The most important part of Eric LaRocca’s Things Have Gotten Worse Since We Last Spoke is the Author’s Note which opens the novel.
This Author’s Note is not, as far as I can tell, from LaRocca themself, because this is a diegetic author’s note, it is part-and-parcel of the novella itself. I have no idea if those who took such umbrage online with the work took the time to read this critical framing device and understand its purpose.
I. This book exploits queer women
Though it pains me to do so, let’s put aside the rampant anti-queer and non-binary-phobic nature of the rhetoric which equates LaRocca’s work with something written about queer people or lesbians who is also a cishet man. (And even then, the interest expressed would have to be exceedingly prurient for me to start really coming down on a cis heterosexual man for daring to engage the topic. Writing it isn’t the problem, how you write it is.)
One thing I saw a lot online was the accusation that while the work is presented as being a queer relationship between two women, given that the entire thing takes place online, and therefore we have no assurance that either of the protagonists (but especially the “Zoe” character) is who they say they are. People were very quick to suggest that “Zoe” could well be some man pretending to be something he isn’t (queer, a woman, honest, etc.).
[Actually, we do need to take a moment to talk about the exclusionary queer rhetoric and transphobic/non-binary-phobic tone of this criticism:
Intentionally misidentifying and excluding LaRocca from “Queerness,” including misgendering them, while accusing the novel of portraying a character who is not what they “claim” to be—specifically a queer person and female identified in Zoe’s case… You might be able to see where the intersection of these accusations begin to uncomfortably display an inherent prejudice on the part of the so-called “critic” making them.
These individuals are unwilling to recognize LaRocca as a member of the queer community (because of their background, identity, presentation, I don’t know and I don’t care), and justify that prejudice by sublimating it into their “analysis” of the work itself. The accusation that LaRocca is somehow an impostor or fraudulent queer person is transferred onto the narrative of the novella as a means of obfuscating its true purpose: to exclude LaRocca, and propagate personal prejudice.]
“Because the litigation surrounding Zoe Cross’s case remains open at the time of this publication, certain elements of their [Agnes and Zoe’s] communication have been redacted or censored at the behest of the Henley’s Edge Police Department.”p. 9 (Things Have Gotten Worse… Weird Punk Books, 1st edition)
With this simple statement, LaRocca’s fictional author puts to rest (at the very beginning!) any possibility that Zoe Cross is not who she says she is. We can state, with some degree of confidence, that within the world of the novella, a person exists whose legal name is “Zoe Cross”. Now, it’s true that no personal pronouns are ever used within the Author’s Note to refer exclusively to Zoe Cross, so I cannot say that Zoe for sure uses “she/her” pronouns or would be recognized as a woman by the organs of the state.
At the same time, the whole novella (including the Author’s Note) hail from the turn of the millenium… That’s 2000-2001. For those too young to know or remember those years, it is unlikely that police and judicial records or press coverage of that time would willingly use an individual’s chosen name rather than their legal name (no, it’s not so different now, but it was worse then, I promise). We must, therefore, assume that if Zoe Cross is being identified by police and judicial records as such, that she is, in fact, a woman insofar as the stringent requirements of the legal framework of 20 years ago is concerned. (You want to accuse transwomen of being predators and violators of lesbian spaces, by all means please see yourself to your local TERF assembly and do let the door hit you on the way out.)
So, from a purely formal level, we can lay to rest accusations that somehow Zoe Cross is a mask for some abusive man online, taking advantage of a poor, lonely queer woman who couldn’t have known better.
II. This book is immoral, and LaRocca is a pervert for having written it
Very simply, Things Have Gotten Worse Since We Last Spoke is not an im-moral book. It is an a-moral one. (And even that is a somewhat dubious contention, because I believe LaRocca to have plenty to say about abuse, irresponsibility, victimhood and victimization, violence, control via the medium of this work. But we’re getting ahead of ourselves.)
We are told from the outset that this is a case still under litigation, and is being covered in the media. As many high-profile cases have made exceptionally clear in the last few years, one of the stickier parts of the American legal process has to do with the selection of a jury. Juries need to be “impartial” (not influenced by information not presented in the courtroom), making any, even remotely, sensational case extremely difficult to handle.
Also, the author of this publication requests that the reader be cognizant of the fact that the author is in no way affiliated with either Zoe Cross’s legal counsel or Agnes Petrella’s surviving family. The author remains a nonpartisan entity and instead patiently waits for the balances of justice to trip in favor of the truth.p. 10 (Things Have Gotten Worse… Weird Punk Books, 1st edition)
The reader is, in this final paragraph of the Author’s Note, placed in the position of juror.
When I say that Things Have Gotten Worse… is an a-moral book, I do not mean that it is disinterested in evaluating the moral responsibilities and failures of the characters or the actions they have taken. I mean that it is not a book which will provide the audience with a pre-determined, tidy, pat moral conclusion to the narrative it presents.
The book demands, clearly and pointedly, at the outset, that the reader prepare themselves to decide if Zoe Cross is guilty, and if so… Of what, exactly?
This is not an easy task.
It is not meant to be.
The most discomfiting part of Things Have Gotten Worse… is that it doesn’t ask the reader to merely agree or disagree with its proposed thesis. It presents a complex, possibly intractable, situation and asks “What do you make of all this?”
The book does not presume guilt or innocence on the part of either of its protagonists. Indeed, the power of the narrative emerges from the several reversals which take place within it. We know something terrible is going to happen, and we know which of the two of our protagonists is going to die, and we know who is considered “responsible” in some manner or degree for that death. We begin the narrative inclined to sympathize with Agnes, and to be mistrustful of Zoe. As their relationship evolves, that mistrust seems justified. But it doesn’t stay that way.
Without getting into too many details for those who have yet to read the novella; assigning power and agency (or lack thereof) to either character quickly begins to feel like thrashing in a pit of quicksand, the more you try to find the answer, the deeper you sink into the quagmire. This sense of who is the “driving” force in their relationship undergoes at least 3 major reversals, each one pulling further and further away from the usual metrics by which these things are measured.
I try to avoid blaming any particular cultural movement or moment for what I perceive as failings in the critical or philosophical skills of those who were most impacted by it. Youth, especially, is idealistic, and that’s sweet. (I’m almost 30, so I’m basically ancient, you know. A walking corpse, really.) But I do believe we’ve ended up in a particularly simplistic and reactionary moment. Perhaps this is because the uncertainty which pervades every aspect of the current human experience (economic, political, social, environmental, occupational, physical, etc) makes it exhausting to deal with extra uncertainty for the purpose of intellectual stimulation. Sometimes it’s nice to say “these are the good guys, these are the bad guys” and leave it at that. (To quote a show by a now disgraced writer-producer: “The good guys are always stalwart and true, the bad guys are easily distinguished by their pointy horns or black hats, and, uh, we always defeat them and save the day. No one ever dies, and everybody lives happily ever after.” To which, of course, the response is: “Liar.”)
Just because we’re hoping for to build a better and more beautiful world, and just because we need hope to do so, doesn’t mean that we can or should or will eradicate pain, suffering, harm, and hurt. These things do not arise merely out of “evil” or “bad” behaviors/actions/ideas… In many ways they are the foundational elements of human existence and while we can try to minimize their impact, and we can strive to act in ways which limit, avoid, or avert those outcomes… We also cannot control each other, ourselves, or reality. We can be better… But we’re never going to be perfect.
Things Have Gotten Worse Since We Last Spoke is a book in the grand tradition of horror writing which promises that no matter how hard we try, no matter how good we are, no matter how just or kind or true, no matter how deserving, no matter how careful we are, we will fail and bad things will happen. This is not a story everyone needs to hear, nor a lesson everyone needs to learn, all too many people know from hideous personal experience that these things are true. But I rarely see those people who already know trying to tell others not to tell these stories. In fact, my experience has often been that the people who know these lessons best of all are usually the ones who are writing these stories.
No one has to read a book that will hurt their feelings or cause them distress or harm. But, as LaRocca’s novella has the temerity to suggest, we retain a degree of personal responsibility for the things we do to ourselves, even when other people are involved.
To borrow from the introduction by the publisher to a different book which would undoubtedly also raise hackles and fists (Todd Keisling’s Scanlines): “Please, please leave the room if this will… if this will affect you.”
III. Not enough build-up, just violence (Do you have Sade?)
This is a special mention for an unexpected conversation I had about Eric LaRocca’s Things Have Gotten Worse Since We Last Spoke.
Someone came into my job asking for the book, because they “need it to make fun of it online”. Points for honesty, I guess? I couldn’t let it slide, because I love making fun of books as much as the next person, but I try not to get my hot takes directly from tumblr posts or twitter discourse. They hadn’t read the book, so I asked them what they thought was going to be wrong with it. I’d actually read it, I pointed out, and therefore my suggestion that it packs a lot into a small number of pages might actually have real merit. (I’ve also read, you know, other stuff. Which might also help.)
We covered the bits that I mentioned above. But then this person said they’d heard that it just… Went too far, and didn’t have enough philosophical complexity or what-have-you to justify the violence within its pages. Shocking for its own sake.
I pointed out that it’s not a Carlton Mellick III novella and therefore, we might have to make sure we’re using the same scale of “shock value” to measure the violence-to-philosophy ratio. I’m not really a fan of splatterpunk, the more outre elements of bizarro fiction, or even mundane horror (which is usually rooted in some kind of physical violence).
Ultimately, my description of Mellick’s The Exercise Bike was dismissed as unappealing, because I couldn’t confirm how much of the book actually dealt with the surgical process of transforming a human being into a stationary bike. In my defense, most of my attention had been eaten up on the bit where a woman is forced to ride the willingly-transformed bike-man for his sexual gratification; that’s where the real horror lay for me.
Ultimately, the discussion came around to the Marquis De Sade.
I felt somewhat offended on LaRocca’s behalf that they were coming up short in comparison to Justine. Sure, 200 Days of Sodom has some moral-philosophical-political criticism embedded in it, because it’s ostensibly a take down of the bishops and other unelected leadership of 18th century France. It’s also a book whose primary goal is to come up with the most depraved acts it can think of… Just because.
LaRocca’s novella is not a celebration of depravity. It’s not a joyful study in perversion. It’s not a titillating narrative of physical degradation and debasement. It’s a book about desire, about obsession, about power—over others, over ourselves, over our experiences—and it’s about the things we think we are, and the things we think we love, and what we think we need to be happy.
It is a book of questions, and it whispers in your ear that maybe, just maybe, the answers will be a bit harder to find than we might like.