Future Feeling by Joss Lake
2021, Soft Skull Press
304 pages, $16.95
Rare is the novel that brings together witches, influencer culture, and a speculative future uncomfortably twisted from our own reality. But such is the mode of Joss Lake’s debut novel Future Feeling, the playful and pleasurable journey of three trans men from New York to Los Angeles through imagined landscapes supported by a (sometimes holographic) network of queer elders.
The novel follows Penfield R. Henderson, a trans man who lives with two roommates–a witch and a hacker–in a New York City closet apartment. Penfield reads as a twenty-first century, zippy and social media-using update of Holden Caulfield–employing textspeak such as tho and str8 instead of studied niceties. In a sleight of hand at the novel’s beginning, Penfield reveals, “And I was still working on the whole verbalizing my thoughts thing.” Penfield’s lens is one that will skew reality or omit key revelations and insight.
Penfield is obsessed with Aiden Chase, a trans influencer with rock-star abs and an aesthetic vision befitting Joshua Tree and Ingrid Goes West. With the help of his roommates, Penfield attempts to place a hex on Aiden, conveying magic through the novel’s social media–the Gram–but instead curses a younger trans man and transracial adoptee, Blithe Freeman. Blithe is sunk in the Shadowlands, a landscape representative of depression and catatonia, and Penfield and Aiden are tasked with bringing him back by the Rhiz, the novel’s network of queer elders and overseers.
One of the novel’s most surprising moves is this alternative mode in which it operates. Lake defines his own speculative mode in this book, building a world in which new-age spirituality and influencer culture assume more tactile power than is familiar in literature. This blend of speculative, magical, and technological forces creates an absurd lens on the world. At times this results in surprising new technologies and images. New York’s subways change color depending on the emotional measure of its car’s passengers. The novel’s riff on Instagram gets holographic. Yet, in other cases, the power of this mode is much more immediately felt. As Penfield studies Blithe’s narrative report in order to learn how to best assist, he learns about Blithe’s relationship to the technology that led to his descent into the Shadowlands: “The Gram made him feel competitive; it made him want to sculpt his life into its best possible version; it made him want to kill himself.”
Balancing the stressors that emerge from this hyper-focused world is the Rhiz, “a network of intercommunication and exchange.” The Rhiz creates an opportunity for the novel to explore queer ancestry and community in a new way: “Queers of the world have long rejected the family unit as the primary organizing force for society and have always found ways to operate according to the ways of our guides, the great, ancient fungal goddexes.”
The novel thus emerges as this study of queer family and connection. Aiden and Penfield must unite in order to support this younger, lonelier queer. Penfield has been through the Shadowlands himself and finds a powerful new purpose in supporting his queer brethren. Much of the book involves Penfield’s engagement with the queer community. As he gets deeper into this work, he says, “the queer community is nothing if not revolutionary/scrappy/operatic/obnoxious/toxic…and that we had to combine all of these qualities to help Blithe.”
The novel moves somewhat episodically, and at times its central exploration falls away. Penfield is also consumed by a legal battle to change his legal middle name to R., and he’s hooking up on the sly with a movie star. At times, the novel slips into these subplots and introduces new characters in moments that feel a bit surprising or imbalanced. Sometimes, the novel sacrifices depth for breadth, focusing on scenes of characters getting food or watching TV that feel mechanical or don’t quite drive at the novel’s deeper themes. With so much attention and space given to building this unique world, it can be hard to track all of the novel’s various minor characters, and to believe that the novel fully cares about their subplots. Penfield’s old friend Jillian, a straight Black woman, appears a bit suddenly, and the novel’s engagement with race and whiteness feels introduced though perhaps not thoroughly reckoned with.
While there may be some moments in need of more narrative guidance, Lake makes other inventive structural choices that create surprise and pleasure in the book. Throughout the novel, there appear nested narratives and sidebars that effectively distill the core of a character or a secret history. Penfield receives Blithe’s narrative report prior to being assigned this rescue mission. The report notches neatly into the novel as a contained story. Penfield’s study of this report is involving, and as he sinks into the story, so too do Lake’s readers. Similarly, the history of the Rhiz offers a commentary on queerness that feels important to the book’s core. Alongside the narrative’s unique genre and its array of queer iconography and inventive language, Future Feeling declares itself a novel interested in defining its own terms and seeking the boundaries of what is possible, a significant and valuable move for the queer novel.
On an episode of the BookstaGays podcast, hosts Sam and Alex interviewed Kristen Arnett about her new novel With Teeth. In this episode, they also discussed this idea of queer messiness. As queer people, we often feel that we must be perfect so as not to ruin things for everyone else. Yet, simultaneously, queer people often participated in the formative experiences of adolescence from the sidelines. Penfield echoes this sentiment for us toward the end of the book in one of the novel’s most poignant moments: “All at once, a deep sadness descended. Why hadn’t I known that such possibilities existed before? Why was my childhood a series of miseries and only in my most recent phase of adulthood, did delight pop up? Well, isn’t queer adulthood, if one is lucky, having the impossible childhood of our desires?”
MICHAEL COLBERT loves horror films (his favorites are Candyman and Get Out) and coffee (his favorites are Ethiopian and Costa Rican). His writing appears in Electric Literature, Gulf Coast, and Hayden’s Ferry Review, among others. Currently, he is pursuing an MFA in fiction at the University of North Carolina Wilmington.