It’s funny. When I scheduled with Heavy Feather last month for this to be my first review of 2023, I didn’t really give much thought to the fact that it would post just a few days after the 2nd anniversary of the January 6th attacks. I mean, sure, I thought it would be a good pick to kick off the new year, in light of its overtly political bent and our country’s most recent spate of onerous midterm elections (I live in Georgia, so this literally goes double for me). Strong fodder for a robust piece. But still, I had no idea just how timely this review would be, both with regards to the National moment, and to my own life within our increasingly tenuous nation. I laughed at reports of Donald Trump’s limpdicked 2024 campaign launch, even while girding my faculties for his inevitable return to, and impact upon, “the discourse” over the next two years. I laughed at every newscaster who diligently worked to add “tripledemic” to our lexicon, only to promptly get sick for the entirety of my Christmas break. I laughed (along with everyone I know) at the mortifying spectacle of Kevin McCarthy’s bid for the House speakership, and then watched through schadenfreudian hangover as he ceded an inordinate amount of power to craven kakistocrats who openly defend the insurrection to this day. It’s funny, the things we have to laugh at these days, and Terena Elizabeth Bell’s debut story collection Tell Me What You See is funny too, in its way. Maybe not “haha” funny, but definitely “oh fuck” funny. Queasy funny. Urgent funny. 2023 funny.
The book opens with a disquieting flash fiction preamble entitled “Welcome Friend”—a dislocated slice of post-apocalyptica that, depending on the particular bent of your imagination, could be credibly ascribed to any time and place between “this very moment” and “the end of the world” (and indeed, stitching together those two points in time—perhaps in hopes of saving us the nine in-between—is essentially Bell’s working, Casandral MO), before jumping into “The Fifth Fear,” one of several speculative sci-fi entries that serve to peer into the future the book’s more overtly contemporary material portends.
In contrast to Bell’s opening gambit and its “how soon is now?” ambiguity, “The Fifth Fear” operates as a kind of counterpointed reply of “now is forever, and always will be.” In it, we learn of “the portal,” a world-altering discovery in the field of psychophysics through which humanity (since redubbed “Allkind”) may live out multiple lives on truncated timetables, effectively trading the permanence and security of a singular “reality” for the chance to explore all of their proverbial sliding doors; to have their cake, eat it too, and potentially gorge on as many more cakes as they care to dream up. Finessed with footnotes about the history and development of portal science, and ergodic touches illustrative of the still-not-entirely-understood (but clearly deleterious) side effects of prolonged portal exposure, “The Fifth Fear” could be read as a parable about our already irreversible misinformation crisis, the splintering of identity between online and IRL personas, or even just the increasing everpresence of the concrete past as year after year we store up more and more memories in the permanent datadumps of the internet, no longer willing (or maybe even able) to let anything simply be forgotten. This one-two opening punch clears the way for all that Bell sets out to do after it, but still in no way prepares you for the haymaker that follows it—a hybrid tour de force and, quite simply, one of the most affecting pieces of writing I came across all of last year.
Told via a slowly unfurling doomscroll of text messages, e-mails, news alerts, Tweets, Facebook posts, memes, and other sundry media imagery, I will readily admit that I felt a certain wary skepticism at the outset of “#CoronaLife.” “There are so many ways to do this badly,” I thought, diving in with a sigh. “And I’m so over the pandemic.” But I shit you not, I was crying at my desk before I was even halfway through. What’s more, I’d wager Bell was betting on that very sequence of events. On the kind of eyerolly reactions she would conjure in attempting this, and on her own audacious ability to pull it off, setting you up to react cynically, and then effectively undermining that cynicism in real time. It is a masterful accomplishment.
Clearly drawing on her own experience living in New York during the early days of COVID-19, her expertly curated feed starts off slowfooted (just like we all did). Old acquaintances are coming out of the woodwork with self-serving friend requests and performative hashtags of support. Family members are offering spare rooms and transportation out of the city. But this is New York. People are tough. Of course they’re going to stick it out. And then, before you know it, the bodegas are out of toilet paper. And everyone’s downloading Zoom. And a light but palpable panic starts to creep in. And then, not long after that, the bodies start helicoptering past the window. Every hour, on the hour. And soon eough, everyone knows someone. Everyone’s lost someone. The eyes of the world are watching, and yet somehow, outside the five boroughs, people still don’t quite get just how bad it is. And even with the hindsight of today, until I read this story, I don’t think I got it either. Not really. Not the way I should have. I had close friends in New York who skated by, and I feel luckier on their behalf for having read this.
For as loudly and as long as America’s greatest city was screaming and dying and trying to warn us all, it was still, in many ways, a separate pandemic. A TV tragedy. Something the rest of us watched and thought “it can’t happen here” (a depressingly immediate microcosm of our government’s initial reaction to the virus’ birth on the opposite side of the globe). I guarantee that somewhere in “#CoronaLife” there is a screenshot of some idiotic reaction or terrible hot take or tragic miscalculation that you personally made, because somewhere along the way, we all made at least one. The little gasps and jerks of gallows humor that Bell slips into her timeline nightmare are so brutally familiar they might just snap your neck. I thought I was over the pandemic—that I wasn’t ready to read fiction about it—that I maybe wasn’t even ready for anyone to write fiction about it yet (though how much this qualifies as fiction is debatable)—that it was just too soon. But Terena Elizabeth Bell here proves that notion both lazily hubristic, and artistically wrongheaded. I don’t make this blanket statement often, but absolutely everyone should read “#CoronaLife,” and take some cathartic stock of what we’ve all just been through. It’s never too soon for work this good.
After a few more short, experimental pieces, Bell again blasts off into the nebulous near-future with the poignant “Privacy Station,” a (comparably) hopeful glimpse of the existential problems and solutions of the world to come. Here, we join two botanists stationed on a year-long mission in orbit, heroically working to regrow fruits now extinct on Earth due to a climate change phenomenon known as “the deadening.” The catch—because when it comes to making people care about science, there’s always a catch—is that the participants must agree to be on camera more-or-less 24/7 throughout their stay (give or take bathroom breaks, depending on how much you trust reality TV executives to not secretly film you pooping). And so, by intentionally pairing male and female researchers, isolating them together in close quarters, and largely cutting them off from their lives down below, all the network really has to do is stay out of the way; let nature take its course; let romance bloom. All of the stories in Tell Me What You See share a somewhat analytical, diagnostic bent—the work of a scientific mind asking philosophic questions—but “Privacy Station” stands out for its heartfelt humanity. The zero-g sexual tension between Aaron and Emma as they endeavor to save some small, lost piece of environmental joy for a world that’s largely already forgotten its passing—and then some small, lost piece of personal joy between two people who haven’t—flashes like a solar flare amidst the book’s often fearfully dark vision; a reminder to appreciate what we have while we have it, and to nurture the things we hope to preserve.
I’m running out of wordcount here, but I’d be remiss in wrapping up without at least mentioning the final (and titular) story, “Tell Me What You See,” which, as I alluded to in my introduction, is the first piece of fiction I’ve seen try to grapple with the events of January 6, 2020. I don’t want to give too much away here—you kind of need to go into this one blind (or at least nearsighted)—except to say that Bell dips again into her endlessly inventive ergodic toolbag and emerges with a story less about the obvious sociopolitical ramifications of an attempted coup on American soil, and more about the implications of a society that increasingly communicates through images; about the manipulability of those images, and the myriad ways in which they are no longer worth 1,000 words (if they ever were). As with the dawn of the pandemic, the January 6th attacks were downplayed almost immediately in certain circles, again suffering from the disconnect we all feel as we experience more and more of our lives via TV and computer screens. Even many of the participants seemed, in its aftermath, to not quite grasp the reality of what they’d done, or the seriousness of its consequences. It’s funny to think that, if our Democracy does manage to survive, we may one day look back on the Trump Presidency as the wake-up call that unintentionally saved it—the disruptive force (which, to his credit, he never denied being) that revealed just how precariously sand-built our most foundational institutions actually were.
Even now, two years later, it’s only through the deliberate, painstaking work of 2022’s committee hearings that the veils of spin and spectacle have been lifted from that near-catastrophic day, and in the same way, Tell Me What You See is working overtime to sound the alarm; to wake us all up; to point, and shout, and say this is what’s happening, right fucking now. Pay attention. Think hard about the world you want to live in. Do whatever you can to make it happen. Every year is an election year. Every year, there will be another, smarter, more effective tyrant, grasping at wealth and power, gobbling resources while the world burns. Every year there will be another round of imperfect options keeping us the perfect amount of divided, letting the perfect amount of us win or lose, live or die, so long as it lets them win by 50.1%. Every year, from now until doomsday, reality—our reality—will be on the ballot. Yes, it’s funny the things we have to laugh at, and it’s easy to throw up your hands, and say “it can’t happen here,” and cynically mock the surreal, unfathomable idiocy of it all. But the day is coming, sooner than any of us think, when it will no longer be any version of funny anymore. And Terena Elizabeth Bell wants you to think about all of that. Her writing demands it, right there in the title. What will the future look like? What do you hope for it? When you dare to look ahead, what do you see?
Tell Me What You See, by Terena Elizabeth Bell. Whiskey Tit, December 2022. 143 pages. $20.00, paper.
Dave Fitzgerald is a writer living and working in Athens, Georgia. He contributes sporadic film criticism to DailyGrindhouse.com and Cinedump.com, and his first novel, Troll, is set to be released early next year. He tweets @DFitzgerraldo.
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