The California-based press Flatmancrooked is fond of alternate editions, experimental funding models, and neatly planned deviations from what might be expected from a publisher, small or large. Recent and forthcoming work that they’ve released has included novellas from Alyssa Knickerbocker and Emma Straub, along with Shya Scanlon’s Forecast, a novel originally serialized online. And while the stories told in James Kaelan’s We’re Getting On are compelling, the book has attracted as much attention for its carbon-neutral construction and Kaelan’s tour of the West Coast by bicycle.
What you make of We’re Getting On may well depend on what edition you hold in your hands. The slimmer of the two — the one with spruce seeds buried within the cover — contains the novella of the same title. The longer of the two shares its name, but adds three other stories, which place “We’re Getting On” in a slightly broader context, and lend it new shades and depths. (So that this doesn’t become incomprehensible, a quick note going forward: the italicized We’re Getting On will henceforth refer to the 206-page editon; “We’re Getting On” within quotation marks will refer to the novella and the standalone edition of the same.)
The story told in “We’re Getting On” is both simple and stark. A small group retreats to the outskirts of society and, under the leadership of the novella’s narrator, attempts to regress to a pre-industrial state. From early in the story, it’s fairly clear that our narrator is the sort of monomaniacal idealist featured in certain Werner Herzog films; as the situation described here begins to deteriorate, he becomes fond of long passages that read like something between soliloquies and manifestoes:
“Let me review my plan. The garden has to die, or I have to kill it, then kill an animal with my spear, try to kill something else, such as a hawk with a rock, fail at that, find a dead animal somewhere, eat part of it, search for another carcass, fail to find it, and I’ll be getting on.”
Soon, that regression isn’t simply a societal one but also an intellectual one, as the narrator vows to abandon language altogether. In its own way, the novella is horrific: our narrator, if not a sociopath, is not far from that, and as his plan begins to go awry, the sense that we are about to witness something awful grows. The narrator’s detachment from the reality of his situation and his use of philosophy to justify his treatment of those around him mark him as a familiar type: the sort of guy whose barstool rantings you’d want to move away from as quickly as possible, who you’d later see asked to leave, who wouldn’t go without throwing a punch or two.
In the context of We’re Getting On, “We’re Getting On” takes on an even more sinister cast. The longer edition opens with “A Deliberate Life,” a grim story of punks sitting in a bar watching the trial of Saddam Hussein on television. In that story, we’re introduced to a character named Dan — who, Kaelan later implies, is the narrator of “We’re Getting On.” That introduction adds another layer of tension to his status as group leader; he’s moved up in the world, and this isn’t exactly a good thing.
The other two stories in We’re Getting On strike nearly opposite tones. “The Surrogate” is a grotesque piece in which a disintegrating relationship begins manifesting itself in the horrific treatment of a rat. “You Must’ve Heard Something” takes a quieter approach to its unsettling. Here, the setting is austere: two apartments in adjacent buildings, their owners waiting there, taking refuge after some sort of societal disruption. The story moves deliberately, Kaelan underlying the precariousness of their situation, and the introducing a series of revelations that mirror the unrest hinted at in the distance.
The two editions of Kaelan’s book are equally distinctive, and the way in which the shorter version dovetails with some of the concepts discussed in “We’re Getting On” is ingenious. But it’s the lengthier version that creates a more interesting context for “We’re Getting On,” and — crucially — that expands on its themes of societal decay, flawed idealism, and the gulf between good intentions and righteous action.
About the author:
Tobias Carroll lives in Brooklyn. He writes about music and books (and sometimes the places where they overlap). His fiction has appeared in THE2NDHAND, 3:AM, Word Riot, Vol.1, and as part of Featherproof Books’ “Light Reading” series. He is presently working on REEL, a short novel.