It’s the near future. Ava is being kept in the Institution for Wellness, Happiness, Functionality and Balance. Her sentence is ‘overt overabundance’. She thinks and feels in hi-def, technicolour. She spills out of her skin with desire.
In the institution, she thinks about her father and the person he was before her mother reclaimed him. He stopped painting, he started on Gloss—a kind of medication. It was then that Ava started to feel too much.
This novella raises questions about the ‘blandification’ of society, the homogenising nature of corporate control, categorisation as power, and mass complacency. It is also meant to be fun, engaging, unashamedly emo, full of desire.
#bisexuality #abundance #babes #babefeels #queerstuff #newadult
‘One could never pay too high a price for any sensation’—Oscar Wilde (The Picture of Dorian Gray)
‘But then I’m one of those people who wants beauty, if it’s only a stone, or a pot—I can’t explain.’—Virginia Woolf (Portraits)
The first time they put Ava in the Big Space she thought of her father. He used to live in a big old house with spider webs in corners and his paintings everywhere; on the walls, on the floor, even on the kitchen sink next to a crackling radio. There was hardly any furniture, and sometimes, walking through, you might see ten versions—finished and unfinished—of the same image: a woman with a veil; a purple tree, black moon and slender cat; trees autumnal to naked and wintry. The man himself would be somewhere in all the mess, looking lost and old-fashioned, with black hair and a Clark Gable mustache. Always paint on his shirt, shoes and fingertips. Sometimes on his lips. That is, until he started on Gloss, got back with her mother, and sold the big old house to move into the peach-scented suburban home. Around that time, Ava started to feel too much.
Ava knew about Clark Gable because of the films her dad had stored in his archives. He would roll out his screen like a big piece of sketch paper and tack it to the wall, then set up his out-dated device and project the films—sometimes working, sometimes sitting with her. There were many she didn’t like, films that were intolerant or offensive, though it didn’t seem deliberate. But those afternoons were warmly indulgent. Ava let the images—glamorous, gaudy, neat or filthy—wash over her. When her dad moved back home he didn’t watch movies so much, but Ava downloaded a few to her hSpace and they became a comfort, even when she wasn’t fully paying attention.
The Big Space was different from her dad’s big old house. It had no paintings, no windows, no dust, no appendages except for the ring of tiny lenses around the top of the walls, reminding you that the Intelligence could be watching. There was also a cuff around one of Ava’s legs. She saw it as rusted iron, but was aware it could be a functional hologram. The rusted iron effect was presumably to agitate some Jungian collective memory of subservience, though undoubtedly the Intelligence would say that it had been Ava’s ‘choice’ to act the way she had, and to be locked up in here.
If you were in the Big Space long enough you peered deeper into the corners. Imagination wasn’t stifled at the institution. Ava supposed that, to some degree, imagination and desire were crucial to real world Functionality. But her deep desires, the ones that took over, were apparently too extreme. She had a depth of passion for real human bodies—touching them, kissing them, loving them, writing about them, crying about them. And sometimes a building or a piece of fruit was a body in itself: hot or cold, rough or slick and exploding with scent. It wasn’t entirely sexual. It was a desire to become as close as possible, to consume and be consumed by the person, the object, the environment. It existed to the point that she forgot to work and eat and buy, to contribute and to participate, however they wanted to put it. It meant that she needed correction and training.
Ava had already lost track of how long she’d been at the institution, even though the counsellors enforced the keeping of calendars and schedules on their hSpaces. In fact, Ava was being corrected now for the failure of this very task. She’d been put in the Big Space a few times by the new counsellor, a woman called Dean, who was particularly cruel to her, and though she found the space disconcerting, it didn’t seem like the kind of thing that would ‘correct’ her personality .
The institution was a cross between a castle and a penitentiary: old, grey, brick and stone, located on a hill (a misty one, Ava liked to think, as in a gothic novel). Ava had asked around but no one seemed to know what the building had been used for before, or even how old it was. She was limited in her research because her hSpace had been configured to connect only to an internal network. The stone wasn’t medieval and crumbling; maybe it was Victorian, a fashionable reconstruction. Due to overpopulation many heritage buildings were being put to more functional use. If they weren’t useful, they were knocked down and turned into high, fortified, living blocks full of apartments and shops. History was useful only if it was profitable. Ava wept when they knocked down the last art deco cinema house in the city, which was in her suburb, and replaced it with one of these living blocks. Nothing was left but the façade; some sort of strange nod to Balance. She wept because it was inevitable; and she wouldn’t deny anyone a place to live. But she also wept because buildings were no longer considered art. Environments had only to ‘work’, not to be beautiful or stand for an idea.
This building was already set out perfectly for use as an institution. There were the wards, A to G, holding patients with varying degrees of dysfunction. There were Functionality training wings, which magically seemed to vanish and reappear when needed. There was a gym and a yard, but the yard was hardly used as it was too hot or too cold, too windy or too wet. There were eating halls for the different wards. And of course there was their accommodation: a cross between a hospital room and a jail cell. The whole place had a dankness to it, which even permeated the happy-yellow-painted walls of the state-of-the-art Functionality training centres. Or maybe Ava just sought out that permeation, some layering behind the walls.
Ava was here on a grant she’d have to pay back one day. She’d lost her trial, but her parents were in a low-income bracket so they had to put her in anyway, and would make her pay for her own correction. It was called a grant rather than a fine, as it was unimaginable that you wouldn’t want to become Functional. They all believed they could make her happy and well. But Ava didn’t know how to get better. Or whether she wanted to. They said that a lot started out that way. She did know there were greater sparks and exhilarations outside the institution. And she had a desire for them. But she was also the kind of person who could live moment to moment, finding delight in her surrounds, no matter what they were, finding delight in the little things, like the dank behind the yellow.
Ava took down her Turkish rug from the wall and laid it on the floor. She tied a scarf around her head, changed it to her neck, put it back on her head. Putting it around her neck felt too constricting, though sometimes she liked to play with feelings like that. She lay down on the rug her father bought in Budapest when he was seventeen. It smelt of drips of oil paint. The cold seeped through from the floor and she stayed there a little while, making out the shape of her scapula, the nobs on her spine. She thought about what it would be like to travel overseas. For her parents and grandparents it had been cheap, easy. They used up all the goddamn fuel.
She must have drifted off. Counsellor Dean was standing over her with a blonde. Blank-eyed, skinny, downy, flat-chested, pink: the opposite of Ava.
‘This is your new roommate, Cynthia,’ said Dean. Ava sat up and nodded hello. The girl had just been admitted to an institution but she looked as though someone had told her she’d won Star Flight.
‘Wow, it’s like an old-timey jail cell,’ she gasped.
‘Oh, hello.’ She reminded Ava of the half-blind, glassy-eyed character Marilyn Monroe played in one of the films she used to watch with her dad, minus the charm and the curves. Was this part of Ava’s training? Seeing how she’d cope with her opposite?
Dean left the room and Ava showed Cynthia the drawers beside her bed where she could put her stuff.
Cynthia sat a picture of Chad Li-Sung, the current hot pop thang, in a fluffy pink frame on top of her bed. Ava told her that was good. ‘You’re encouraged to decorate your room, though I think they analyse the overall effect to gauge how your training is going.’
Cynthia frowned in confusion.
‘You’ll get used to it,’ she reassured her. ‘So what are you in for?’
‘What’s your sentence, sister?’ Ava asked.
‘Oh, Mum and Dad said I have to come here so I can, like, do better in jobs and stuff.’
‘Your folks sent you for trial?’
‘Sure, didn’t yours?’
I guess parents only want the best for us.
Ava’s didn’t send her for trial. Well, not technically. She was reported by a few people—acquaintances, exes—and the clincher was reading poetry on a street corner. She was crying as she read, though she didn’t really notice it at the time. And that was a bit much for the public. Her mother said: yes, she needs training.
‘But what was your sentence, Cynthia, at the trial?’ Ava asked because she couldn’t actually figure out yet why she was in here.
‘Umm, something about lots of vacness, excess vacness, like a vacuum? Oh, and it’s true, I can’t even remember the word!’
Ava had heard of the sentence of ‘excessive vacuity’, but so far knew no one in there branded with it.
Ava grinned as she told Cynthia her sentence was ‘overtly overabundant’. Maybe she was proud of it.
‘What the heck does that mean?’
‘I love people, too much and too often.’
Cynthia raised an eyebrow as she sat on her bed, pulling out a bottle of pale blue nail polish. It gave off a pretty, pungent stench, which Ava found disagreeable.
‘Hey, are we allowed to, like, use our hSpace in here?’ Cynthia asked.
‘Sort of. You’ll be connected only to an internal network.’
‘But they sometimes reinstate your access for certain Functionality training exercises,’ Ava explained. She told her that she could hook into the Intelligence’s feed, and could still read and watch anything saved on her device, or download items from the Intelligence library.
‘What’s a library?’
‘I’ll show you.’
‘I don’t know how I’m going to live without my followers,’ Cynthia said. And though Ava found her inane, she could sympathise. She remembered the first weeks inside where the lack of her usual broadcasts meant she had to rewire her impulses. At first there was recurring shock caused by the gap that opened up between habit and the inability to act upon it.
‘I still don’t understand why you’re in here,’ Ava said.
Cynthia sighed and explained that because she spent so much time looking at pretty dresses and runway show holos she didn’t do much of anything else. She’d wracked-up a load of credit.
Ava laid back down on the rug, on her stomach, trying to drown out the nail polish smell.
Cynthia emitted a gasp. ‘It’s not like... a mental institution, is it?’
Ava smiled to herself. ‘No. They don’t see us as being crazy or ill. Just wrong.’ But on some level, Ava thought, it was like the old asylums she’d read about, where streetwalkers, homosexuals, petty thieves and adulterous wives were taken off the streets so as not to disrupt order. But then it was also like a medieval jail, where thieves paid for their own punishment. ‘Normality’ was to want to be well, prosperous, growing, contributing, desiring. You were dysfunctional if you wanted to lie on a rug all day, running your finger over an oil paint stain.
Cynthia began to ask more questions.
‘I don’t want to talk anymore,’ said Ava, rolling over to stare at the books and dust bunnies under her bed.