Thomas Sweterlisch’s debut novel Tomorrow and Tomorrow never quite decides what it wants to be, and is all the stronger for it. It’s a murder mystery, but also a commentary on an information-addled society. It’s a moving meditation on grief and loss, but also an exploration of what the objectification of women does to men. It’s a scalding satire on our addiction to celebrity and scandal, but also a startlingly optimistic look at the state of poetry in future America.
Ten years after Pittsburgh is destroyed in a terrorist attack (known colloquially as the Blast) John Dominic Blaxton lives in Washington, D.C. while still actively mourning his wife, Theresa Marie. Rather than keeping his wife alive in his memory, keeps her alive in the Archive, the virtual Pittsburgh that provides a record and a memorial to those lost in the Blast. Even after a decade, Dominic spends most of his time in the Archive, either investigating questionable deaths, or reliving moments with his wife. Theresa Marie was just entering her 9th month of pregnancy when the bomb went off, and now all Dominic can do is hide in his memories of their life together.
When he stumbles across the body of Hannah Massey, a student who was murdered shortly before the blast, he can tell that someone has modified the digital records to protect her killer. But why would anyone by hacking ten-year-old crime scenes? Did her killer escape the destruction of the City? Dominic becomes obsessed with researching the girl, even after his bosses warn him away from the case, and after he escalates his drug use (supposedly to enhance the reality of the Archive) he’s fired, which leaves him open to a job offer from a private contractor. Thomas Waverly, uber-rich consultant to the President, needs to find out why someone is hacking into the Archive and tampering with memories of his daughter Albion.
One of the reasons I wanted to review this book is because I’m from Pittsburgh, and I wanted to see how it fared in a post-apocalyptic landscape. I have to say, even though more of the book takes place in D.C., San Francisco, and a small Czech town called Domazlice, Sweterlitsch’s take on the Steel City was wonderful. He clearly knows every hill and cloud factory, and the sections in the Archive are some of the most real and poignant in the book. He captures the joy of driving through Liberty Tunnel, and seeing the whole city laid out beneath you; the beauty of the rivers; the way the almost-eternally grey sky changes with the seasons to create its own kind of beauty. He also take a few swipes at grief-porn, with artists who never even went to Pittsburgh memorializing the city in bad poetry and mawkish paintings. At one point Dominic tries to drown himself in one of the Three Rivers, but since he’s in the Archive, it just resets.
The future world is at once a strength and weakness here. I thought the idea of the Archive was brilliant: a virtual Pittsburgh, patched together from CCTV cameras and people’s memories, full-color, 3-D, completely immersive—exactly the type of world that would trap a grief-stricken would-be detective. The U.S. President is a sort of nightmare Sarah Palin—a conservative former-cheerleader who hosts yearly public executions and recently supported the repeal of term-limits. America has completely succumbed to check-points and constant TSA screening to try to thwart another terrorist attack, and everyone lives with a lack of privacy that feels inevitable.
The tech of the book worked for me—Most people have Adware, a neural net that sits directly on the brain, enhancing vision and providing literal pop-up ads that overlay themselves on reality. Did you look at a CVS storefront? You’ll see gorgeous women in bikinis playing with the beach balls they currently have on sale. A glance at H&M shows you underwear models with prices hovering nearby. Did you actually look over at a flesh-and-blood female? Well, here are links to porn starring a girl who looks just like her! (If you’re noticing a trend, here, well, I’m getting to that…) Your Adware also connects you to the internet, streaming television broadcasts, and videogames, which are all 3-D as well. So if you play Mike Tyson’s Punch-Out!! (as a pair of models do in the book) you will literally be dancing around punching a holographic Mike Tyson…who is presumably long dead, by the way. Which leads to one of my issues with the book.
Since Sweterlitsch seems to want the action to hover in an indefinable near-future, we’re never really told when this is all happening. We begin ten years after the Blast, which was itself ten years after the Voter Registration Act was passed. There’s a reference to a model of car from 2046, and, obviously, tech has advanced to the point that you can walk into a glorified RadioShack and have wires attached to your brain without even getting a doctor’s note first. However, I also had a sense that Sweterlitsch wants so badly to comment on today’s world that he never frees himself to create a new future. People still eat Ho Hos, drive Priuses, host poetry festivals, go to Wal-Mart, and use LinkedIn. (Does anyone actually use LinkedIn now?) The climate seemingly hasn’t gotten any worse than it is now, and everyone can still travel freely across national borders. Even with what seems to be state surveillance becoming normalized, people are still able to disappear and go underground when they need to. So while some aspects of the future society worked perfectly for me, I also thought that Sweterlitsch could have pushed it even more to make a stranger, scarier future to keep his readers off-balance.
One of the novel’s strengths is just how little the tech, or even the cases themselves, actually matter to the story. Dominic is a hero in the Philip K. Dick or Haruki Murakami mode: reactive, in over his head, batted around by powerful men and mysterious women until long past the point where he should be dead or crazy. Because of this near-apathy, we’re able to experience his world mostly without the filter of his opinions, which makes the dystopian aspect work better, I think, than the similar aspects in Gary Schteyngart’s Super Sad True Love Story, for instance. Where Schteyngart’s hero Lenny was desperately trying to get ahead (or at least keep up) in a shallow society that only cared about youth and celebrity, throwing asides to the reader like lifelines from another world, Dominic simply accepts the world as it is, which allows Sweterlitsch to use his future society to look at a disturbing problem in today’s: why do we hate women so much?
I don’t want to reveal too much about the cases, because that will get spoilery way too fast, but the women in this book are murdered, raped, tortured, and exploited. There are at least four different anonymous, horrifically fetishistic background murders. Almost all of the women we actually meet are models. The President’s college hook-ups are available for anyone who wants to see them. People go into the Archive to spy on women, watch them with their lovers, record encounters and upload them onto the internet. When I said before that this society has lost any privacy, what really seem to be the case is that women are, irrevocably, cuts of meat for sale and display.
The more we learn about Albion, the more that we learn that she is only ever a symbol, either of beauty or of evil. The only glimpses we get into her mind and emotions are mediated by Dominic. And because Sweterlitsch is trying to dig into some deep emotional territory, he doesn’t even let his hero off the hook. Theresa Marie Blaxton is only alive through her husband’s mind. We learn what she wore, we learn that she loved plants, we learn that she was pregnant with their child, a daughter. We learn nothing of her life before Dominic. We never learn what she believed, what she hoped for, who she was, apart from these signifiers. She is a cardboard cutout, a symbol as much as Albion.
We follow Dominic as he tries to help a stream of women he doesn’t actually understand, and the case drives him from D.C. to San Francisco, and then back to the ruins of Pittsburgh, where he confronts his past. I would argue that this section of the book goes a bit astray. In a way, the return to Pittsburgh feels inevitable, but I needed a bit more grounding to find all of the events in this section as believable as they need to be. Finally, Dominic travels to Domazlice, Czech*, the birthplace of his mother’s family. Here he tries to resolve his traumas, and make sense of everything that’s happened to him since he first stumbled across Hannah Massey’s body in the Archive.
*A Czech friend introduced me to a folksong titled “adnyj Neví Co Sou Domalice” which translates to “Nobody Knows Where Domazlice Is.” (Listen to it on YouTube.) I wonder if Sweterlitsch knows the song, and is consciously playing with it.
I finished this book not knowing who the villain is, or if there even is a true villain, or if all of the characters are just victims of circumstance and bad luck. Sweterlisch has created a fascinating work of dystopian fiction, stuffed to the seams with ideas, striking visuals, and raw emotion. He’s asking some startling questions about gender, equality, and ultimately, the nature of evil.
Tomorrow and Tomorrow is available now from Penguin.
Leah Schnelbach hopes yinz like the book as much as she did. Follow her on Twitter!