by Alex Khlopenko
This novella can be read in one sitting and it should be read in one sitting. Though it’s understandable if you would need to take a break from this epistolary tale of intoxicating obsession and an apple peeler with a vibrant history.
Agnes, a young woman who was exiled from her family, tries to sell her grandmother’s peeler to make ends meet and pay for rent in an online queer community board. Her post attracts Zoe who quickly forms a bond with Agnes. Their email and instant message exchanges quickly spiral from the monetary exchange and sentimentality of the peeler history into something different, ugly, disturbing.
A couple of emails after mentioning that she “believed she could grant wishes”, Zoe offers to take Agnes under her wing, wiring her monthly rent money (who could decline an offer like that?) and otherwise caring for her. After this fatal turn there was no resemblance of balance of power anymore, there was no going back.
From how she had positioned herself and how quickly she jumped from buying a peeler to offering a Master/Slave agreement, Zoe’s experience in these matters is evident. She methodically micromanages Agnes’ life, her clothing, her body. She establishes strict rules and merciless punishment. This is not her first time being a master. Yet she was not ready for her obsession over controlling another person’s life to face Agnes’ even bigger obsession – a complete, religious devotion, to serving Zoe, even if the cost is her health and wellbeing.
The body horror elements reminded me of Matt Cardin’s notion of the horror of birth that he described in “To Rouse Leviathan”. Two bodies parasitizing off each other’s obsession, uniting into one to produce new life and thrust it into reality, disregarding its will, disregarding how unnatural and ugly it is. To interpret this grotesque conclusion to the story as a mere online “stranger danger” precaution would be a cheap oversimplification. LaRocca questions how we go in our determination to control our lives and other people’s lives, how giving up control feels like freedom and safety, how isolation, both social and economic, breeds horror and demands us to look at the utter toxicity of parenthood – biological or otherwise.
“Things have gotten worse…” is a story firmly rooted in the time and space of when it’s set – the early 2000s United States when everyone still firmly believed in the internet’s potential to connect people, yet it also lives outside of time and space, forever stuck in AOL chat rooms and email chains. Things indeed have gotten worse since then.
Considering that obsession and longing are at the heart of the story, combined with the ruthlessness of the aesthetics and LaRocca’s prose, the comparison with J.G. Ballard’s “Crash” was inevitable. Jean Baudrillard called “Crash” the “…first great novel of the universe of simulation” that in a hyper-functional crescendo united the sexual and technological. In “Things have gotten worse…” Zoe and Agnes never meet in real life. They don’t need to since LaRocca goes more than a step further to strip the story off “glistening and seductive” elements, (the “bodily” and the “physical” are present but non-essential to the narrative) to get to the essence of both the sexual and technological and ultimately delivers a story from the universe of simulacra.
The dissection of brutally abusive, all-consuming, feverish desire to feel Real, to be able to steer/manipulate your life (and another person’s life) in a direction of your choosing, and the inability to go back when you have already tasted that Real are just as masterfully described as in “Crash”. In both books none of the characters – even those who survive, go unscathed and or unchanged. The same goes for the readers – Agnes and Zoe, like Vaughn before them, will linger in the back of your mind for a long time, posing questions you wouldn’t like to know the answers to.
Starting with the cover from Kim Jakobsson reminiscent of Francis Bacon, to Ballardian speed and attention to detail in the narrative, to a Cronenberg-like surgical precision and fucked-up tenderness in body horror elements, LaRocca’s “Things Have Gotten Worse Since We Last Spoke” builds on the foundations laid out by the horror classics to deliver something completely unique and unforgettable.
Available from WeirdPunkBooks