How's this for a conversation starter? Orange County is a microcosm and hothouse for Southern California and the West, and as we close the 20th century, it's an ideal setting for considering the betrayal of the dreams that the West once fostered.
Thus Martin Smith, moderator of a panel discussion at the LA Times Festival of Books a few weeks back. The discussion featured three writers who live in, have lived in, write about, or have written about Orange County:T. Jefferson Parker; Robert Ferrigno; Todd McEwan; and Smith, former Orange County Register columnist, former editor of Orange Coast magazine and current mystery novelist. His panel was inauspiciously titled "Behind the Orange Curtain"; the name and the thesis were condescendingly LA, for which you should blame the festival organizers, not Smith.
Los Angeles has been betraying the "dream of the West" for so long it's hardly worth bringing up anymore: it has been 60 years since Nathanael West gave us his grand, perverse dream-betrayal novel, The Day of the Locust, and any stroll down Hollywood Boulevard, the Venice boardwalk or Melrose reminds you of just how few people took heed of that book; many of them are living it instead, acting out the act West said they'd be acting. In fact, Los Angeles has gone way beyond physically symbolizing the dream of the West. Now it's literally projecting—via movies, TV, video games and whatever new technology the cyberelite have planned for us—a new one, a dream so vivid that it makes no bones about its unreality, its virtualness. Hollywood hardly bothers with representing the American Dream as a real possibility anymore, which is why it's beyond betrayal. The movies themselves have become the experience of the dream. It has taken the dream out of our heads, out of the deep and mysterious wells of history and our desire, and made them as synthetic and flat as the screens at the local Edwards megaplex.
Orange County, which is a great consumer of movies but not a producer of them, thus gets handed the more prosaic task of symbolizing the betrayal of the American Dream. How did the panel respond to the idea?
"That pretty much nails it," said Smith, cheerily enough.
Parker agreed. "OC is a good place to look at as a place of betrayal of the American Dream," he said, adding that the hustle of selling that dream "won't stop until the last bit of dirt has been used up to build a condominium."
Ferrigno noted how the "rugged individualism" that typifies the American Dream gets trampled here by reactionaries who don't want diversity—racial, ethnic or ideological. Smith pointed out that there's a "schism" between image and reality in Orange County that doesn't seem to bother anybody, and that the Disneyfication of the county—by which he meant the clean, orderly, happy appearances that belie the county's need to conceal its darker impulses—is proceeding without much resistance. And everybody mentioned, at one point or another, that the powers that be are pointing the county toward a dire environmental future.
What was remarkable was how sanguine they were about all this. Ferrigno, though generally agreeing about the fucked-up state of things, said he nonetheless loved Orange County. "I was struck when I moved here how ambitious and energetic and intense people were," he said. "Everybody has two jobs."
Parker, smiling, nodded in assent. "What I love about Orange County is the sheer wattage of the people," he enthused. "There's no end to the ambition. You can see it in the size of their yachts around 'Newport Isle.' There's no end to this underdog mentality that says, 'We're going to get the best because we deserve the best and we are the best.' That's the heritage—the idea is that we can get and be whatever we want because we deserve it and we're going to get it—right here. The heritage is that of the West and that of leaving Europe and saying, 'Look at the land!' The energy is ferocious, but it's also productive."
Put aside for a moment the fact that many people have two jobs not because they're ambitious but because they need two jobs to pay the rent. Put aside that yacht size probably isn't a reliable indicator of the ambition of most of this county's residents. Put aside that these encomiums about ambition came from four white guys who either live in affluent South County 'burbs or have gotten the hell out of the county altogether. (Ferrigno, cracking wry, said, "Let me speak as someone who loves Orange County as only someone who has left it can.")
What most needs pointing out is that this kind of blather is the old Manifest Destiny routine as innocent and corrupt as it gets, and Parker, with this "deserving the best" and "being the best" rhetoric, seemed to have bought Manifest Destiny more than he had any idea of betrayal. He was clearly more impressed by OC's productivity than its ferociousness. Only he and the other panelists never made a moral connection—between OC's "ferocious energy" and the malled-in, Disneyfied, reactionary culture it has created.
If the authors were sanguine about the county's betrayal of the American Dream, you should have heard the audience; they were positively jolly. McEwan had only to mention the phrase "The Block"—Orange's new mall—and the crowd went, "Ho, ho, ho, ho!" Every time Disneyland came up, it was, "Ha, ha, ha, ha!" And when Parker mentioned the John Birch Societies of his boyhood, the crowd exploded, "Yuk, yuk, yuk, yuk!"
I'm not sure what inspired such mirth, but the impression the audience gave—and to which the writers' blithe ironies contributed—was that Orange County is, well, ridiculous, that it's something to be vaguely ashamed of, and that for writers to talk about it as a serious, even literary, subject is embarrassing, if not fatuous.
Of course, there's nothing fatuous about Orange County. It's too powerful, too much the engine of what drives Americans all over the country. Just think of the effects of our two greatest ideological exports: the whole Disney Weltanschauung and Christian televangelism, not to mention that vaunted "entrepreneurial spirit" you see emanating from all those fair-haired suits in Irvine and Newport Beach. Any place with this much money and religious fervor is serious. Businessmen take OC dead seriously, you can be sure—as an opportunity for investment, profit, exploitation.
Why writers and audiences don't take Orange County seriously is a complicated question, having to do with its being LA's baby sibling and with several holes in the cultural fabric: no metropolitan center, no (until very recently) potent cultural institutions, no radiating intellectual center, no history.
But if you've got any postmodernism in you, these conditions ought to be prime. Except for a few fine etches into its tabula (e.g., some great pages in Doctorow's The Book of Daniel; David Foster Wallace's "Girl With Curious Hair"; Michael Chabon's "Ocean Avenue"; a page here and there from Jo-Ann Mapson, Parker, and a few others), OC is mostly rasa, aesthetically speaking. The place is ripe for the kind of writer who is as audacious and reckless as the county's venture capitalists but who has enough love in him or her to give the place a measure of dignity (tragic or otherwise).
To admit that OC is an ideal symbol of a betrayed American promise is a terrible thing to do, if you take that promise at all seriously. But the writers on the panel didn't, by which I mean that their version of the American Dream has been so corroded by OC's ceaseless flow of sun, surf and cash that all it means now is the freedom to bodyboard or buy up whatever land's left to buy up.
But look at what they're really admitting to: OC is a Great Big Lie about what in America is more important than anything else—the pursuit of happiness. They laugh that off at their own peril. Then again, let 'em: maybe the chilling echo of that laughter is just the rude awakening OC's young writers need to get them to write the stories this county deserves.
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