January 12: “Tomorrowland” by Joseph Bates

During the start of last night’s college football championship, it dawned on me that the author of the book I was holding in my hand, Joseph “Jody” Bates, was a Clemson alum. I don’t know a lot of Clemson alums—there’s Jody, William “Refrigerator” Perry from the Bears’ “Super Bowl Shuffle” team, Horace Grant from those 90s Bulls teams, and, well, that’s it. By chance, I’d planned on reading from Jody’s book for today, and lo and behold, his beloved Tigers were on the biggest stage, about to either fill him with joy or break his heart. Sadly, Jody had to settle for the latter—I was default-pulling for the Tigers, too—so maybe seeing his name and book cover up on this blog will be the consolation prize that throwing an end table through the TV couldn’t offer (Clemson defense, let me introduce you to the tight end position …). Probably not, but hey, I was going to do one of his stories, anyway, so here goes.

Bates’ book is entitled Tomorrowland and is from the same press that has published my last two books, Curbside Splendor, Chicago’s small-press-that-could. I’ve read several stories from Tomorrowland, but have settled on the title story, “Tomorrowland,” as it’s my favorite so far. Since I’m of the opinion that title stories speak to the theme of the collection as a whole—I’ve covered “Nine Inches,” “The Witch,” “Bobcat,” etc.—I tend to favor those, wanting to figure out that theme, the metaphor. I want to know why the author chose that story’s title for the book’s title, whether it was the best story, it sounded catchy, or if it indeed provided an overall thesis.

I know of but haven’t the recent George Clooney film Tomorrowland, another Disney movie based on a Disney theme park attraction. I’m pretty sure I’ve been to the Tommorowland (theme park attractions are italicized, right?) exhibit in Florida in 1998, and am aware of—through parodies, mainly on The Simpsons—of how laughably dated that attraction seems now, a fifties design team predicting life for the average American in the distant future … the eighties! What they presented instead was a series of product placements, large tech corporations offering cash in exchange for a display case. These companies offered not the future, but the prototype present, complete with shiny chrome finish, you know, to make it look like things look in space.

Bates utilizes all of this in his story. He clearly visited Tomorrowland as a kid, saw promotional filmstrips, or read the same Wikipedia articles I did. The main character in the story “Tomorrowland,” James, is from the future, our very near future, and works as an aging junker. He is sent into the ruins of the not-mentioned-by-name Disneyland (the Tomorrowland of this story was in Anaheim), looking for anything worth salvaging before the park is demolished. He and his young sidekick, Carlos, wade through the rooms of the futuristic house, marveling at the mannequin mom, working with her space-age appliances, preparing a dinner in just minutes, high heels and apron proving she can step all over the bacon, then fry it up in a pan.

James is ironically (of course) taken to the the past, reminiscing about his visit to the park as a kid, how he marveled at the wonders of the coming decades. He couldn’t wait, he recalls, to actually live in a house like this one, giant boxy TVs, robot dogs, and microwave ovens. It all reminds me of another Simpsons line, Dr. Frink professing, “It is my prediction that in the future, computers will be as large as cities and only the five richest kings of Europe will own one.” But it was the fifties, and everybody was idealistic, if not a bit silly. The dad mannequin sits on his bed, ready to blast off to work in his brown suit, jet pack, and fishbowl helmet; James’ observation here is maybe the most profound of the entire story.

Wikipedia tells me that budget cuts forced Disney to rely on the corporate sponsors, stunting their original plans for Tomorrowland. We can only wonder what it could have been if Disney had today’s Star Wars and Avengers money to fund their side projects. Don’t tell little-kid James it isn’t all a wonder, though—his idealism, flanked by his eventual role in the park’s demise, is the central theme of this story, and can be applied to the other stories I’ve read. “Yankees Burn Atlanta” features an aging baseball fan, at a midlife-crisis fantasy camp, watching his childhood dream quashed by overwhelming inevitability. That’s what Bates seems to be getting at with this theme, this title, hope for a better future that’s naïve at best, soul-crushing at its worse.

Not the happiest of themes for a collection—realization that your childhood fantasies were ridiculous in the face of bleak reality—but Bates fills his tales with heart, people you want to root for because they’re good people, searching whatever piece of that lost dream they can find. The dark humor, the varied settings, and the clever turns of phrase all make this debut an attraction, a ride all its own.

Joseph Bates