Something for Cyber Monday?
Review of Labor Day by Joseph Farley
With Labor Day, Joseph Farley, a longtime fixture in Philadelphia’s underground literary scene, has raided parts previously unknown and come back with a science fiction novel, of all things, worth a second and even third reading. Of course, for those familiar with Farley’s poetry, it’s hard enough to imagine the poet behind the emotionally complex yet dispassionately composed Longing for the Mother Tongue working in common prose, let alone the most popular of popular genres. And yet, despite the whiff of pulp inherent in genre fiction, we should remind ourselves that on the same shelves where so much of tomorrow’s hamster bedding resides we also find the works of Philip K. Dick, Arthur C. Clarke, George Orwell, Anthony Burgess and Ray Bradbury.
Of course, this is only to say that even the most sophisticated readers among us should keep an open mind. And, indeed, in the case of Farley’s novel, they won’t be disappointed if they do. What is delightful about Labor Day is, in a word, how thoughtful a book it is, without sacrificing an inch of plain, giddy Twilight Zone-style dystopian fun. Farley seems to have had a hilariously good time upending the conventions of both speculative fiction and literary pretension, without letting these ends eclipse the kinetic drive of a book with enough pulse to stir those looking for an exciting read over the holidays.
But perhaps the most interesting part of all this is how Farley strikes this balance: science fiction, like all genre work, has its conventions, and its fans expect, nay, demand them—to the point that (as yours truly can attest, having worked as a pro comic-strip writer) such readers will often react ferociously if a story swerves even slightly from the comfort zone of their cozy clichés. Farley, however, fiddles with the convention of convention itself, assembling Labor Day from a hodgepodge of smart readings and re-renderings. We find bits of 1984 in how the novel’s protagonist, Tom Fried (and do notice the dual pronunciation here, by the way), finds himself under constant surveillance; we also have something of an homage to The Metamorphosis, insomuch as Fried’s world is dominated by man-size cockroaches; and we even discover random references to key scenes from other works, as when a couple of police in Labor Day kick the bejesus out of an old drunk, à la A Clockwork Orange.
Still, to merely name these easy allusions isn’t to do Labor Day full justice. Labor Day ’s middle-age author, it seems, wasn’t satisfied until he had appropriated pieces of everything he grew up with, including one work that is about as sci-fi as an alarm clock: Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner. Nor is this allusion nearly as oblique as that made to Burgess’s “bit of the ol’ ultraviolent.” Arguably, any reader who isn’t reminded of the Draytons by Fried’s near apoplexy at learning of his daughter's plans to bring a cockroach home isn’t actually reading. Moreover, the scene comes after Farley makes it expressly clear that the world of Labor Day is, quite literally, post-racial as far as homo-sapiens are concerned; Fried, for instance, is described as having a “flat nose … almond-shaped eyes … [and] black curls,” as are all the other humans we meet throughout the novel. So, while at first glance it might seem Sidney Poitier’s Dr. Prentice is being compared to a man-size cockroach in Labor Day, Farley’s book is quite obviously aiming for something else altogether.
No doubt, race is a standard theme in American sci-fi. Don’t believe me? Consider whether ET is just an extraterrestrial, or whether our several definitions of alien are coincidental. No, by convention the bulk of today’s mainstream American sci-fi seemingly can’t keep itself from pitting a majority of lily-white humans against a malevolent minority of humanoids with a few features unnervingly dissimilar from humans’ (think Star Trek’s Klingons); at its softest, this implicit racism takes the form of a token alien friend like, say, Star Wars’ Chewbacca. But we must also remember that Han Solo wastes a good number of other others at the Mos Eisley Canteen before picking up Luke and company.
In Farley’s Labor Day, in contrast, the humans, including the protagonist, are the disenfranchised, oppressed minority segregated to the outskirts of civilization by man-size cockroaches. What’s more, the roaches are themselves, absurdly enough, descended from human scientists who spliced their genes with cockroach DNA to help their offspring survive a nuclear war. As for roach behavior, in Labor Day a cabal of elite roaches introduced late in the novel can only be compared to how the characters in the soap opera Dallas behave; these malevolent roaches are not so much a race in Farley’s novel but a class, more akin to Russian oligarchs than anything else.
Thus, it is important to clarify here that Farley’s treatment of race in Labor Day isn’t just a great example of how to turn a genre convention on its head but of how to do so while remaining socially conscionable. Granted, the novel opens with a scene in which Fried dines on putrefied rat yet is more nauseated by the sight of a fellow diner, a cockroach with “multifaceted eyes like an insect” who “slobber(s) a dark liquid onto (his) lobster.” But Farley eventually pushes Fried past his fear of the other: in an attempt to visit his soon-to-be in-laws at their high-rise apartment, he witnesses the deplorable conditions the building’s roach residents deal with daily. Not only is the elevator a death trap; the building’s security guard isn’t even remotely interested in guarding the place, and there’s filth strewn everywhere. Indeed, the prospects look so bleak for these roaches that Fried’s own poverty pales in comparison. (And that’s saying a great deal, considering Fried’s luxuries consist of eating a rotted rat once a month and occasionally buying a patch for his battered shoes).
So, eventually, the novel shows us that not all roaches are equal, and not all are the affluent oppressors Fried initially assumes they are, a revelation that has plenty of real-world resonance not only in terms of race relations but because of what Fried subsequently realizes on the heels of this epiphany: in actuality, his fight always was with economic exploitation and the select few in his world who benefit from oppressing the rest of the population, be those oppressed individuals human or roach. Furthermore, the lucky few in question consist of those Dallas-style roaches mentioned above: a handful of roach plutocrats planning a Nazi-like final solution for Fried and his fellow humans. So if we sum the entirety of Labor Day’s retake on standard sci-fi treatments of race, only Farley’s rich roaches have anything in common with the lily-white humans of mainstream sci-fi; in contrast, our protagonist, his friends, his family, and most of the roaches we meet decidedly do not.
Then again, all this talk of Labor Day’s racial themes might give the false impression that it is exclusively a serious book. In fact, it’s not, or rather, it is only serious insofar as you want it to be. If you’d rather forego focusing on all the poignant and socially relevant subtext, Farley so expertly pushes social satire into the realm of laugh-riot you’ll be far from bored. For example, early on he offers this bit of over-the-top absurdity:
The horizontal [subway] cars were filled with horizontal tubes. The cars resembled rolling beehives. Riders were forced to slide into tubes headfirst. They rode in stacks to the next station, smelling the sweat and other human excretions of former tube occupants. If the passengers wished to be discharged at a station, they had to push a button. If it worked, they were ejected at the station. If it did not work properly, there was an emergency button that could be pushed. If that button was also broken, a commuter could end up riding inside his or her tube for hours or days before anyone noticed. It was not infrequent for passengers to pass out or become hysterical from claustrophobia. This was not always a bad thing, for if the passenger was subsequently diagnosed as truly being claustrophobic or having post-traumatic syndrome, that individual was issued a special pass, enabling future transport on a car with seats.…
All this is to say, then, that Joseph Farley’s Labor Day isn’t just a book that riffs on and mines the best of the past half century’s literature, film and pop-culture; it plays with these pieces in such a way that we’re made to think even as we’re laughing ourselves silly.
By Joseph Farley
$29.99 HC; $10.99 PB