THINGS HAVE GOTTEN WORSE SINCE WE LAST SPOKE
Weirdpunk Books, 2021.
*** Remember, notebook entries often contain spoilers ***
Eric LaRocca (whose recent story at Dread Imaginings you can read here) has created a bit of a sensation lately with his new book, Things Have Gotten Worse Since We Last Spoke.
In this novella, Agnes, a young woman in need of money, offers a family heirloom for sale on a queer community message board. Soon, she gets a response from Zoe, and the two begin an online relationship. As the story evolves, told in an epistolary manner using emails and chats, a chasm of need opens in Agnes. Her dull job and her isolated life have given her little sense of purpose or belonging. She seems to find it with Zoe, who offers both affection and a dominating personality which Agnes hopes can help shape her own flagging sense of self. She enters into a sponsor/drudge contract with Zoe, agreeing to do as Zoe commands in return for support and acceptance.
I suppose it’s predictable enough that Agnes soon feels she’s in over her head, but how LaRocca works out that tension and the final direction of the story is anything but expected. The story of Agnes’s hunger for acceptance and purpose dominates the text. Zoe is less forthcoming and therefore more enigmatic. Her desire to control Agnes suggests that she is working against her own sense of powerlessness and attempting to craft a space where she feels greater agency in her life. That she eventually moves to break off the relationship also suggests that she is a bit horrified at herself with how far she has carried things. Agnes, for her part, is longing personified. As her connection to Zoe becomes more tenuous, she clings more desperately to the dangerous fruit of their collaboration. The climax is intensely visceral and unsettling.
Certainly, it is the disturbing body horror of LaRocca’s finale that has driven much of the positive response to the text (and justly so). But to treat the story as simply a wrenching shock-fest is, to me, to miss the bigger picture. Agnes’s hunger is a horrifying reflection on a culture that has given her so little, the mark of a wasteland so bereft of significance that her connection to Zoe takes on oversized importance. The text suggests that, strides of recent decades notwithstanding, there is still a human cost to being queer in an America that often forces LGBTQ+ people to feel like isolated outcasts.
I’ve read some negative reviews complaining that LaRocca’s text simply reproduces tired tropes about dysfunctional queers. To be sure, there are too many stories out there that treat LGBTQ+ people in dehumanizing ways, but this text did not read that way for me. The story struck me more as an inditement of the culture that failed Agnes than a wallow in the spectacle of her failings. In my reading, Things Have Gotten Worse Since We Last Spoke digs into the dark and disturbing extremes of online relationships and in the process provides a lot more than queer trauma porn: it exposes the hollowness of American life in the 21st century where, despite the connectedness technology provides, people seem more isolated and vulnerable than ever. To me, the power of the book has less to do with Agnes’s sexual orientation and more to do with how her hunger is particularly contemporary, the grim and gory outcome of the American century that led up to it.
It may be that this is not the “kind of story” some people calling for greater inclusiveness in our public discourse have in mind. That’s just too damn bad. LaRocca is a gay man who has chosen to become a horror writer. It is absurd to encourage people who have previously been marginalized to speak out and then begin policing what they have to say.