VAS: An Opera in Flatland
Taking Flatland, Edwin A. Abbott’s 1952 fancy of sociological geometry, as a jumping-off point, the collaborative work of graphic fiction VAS is a rumination on genetics, linguistics, heredity, and plastic surgery. The plot, such as it is, concerns a man named Square, a woman named Circle, and their daughter Oval, and Square’s tortured decision to have a vasectomy at the behest of his wife. Less a novel than an uneasy marriage of fiction, design, and art object, it bites off an awful lot of interesting material and chews it into a difficult cud—the story is woven into a hodgepodge of collages, source quotes, bits of advertising, and general typographical wankery.
The ideas here are fascinating. Living in a time when cloning is a reality, people routinely inject toxins into their faces, and the producers of a show like The Swan somehow haven’t been dragged behind the woodshed and clubbed to death, the ideas of genetic identity, eugenic standards, and surgical utopias are indeed of no small importance. But sadly, the weight of the subject matter is lost in a sea of well-intentioned pretentiousness. Liberal use is made of graphs, charts, and photographs cribbed from texts on eugenics, as well as quotes from doctors and scientists who, in their day, tried to aid humanity in ways that now seem monstrous. VAS seems to make the argument that one man’s forced sterilization of undesirables is another’s boob job—but is the argument really helped by 26 pages of gene sequencing? As with much of the book, the stunt comes off merely as intellectually lazy.
The graphics—provided by designer Stephen Farrell—are compelling, but they’re not helped by the scale of the book, which is not much bigger than your average paperback. A larger size might have at least given them more room to command a presence. Meanwhile, author Scott Tomasula’s treatment of his characters is cursory at best; they’re reduced to mere placeholders attempting to give the piece some narrative heft, and the effect is cold and distancing. As a way to mark them as genetic pawns it’s effective, but as a way to spark any interest in their lives it’s a wash.
The chief frustration with VAS is that it could have been a success—either as a straight-ahead novel or as a series of paintings, say—but in the end it falls short of its source material, Abbott’s Flatland included. A trip to the library would be infinitely more rewarding.