‘Retro’ parties had long been a mainstay of our twenties. We’d all dress up as Jimi Hendrix and Joni Mitchell, or else Grace Jones and Richard Simmons, and waste whole nights enacting our sepia-tinted fantasies of our parents’ twenties. But there was a period beginning at the end of 2015 (I remember because the Eastern Cougar had just been declared extinct) when we started getting invited to ‘Nineties’ parties as well. For these, we’d all dress up as Monica and Coolio, as Baby Spice and Fresh-Prince-era Will Smith – that is, as parodies of phenomena we’d actually known first-hand. The world before the dawn of social media, it seemed, had become as imaginary to us, as far removed from our lived experience, as the world before our births. Reckless, perhaps, but we revelled in the distance.
I decided that I’d dress up as a Furby. I bought about four metres of pink felt, folded it in half, stitched up the sides, cut out arm holes, affixed a belly and ears, then hot-glued on some hair, a beak, and heavy-lidded eyes with long, dark lashes. It was obviously homemade – in fact, quite shoddily constructed – but this was precisely the point: I wanted a Furby who’d grown into an adult and gotten worse for wear along the way: a Furby who’d Macauley-Caulkined.
I didn’t end up making it to the party. The neurosis that’d made me think the costume a good idea in the first place would also prevent me from attending; Train-Wreck-Furby, then, never really had a life as such; but its afterlives, the gigs it was offered afterwards, were utterly magnificent – more colourful than anything I myself could’ve hoped to experience. First it was cast in the music video for Jesse Sheehan’s ‘Buzzy’:
Then it was invited to be a life model:
It was given a part in a drag show:
And it was put on the bill for a poetry evening, where it read the following sonnet:
May-may Moh-moh Love Monster
Day-ay-loh-oo-tye. Ee-day way-loh Doo? Good Morning. Good sleep?
Kah doo-dah noo-loo way-loo oo-bah oo-nyem Me do happy dream over you.
Koh nee-way kah ay-tay: boo ah-tah ay-tay And now me hungry: not food hungry
May-may ay-tay. Kah boh dee may-may moh-moh. Love hungry. Me be little love monster.
Koh Ah Ay-tay. Yumm-wah may-tah ay-tay Me touching hungry, delicious kiss hungry.
Doo-moh, tah Kah Nee-may may-may ah-tah, Please, give me sweet love food.
May-lah kah, Nee-tye kah. Tah-tah kah, wah! Hug me, tickle me. Receive me, wah!
Koh kah may-may tah-tah may-lah nee-tye And me love receive hug tickle.
‘Oo-Tah-Toh-Toh, Kah Oo-loo nee-way doo?’ ‘Finally, you full now?’
Oo-nye ooh-too-mah kah. Oo-nye doo-loo! You ask me. You funny!
Kah oo-loo doo koh kah koh-koh ay-tay Me full and me more hungry.
Tah kah koh-koh may-tay koh-koh ah Give me another kiss, more touching
Kah koo-bah. Kah ay-way. Kah boo koo-doh. Me shake. Me dizzy. Me unhealthy.
Doo-moh boo boo. Kah may-may boh boo koo-doh. Please, don’t stop. Me love to be unhealthy.
In all these endeavours, Train-Wreck-Furby inspired the same response. It wasn’t just nostalgia – it never simply comforted audiences by evoking some long-forgotten, cushier time – but nor was it outright distress (though some were doubtless perturbed by Furby’s aerial striptease). It was closer, I think, to what Herman Melville called ‘the shock of recognition’: people reacted as if they’d embarked on some jungle safari and then encountered their very own cat. Furby was at once completely familiar and totally unexpected: he was known to the audience from their most distant memories, but these, it seemed, were too visceral, somehow, to feel like memories at all – more like images of the present, which no cultural shift, moreover, was likely to render imaginary. My relic, it was clear, had attained an impossible contemporaneity.
‘French toys’ wrote Roland Barthes, ‘literally prefigure the world of adult functions’ and cannot, then, ‘but prepare the child to accept them all’. Furby, of course, was not a French toy but an American one (albeit, with global appeal: its speaking capabilities were translated into 24 different languages); but the question, I think, remains: what ‘adult functions’ did it ‘prefigure’? What ‘world’ did it prepare us to ‘accept’?
The simplest explanation of Furby is that it anticipated the world of animal husbandry. The toy was, foremost, an electronic pet, embodying all that was enjoyable about its non-electronic, or meat-based, equivalents: it was furry; it was responsive; it was loyal (or, at least, had been programmed to imitate loyalty); it was cute (though, arguably, not, at first, satisfactorily cute – a deficiency remedied in 2005 with the release of ‘Emo-Tronic’ Furby, which was noticeably more kawaii than the original); and it demanded – and so encouraged – play. It was, essentially, a hybrid of its must-have precursors, Tamagotchi and Tickle Me Elmo.
But Furby was also an improvement on meat-based pets. Bucking the vogue for biomimetic toys (those unheimlich dolls with their own digestive – even respiratory – systems), it featured nothing suggestive of an actual organism: it didn’t require food or drink; it didn’t shit or piss; it didn’t stink; it couldn’t reproduce; it didn’t attack the postman or eat your homework; it didn’t rack up vet bills and it wouldn’t get you evicted. But to say that Furby was therefore an unnatural or synthetic pet would be to miss the point. Furby was no more artificial than, say, a Daschund or a Pug – themselves the products of centuries of breeding programmes determined not by ‘natural selection’ but by human desire. Furby, in other words, was the pet par excellence, the national animal of the Anthropocene.
The usual relationship between children and meat-based pets usually goes something like this: the child is tasked with training the pet – that is, with ‘de-wilding’ the animal; as a result, the child learns responsibility – it is itself ‘de-wilded’. With Furby, things were different. We didn’t have to train it because it was never ‘wild’ to begin with; it was fully socialised, perfectly domesticated, from the moment it was activated. The problem was that it was socialised within another symbolic system; our task, then, was to induct it within our own by teaching it a human language. And to do this, we had to learn – by means of the accompanying phrase book– some rudimentary Furbish. And thus we were ourselves inducted – if only superficially – into the Furby’s own symbolic system.
Of course, it all turned out to be fake: Furby, we eventually figured out, would automatically include more human words within its speech over time, irrespective of what was said to it. But this, of course, was part of the fun. The tedious experience of ‘de-wilding’ (and of being, in turn, ‘de-wilded’) had finally been replaced with some giggling illusion of cultural exchange. Furby, then, prepared us to vent alone within a world whose very notion of the ‘wild’ was being replaced by other versions of the domestic; a world in which ‘nature’ – as something distinct from culture and artifice – was itself becoming a distant memory; a world in which you might embark on some jungle safari and encounter your very own cat; a world wholly determined by human desire – that is to say, a Hell on Earth, where Furby’s Train-Wreck form would eventually prove enormously popular.
Oscar Mardell lives in Auckland, New Zealand, where he teaches English, French and Classical Studies. His poetry and essays have appeared in a variety of publications, including War, Literature & the Arts, The Literary London Journal, 3:AM Magazine, PopMatters, DIAGRAM and Terse. He is the author of Rex Tremendae from Greying Ghost and Housing Haunted Housing from Death of Workers Whilst Building Skyscrapers.