Anatomy of Thought-Fiction
Joanna Demers shows what a fictional future has to say about life in the 21st century with her newest novel, Anatomy of Thought-Fiction.
It has been said a nausea-inducing amount of times that hindsight is 20/20. This cliché is deeply rooted in individual self-reflection, the act of looking back at one’s own life to make some amount of sense of all those years. But what of collective self-reflection? What about the hindsight of society writ large? What does the future have to say about the present? Joanna Demers tackles these questions with her bizarre novel Anatomy of Thought-Fiction.
To fully unpack this piece of academic fiction, one has to first look at its construction. This book consists of a series of academic essays on the nature of popular music sandwiched between an editor’s introduction and a postscript. The editors, anonymous representatives of the Center for Humanistic Study, exist in the year 2214 and have graciously received the unpublished manuscript titled Anatomy of Thought-Fiction from a descendant of its author, Joana Demers. They have published it in its entirety and without editorial as part of their mandate “to study the discourse of the “humanities," which apparently went extinct sometime around 2040. This information is all laid out in the introduction, while the postscript asks what might be learned from an academic long dead in a field “deemed to be ornamental and irrelevant”.
These two points, the introduction and the postscript, are the only bits of fiction in this work. And all they really do is provide a scant amount of detail to why Demers’ manuscript is being published in the first place. This is what makes Anatomy of Thought-Fiction so brilliant: with a total of five pages, Demers is able to wholly construct an Orwellian and post-apocalyptic future world that seems just as unrelenting, bleak, and harsh as George Miller’s saga of the Road Warrior (that spans four feature-length films) or Koushun Takami’s Battle Royale. Her creation of this world resides solely in what representatives of a clearly totalitarian regime have to say and in the imagination of readers. She offers no long histories of how the present became this future, no long-winded passages about violent upheavals and civil unrest, and most important of all, no heroes riding in to save humanity from this.
There is a complete trust in readers on display in this work to be able to connect dots and extrapolate from very little data, a kind of trust that normally doesn’t show up in a lot of commercial fiction. This trust that Demers fosters between herself as a writer and her readers can be explained by her actual profession as a professor of musicology. She is a professional academic at the University of Southern California and expects readers to be up to the rigors of her research. The essays that make up the bulk of this book are well researched, well argued, and while they stray into philosophical inquiry at times, would no doubt find a good home in journals of musicology. Demers wasn’t trying to write articles in her main field of study, but was attempting to show that what holds up study in the humanities is a thought-fiction.
Demers defines a thought-fiction as a concept that serves a purpose even though it is known to be untrue. She applies to this term to a wide range of beliefs held by many in regards to popular music and how those beliefs, while helpful in some regards, can easily be argued away. She also acknowledges that nobody is immune to thought-fictions; from the get-go, Demers admits that she too believes in ideas she knows to be false, an admission that immediately endears her to readers because she implicitly states that it’s okay to believe these things. This concept of thought-fiction can be applied to so many ideas that are wholly outside of popular music and musicology, disciplines even outside of the humanities. As the editors ask in their postscript, “We, in turn, can ask ourselves by what thought-fictions we govern our lives.”
Joana Demers has done more than just craft engaging fiction or write academically about her own field of study. In Anatomy of Thought-Fiction, she has successfully married the research article with bleak totalitarian fiction in such a way that readers will have a hard time not believing in the future she has created.
Reviewed by Jay C. Mims
Published by Zero Books, 2017