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Nichols 1 Ashley Nichols Professor Ralph Berry AML4121 5 December 2013

Life is Like a Book, You Never Know How it Will End In Vas: an Opera in Flatland, written by Steve Tomasula and illustrated by Stephen Farrell, the concept that human lives are similar to books rings through. The novel is a collection of the main character’s, Square, thoughts and gathered research about his impending vasectomy. Books and humans alike have a beginning, middle, and end; some lives may be longer like a thick novel and others may be short like a sweet poem. Whether they are well-known or not, books can potentially live on forever; people however, cannot. Their lives are finite and eventually cease to exist outside of the fleshy form. Both humans and books can make a person feel alive or they can be encouraging. Although a book is an inanimate object, it contains feelings and emotions just as within a human being. Books are comprised of language and language is the conveyer of meaning, without which no story can truly be told. In the same manner, a body is a text made up of its own language. Square, the main character, is under an immense amount of pressure about his vasectomy, reflected within his own novel. His novel and Vas are one in the same; his skin is the novel’s cover, his blood is the novel’s binding, and his thoughts and perceptions are the novel’s words. Through Vas and Square, it becomes clear that human lives and books can become interchangeable and reflective of one another. Language is the foundation of communication. It is used daily and without it expressing ideas and thoughts would be rather difficult, especially if face-to-face contact was not readily


Nichols 2 available. Emotion is easy to detect if one can actually see another’s facial expression, but without language how might one convey their dreams or inner-most secrets? Language is essential to humanity as well as to books. Language includes texts and words, a very loose definition of what a book is. Vas uses language to tell Square’s story about his vasectomy, but it also uses illustrations, images, and other visual supplements. In humans, language is also what comprises a physical being. It is words and also deoxyribonucleic acid; it is who humans are. DNA and genes are what God used to create, or write, us into existence. We are our genes and our genes are how we write new humans, reproduction. Passing on DNA is like writing a story that will live forever, so to speak. Human beings are agents of history; they consciously look at the past and future in order to decide in the present. To say that a human acts solely unconsciously would be to denote humanity and its existence. “Men are to be viewed as the organs of their century, which operate mainly unconsciously” – Johann Wolfgang Von Goethe (Tomasula 5). If this idea were true, would Vas even exist, for it is indeed a manifestation of Square’s thoughts and research whilst he is actively conscious. The expression of thought and emotion, even within one’s own mind is an active use of language; it is like a book of the conscious, full of text and some sort of storyline. For Square, his thoughts are consumed with what it means to get a vasectomy. Square’s midlife crisis brought upon by his imminent vasectomy leads to an exploration of the origins of humanity. He surveys humankind beginning with the physical aspect of the body. A body tells a story of who it is, where it came from, and possibly what that person was like. The flesh is the covering of a body; it is host to scars, wrinkles, and markings that tell a narrative. For Circle, Square’s wife, her stretch marks tell a story of a child unborn; they are a constant reminder of a life ended. “She didn’t need to write a story for him to know she had taken” her


Nichols 3 turn and now she was very adamant on Square taking his (Tomasula 14). If words are both “the material and message of language,” then “it’s in the thought” (Tomasula 58). Square sees the message written on Circle’s body and now the vasectomy is more than just in his thoughts; it is consuming them. Vas begins with the opening lines of “First Pain. Then knowledge: a paper cut” (Tomasula 9, 10). Square was mentally pained with the notion of his getting a vasectomy. Flashes of his gene-passing and ending his line of DNA consumed his thoughts. As he delved deeper into research and thought about human life, he was torn with what it would mean to get a vasectomy. He was suddenly overcome with what it meant to choose. He and Circle had elected to have the abortion, because the doctors gave them knowledge of the fetus not being within society’s standards as healthy. The more he learned about scientific advancements, the more overwhelmed he felt about living “in the Land of fat free Salad Dressings” where choice was “mainly a matter of eliminating options” (Tomasula 71). His eyes were opened to what it really meant about having choices and knowledge. It meant that society set the standard on what it was to be socially acceptable-tall, short, skinny, fat, etc.-and their belief that if there was a way to change or eliminate the chance of being in opposition, then one should choose to do so. By the end of Vas, Square comes to a resolution that his struggle with succumbing to his wife’s wishes and getting a vasectomy was simply “a common story. So common that many wouldn’t even consider it a story” (Tomasula 18). Maybe it is common, but is it not the common things that vex humans that make them human? It is what makes them like books, full of common things and stories that are relatable. Square had realized that the book he was writing “had fused with his life;” he was both writing and living a pedestrian story (Tomasula 283). He realized that a story and a life must be


Nichols 4 written and that decisions affecting the outcomes must be made. His thoughts pondered over Circle’s abortion, his eventual vasectomy, and subjects such as Karen Ann Quinlan and death of the body. He sees that with knowledge comes choices and that choices bring about change. Choices cannot be ignored; they must be made, for it is one’s choices that affect their life. A book cannot be written entirely ambiguously, but rather the author must decide how it will end. Square realizes that “Change=Life” (Tomasula 84). For Square, the knowledge that eugenics could be altered was disconcerting. Things being changed was like society “discriminating between good genes and bad for the good of society” (Tomasula 190. 120). Appearances can be altered, but the content of a human being can never be changed except by the creator. For books, the same applies; the cover can be created and changed until it is socially agreeable in appearance. Once the author publishes their book, the words, plot, and ending cannot be changed. Circle had these thoughts as well; her knowledge of her baby’s potential retardation or possible handicap forced her to make a decision about how things would end. It can be inferred that if she had gone through with the birth, she would no longer have the option of ending things, but rather the foreknowledge gave her the option and weight of choices. Circle knew that one “can’t not know what [they] know,” that is that knowledge cannot be deleted, but bad genes, apparently, can be (Tomasula 53). A vasectomy was one of the many options society viewed as acceptable in ending the creation of bad-gene children. In Flatland, getting a vasectomy was extremely pedestrian. The doctor performing Square’s vasectomy was viewed like one of the “production-line workers who assemble jets” which further reflects its commonality (Tomasula 367). At the same time, Square saw it as something much larger that would affect the rest of his life; he spends the entirety of Vas


Nichols 5 revealing why it was a big deal. Choosing to get a vasectomy means Square can no longer pass on his genes, which is part of being a human. He researched the origins of humanity and without reproduction a person’s DNA can cease to exist. Square recognized the importance of life, but society, as it usually does, forced him to consent to their unspoken standards. Books contain stories that can confuse, excite, and provide escape. They are more than just pages, but rather collections of more than their outside covers. Images act like memories and characters become relatable. Human beings are very much the same. On the outside one might appear to be a certain way, but on the inside they could be quite different. Books provide people with an outlet of escape, but at the end of the novel there is “no exit� to life (Tomasula 274). Books contain characters that have to make decisions that may affect their future, in the same manner, so do human beings. A book has an author who ultimately decides how things will end as do human beings have a creator, God, who writes their lives. One of the biggest similarities is that all stories and humans are simultaneously pedestrian and epic. To an individual whatever life issue they are going through may seem epic and grandiose, but in the reality of life there are several others experiencing the same thing. The commonality of an issue makes it pedestrian, but that does not make it any less epic to a person, which is seen through both Vas and Square.


Nichols 6 Works Cited

Tomasula, Steve, and Stephen Farrell. VAS: An Opera in Flatland: A Novel. Chicago: University of Chicago, 2004. Print.

Vas: An Opera in Flatland  
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