g., “Dash’s life proves both Wilde and Foucault correct, while at the same time establishing an emblematic example of the failure of postmodernism and poststructuralist theory: Our constructs eat us”), the hermetic insularity and self-absorption is wearying and dull.
Like a one-woman play with seven long acts, Come Back is a performance that fitfully engages and inspires eyes to search out exit strategies.
Brett Josef Grubisic’s co-editing project, After NAFTA: Contemporary North American Dystopian Literature , will be published next year. He and his husband live in Vancouver, a dystopia of unaffordable housing.