[FOOP! by Chris Genoa. Eraserhead Press, 2005. 293 pp. ISBN 0-97295-989-0.]
Chris Genoa, the author of FOOP!, has received his share of praise, some of it valid. Christopher Moore, a fellow absurdist and author of Lamb, called the book “a surreal pie in the face,” which isn’t too far from the truth. Nick Sagan, author of Edenborn, calls FOOP! “wild, fearless, and wickedly clever.” All this praise on the dust jacket of a book. Who knew?
Fair enough, but Genoa is trying to pull off something difficult: keeping a reader’s attention for nearly 300 pages. He doesn’t achieve his goal. FOOP! is, at best, a poor man’s Hitchhiker’s Guide, with humor that is forced, a central conceit that has no punch, and nothing new in Genoa’s absurdist approach to storytelling.
Joe, the main character of FOOP!, begins the story as a guide leading vacationing tourists through important events in history via his boss’ time machine. Joe has no interest in history, per se, though he does seem to enjoy being along for the ride, if in a bored and distanced stance.
As a first-person narrator, Joe is more plodding philosopher than obsessed storyteller. The urgency and necessity of first-person narrators come from a need to tell a certain story. Twain’s Tom Sawyer needed to talk about his trips up and down the Mississippi River and how that freedom could not jive with slave Jim’s lack of freedom. Salinger’s Holden Caufield was haunted by his brother’s death.
What’s obsessing Joe? Not much. Instead, the reader endures his mostly inane comments on all things that cross his path.
About a tour to the “The Great Supernova of 2015,” Joe says “[The supernova] wasn’t all that great, just a bright flash in the Eastern sky that stuck around as a patch of light for a few months and enabled people to parade around at night as if the world had become one giant football stadium with the exploded star as the artificial lights. Neat-o, but not great. The Neat-O Supernova of 2015.”
It’s clever, but unnatural and forced. One can feel Genoa the author pouring over the text, searching for more opportunities to be clever. I would prefer a more organic process, so that we could see what’s really on this guy’s mind, instead of the constant barrage of witticisms. As it stands, Joe cannot commit to a single thought. The result is a character to whom the reader cannot commit.
The central conceit does not help that commitment. Through dubious scientific reasoning, Joe’s boss has figured that time travel is a “no harm, no foul” affair. When one goes back in time, he/she actually enters a new timeline, so however bad one screws with history, the history of the original timeline stays the same. Joe’s boss calls this the “shaved cat principle,” which states that a shaved cat in an alternate timeline will not be shaved in the time traveler’s original timeline.
How does this work? Wormholes. How do those work? Genoa doesn’t offer explanation. “I’m a PhD, Joe,” the main character’s boss reminds him. “So this isn’t open to discussion unless you want to go back to school for six years.” The reader gets no clear sense that Genoa understands the science himself. If he does, he doesn’t demonstrate that understanding to the reader, but keeps it murky through his characters’ inability to explain.
So, OK, whatever. Suspension of disbelief and all that.
Still, in terms of a storytelling motor, this thing lacks gas. History is supposed to be the story of the world. Looking at history is supposed to allow each of us to see the effect of actions over time. The “shaved cat principle” takes away accountability of whatever happens in the past.
Kill your mom when she was a teenager? Therapeutic, maybe, but not consequential. Go back and make your former self study for that big exam that you originally failed? Well done in an “I regret my past” sort of way, but sorry. You still failed that exam in your timeline, and so you’re still working at the burger place.
Genoa does attempt to give the time travel some consequence in plot, in that Joe's constant screwing with time is unraveling the space-time continuum. Seriously, haven't we had enough of this with Star Trek? I understand Genoa is trying to answer the question “who cares?,” but he should offer more to his readers.
All of this is absurd, of course, and following in the line of the genre. “For most it was only a piddling Rosencrantz or Guildenstern role,” Joe reflects toward the end with Stoppard’s dramatic absurdist offering. “Only for a chosen few was it a whopping Hamlet role. Either way it doesn’t matter, because in the end whether you deserve it or not has nothing to do with it.”
Absurd, indeed. Nothing matters. All is random. And with a shout out to Vonnegut, “So it goes.”
Genoa is not the first to jump on this boat, but one does wonder (maybe it’s just me) why go through this old territory again? Nothing matters. Everything sucks. So what? Why bother us with 300 pages to reiterate the same point? Whatever Genoa’s philosophic bent, he owes his readers something new. I know he has the talent to create anew rather than rehash the old.