The Last Book I Loved: We’re Getting On

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Is this the apocalypse? Maybe. It could just be a personal problem.

James Kaelan’s We’re Getting On was the last book to remind me why I love books so much. A collection of 2 long and 2 short interconnected stories, this text challenges the very notion of progress by evaluating the roles of technology and imagination in a modern, ecologically unsustainable society. The vision is undaunted and as clear as skies must have been before the industrial age.

The first story, “A Deliberate Life,” provides a vivid snapshot of the kind of hipster life where “you’re only allowed to worry about things that don’t matter, like bands and trials and fashion,” where, due to a lack of funds … well. I’ll let the no-nonsense protagonist Josh tell you about it:

“I should explain that in Midtown, because none of us can afford the cover charge at The Park (though none of us could go there if we could), we have to settle for the second string girls who’re willing to put up with fruit flies in their vermouth. Granted, our chicks know a lot more about Iggy Pop than the downtown models do, but they also drink so much that their faces and asses swell up. And when they get heavy, they blow coke to cut the weight. But then they stop sleeping, which causes their eyes to sink back in their skulls. Accordingly, a really pretty girl in our world is like a loaf of bread in the gulags, and two months ago, Mary was fresh out of the oven. The last thing I wanted to do, therefore, was lose my chance with her. So I put on “TV Eye” by The Stooges, left my post at the turntable, went down to the dance floor, and handed her four drink tickets.”

It is a world where an imagined group dynamic influences all desires and actions, where status and power prevail intangible but all-important. This no doubt sounds familiar. Because although there is a surreality to We’re Getting On—the third story, “The Surrogate,” details the adoption of a pet rat that serves as an unwanted but endearing memento of a 3 month relationship—what Kaelan presents is a stunningly accurate reflection of our own times, with characters who accept or reject varying levels of the status quo yet all depend on it for a sense of identity. This is not a story; it is a vision, and appropriately it is not muddled by commentary or analysis. This book, more than any other you are likely to hold in the physical form, represents the status quo not just of the publishing industry but of our tired and largely unfought modern dilemma.

In “You Must’ve Heard Something” we find two characters in apartments separated by an alley. There has been no electricity for days and we don’t know why. It’s unclear whether the characters themselves know either, but they seem to be the only ones left in their respective buildings and are too afraid to leave them. Even when the electricity returns momentarily Jane chooses not to listen to the radio but for more than a minute; what she hears so terrifies her she prefers to be ignorant of the outside world. Charles traded all his batteries for a bag of apples he has been carefully rationing and knows nothing.

“It’s funny how well I ignored all this,” she says. Starving and with but little food—there is no water, and Jane has one bag of dry pasta remaining while Charles has only the now nearly all-rotten apples—they engage in “conceptual eating” for diversion. They become prisoners of their own minds for fear of facing the real world; they create a phantasmal reality in which language converges with absurdity and sustains their personal inadequacies. “We’re being ridiculous,” she says. “We’re manufacturing this whole problem.”

In “The Surrogate,” the unnamed character’s relationship ends with a note that simply says “’Dear,’ but nothing else. Perhaps she had intended to write me a letter,” he muses, “but realizing that she didn’t know my name, was unable to continue. I certainly don’t remember hers, if I ever knew it. We had no need for monikers. There was never anyone else from whom we had to distinguish ourselves.” My tweeple call me @elittl for the same reason; a lot of them don’t need to know my name. Language often comes to represent things that no longer have any meaning, and eventually we lose the ability to communicate effectively. Lose the grip on language, lose all sense of self.

So in the title story, in which five people abandon the “lights and machinery” of society for an “overgrazed pasture” in the middle of nowhere—leading the crew, Dan wants “a refuge from everything … [he has] ever learned or done or been reliant upon. One cannot prevent advancements,” he reasons,” but one can remove himself from the parade”—they do away with traditional monikers of time and space, relegating denominations to pre-morning, morning, pre-evening (there is no noon without clocks), evening, pre-night and night; up-mountain and down-mountain. In other words, time returns to fiction and space is now a relation to self. Names are no longer necessary when to point is sufficient. Sex is forsaken for the way-more useful pronoun “it.”

These humans are relentless in their conscious regression, seeing in this the only true and admirable progress. “Let me review my plan. The garden has to die, or I have to kill it, then kill an animal with my spear, try to kill something else, such as a hawk with a rock, fail at that, find a dead animal somewhere, eat part of it, search for another carcass, fail to find it, and I’ll be getting on.” They reach such a height of devotion/frenzy that their goal is as follows: “if someone were to stumble across us, god forbid, I’d want them to wonder if they’d seen humans at all.” They are trying to go beyond human by moving backwards.

What does it mean that this uber-progressive hyper-awareness results in such primitivation? What do we think of these characters when we find them?

In a lot of ways they are ridiculous. But you will find yourself gawking as at any absurdist rendering of your own self; it speaks volumes about who you are in a way that the mirror—and your closest fellow humans—will not. And this is precisely the most we could hope to take from a book. Alternatives. Possibilities. True but uncommon reflections. There is not one mention of a text in the entire book. How do you escape without the internet? television? books? Here is your overgrazed pasture. This is your cultural wasteland. Are you trying to maintain? Are you turning a blind eye? Are you getting on? Are we?

I will hardly mention that the first edition of this book features a cover that actually contains spruce seeds, so theoretically if you bury the book a tree will grow. What is more important: the artifact or the material that produced it? That’s for each person who holds a copy in his or her hands to decide. In addition, the book was printed on 100% post-consumer material (it feels miraculous),  Kaelan is doing the entire book tour on his bicycle, and Flatmancrooked Press is offsetting the auxiliary emissions by purchasing carbon credits. When I said this book represents the status quo, consider this question: what is truly worth bringing into the world and what are the costs? This and much more is discussed in the zero emissions book (really, look into it).

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Read an HTMLGiant interview with James by Pank Magazine’s Roxane Gay.

Catch—and even ride with—James on tour, from LA to Vancouver and then, late summer, from LA to Boston (or just join for a leg or two)!

Read “The Surrogate.”


Evan Karp is the founder and executive director of Quiet Lightning and the founding editor of Litseen. He writes literary columns for the San Francisco Chronicle, SF Weekly, and SF/Arts. More from this author →