Me holding up the cover of They Is Us over top the laundry on my bed

Monk Reviews They Is Us by Tama Janowitz

This review was originally posted direct to my Instagram on December 23rd 2019.

I picked this up from a library bookshelf while I was checking out the 2nd book in N.K. Jemisin’s Broken Earth trilogy. The first few pages I opened to described a harried mom telling her pre-teen child to go to a strip mall stripper establishment to find work for the summer. The back of the book described the setting as somewhere in suburban New Jersey, kids growing up next to a superfund site, in an America that’s lost a war to Syria and Palestine. I was INTO it.

This book was published in 2008 and yet, as most dystopian sci-fi type writing of just a decade ago, it struck me as so real and banal, so excruciatingly, fantastically grotesque. Dialogue exchanges come few and far between, and we spend the majority of our time inside the different characters heads (teen girls, single moms, immigrant dads, teen terrorists, billionaire bio-tech CEOs, etc), experiencing the ghastly circumstances of their mundane suffering through descriptions of their anxieties, desires, and other bodily perceptions. We watch them tune in to television programming that ONLY broadcasts a gay president’s celebrity wedding and donation-based war policy pleas. We watch them rationalize and ignore their own physical injury and sickness, genetically engineered vermin infestations, extreme weather and climate disaster, food substitutes, predatory capitalist schemes against people who think of themselves as regular degular Americans making ends meet, and so on. The longer the book goes on, the more you realize just how severe the state of their existence is. It’s fucking incredible to me and the grim absurdity of the narrative had me captivated.

Then there is

a rape scene. Much like in Patrick Califia’s Doc and Fluff, you suddenly find yourself in the middle of an assault unfolding in real time, and it is not fun to read. Survivors beware. With Califia’s Doc and Fluff, an edition of the book was eventually released with a direct response to people’s criticism of the scene. With They Is Us, I do think this scene is a definitive turning point for the remainder of the book, its narrative, and the trajectory of its characters. I think it suits the story, to be frank. The scene was harrowing to read, it reminded me of many of my own experiences, and I think it actually sharpens the grotesque circus of events into the disturbing horrorshow it is. Most of the book reads in an amusing and exasperated style, but after this scene you find your perception changed, where what formerly amused and shock-value appalled has turned into definitive grim horror. I mean, the cover itself advertises the book as a cautionary horror story.

So. I liked this book a lot, but damn I fucking hate rape scenes, that shit sent me out for a day after.

Also worth noting is this current throughout the book where I thought characters of color were described in low key fetishistic/exaggerated otherizing ways… and I ~want~ to say that’s because we’re seeing them through these hapless and deeply ignorant white characters… but i’m also not here trying to make excuses for anybody cause I don’t know this author in the least. It’s just like, real ignorant white American, extreme capitalist horror shit. Belligerent white working class horror shit and then some. It’s fascinating to me that most of the Goodreads reviews here give this 1 or 2 stars asking where is the plot and/or how disgusted and disappointed they were about it.

Suggestion: Requesting a copy of this book from your local library can thus make it available to others. Or ask your local book store to order it for you. Go to anyone but wicked *maz*n.