Imagining Orange County

Its not the O.C., not Disneyland, not Newport. Eight writers imagine the real place you call home

The story, on one level, is a parody of Bret Easton Ellis' tales of soulless young punks fucking and drugging their way to oblivion; on another, it's a triumph of voice. The story's told from the point of view of a guy called Sick Puppy, a Yale-trained Young Republican lawyer who writes like an insufferably sycophantic college sophomore, something I had a hard time believing until I realized that George W. Bush is Yale-trained, too, and speaks even worse than Sick Puppy writes. Anyway, when Sick Puppy's not hauling in his annual hundred G's from his job as a "corporate-liability troubleshooter" (he defends corporations from the complaints of the little people), he's dealing acid to OC punks, who return the favor by giving him lots of head and accompanying him to Keith Jarrett concerts in Irvine, where this story takes place.

All this oral sex is something he appreciates because he can't climax any other way, normal sex being out of the question as a result of a, well, childhood incest incident with his sister, during which he was caught by his Marine Corps officer father, who punished him by burning his penis with the flame from a gold cigarette lighter, thus turning his son into a sadistic pyromaniac (about his girlfriend, he says, "She fellates me and lets me burn her sometimes") with a blazing desire to kill his father. All the backstory emerges during the course of the concert by "the talented Negro performer Keith Jarrett," during which Sick Puppy and his crew of punk rockers are flying on LSD.

The title comes from a deeply weird obsession Sick Puppy's girlfriend, Gimlet, starts developing about a little girl a couple of rows down toward the stage. (You almost have to be on acid to appreciate this, but here goes: Gimlet wants to cut off a lock of the girl's "curious" and evidently black-magic hair, stick it in her [Gimlet's] vagina, then find Sick Puppy's father, "commit the sexual act with him, and when he had his orgasm, he would catch on fire from Gimlet and immolate while she cut open his warrior's throat and allowed me to bathe in his blood." Gimlet, you see, sympathizes with Sick Puppy's father problem.)

The story ends violently, as you might imagine—a tale of ultra-decadence, the kind that tends to infect people for whom all forms of restraint drop away and kicks are king. Who knows how it came to Wallace, who hadn't spent much time in the county when he wrote it but touched on some silver nerve of moral exhaustion and a lust of the sex/death nexus that seems to be the common destination of the rudderless rich at this edge of the American continent.



All sane affirmative speech,
Had been soiled, profaned, debased
To a horrid, mechanical screech:
No civil style survived
That pandemonium
But the wry, the sotto voce,
Ironic and monochrome.
And where should we find shelter
For joy or mere content
When little was left standing
But the suburb of dissent.

—W.H. Auden, "To Reinhold and Ursula Neibuhr"

Okay, Disneyland. As a fictional subject, it's getting more and more difficult for writers to capture it because it's like trying to write about smog in LA or gambling in Vegas—it's too pervasive, too consuming a symbolic presence, for most novels to labor under. Unless, that is, you're E.L. Doctorow, who saved Disneyland for a quick six-page analysis in the penultimate section of his great novel, The Book of Daniel, and San Clemente writer Jay Gummerman, who in Chez Chance has written a small classic of anti-Disneyism, a book set in the literal shadow of the Matterhorn but rejects everything—everything—Disney. Both Doctorow and Gummerman find themselves trapped by Disney's pandemonium and withdraw to the suburbs of dissent to clear their heads of the noise.

Doctorow's little discourse on Disneyland in The Book of Daniel reads like a New Left essay of cultural theory and, published in 1971, is probably the model for the countless academic treatises that have tried to theory-up the theme park ever since. Not many in the academy have improved on Doctorow, though, who through the "wry . . . ironic and monochrome" style of his hippie-grad-student narrator, Daniel Isaacson, talks about the park as an infantilized, sanitized, corporate-sponsored journey into the guiding myths of American culture and history, a journey whose purpose is less about acquiring experience and knowledge than it is about, well, buying stuff: "The ideal Disneyland patron may be said to be one who responds to the process of symbolic manipulation that offers him his culminating and quintessential sentiment at the moment of purchase."

And then there are what Doctorow calls the "political implications."

"What Disneyland proposes is a technique of abbreviated shorthand culture for the masses, a mindless thrill, like an electric shock, that insists at the same time on the recipient's rich psychic relation to his country's history and language and literature. In a forthcoming time of highly governed masses in an overpopulated world, this technique may be extremely useful both as a substitute for education and, eventually, as a substitute for experience." This "forthcoming time" is now with us, of course: our "education" about the world, especially in tech-happy OC, is now filtered mostly through a mass media that substitutes ingratiating mythologies for facts and analysis, and the idea that "experience" itself has become Disneyfied is by now hardly a matter you can argue, again especially in OC—Disneyland is the model for everything from our theme restaurants to civic planning (housing developments as "resorts," malls as carefully designed crowd funnels leading to points of purchase) to corporate management (again, employees as "team members," customers as "guests," etc.). And the insidious happiest-place-on-earth lure of it all—soul manipulation via "fun" and commodity pleasure that has spread far beyond Disneyland's borders to infect the county, our whole country—Doctorow calls "totalitarian."

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