Tapping the Source… and maybe your phone

Perhaps because it's in the Drinking Issue, Cornel Bonca's review of Paula L. Woods' new novel Strange Bedfellows (featured in Selected Reviews from the Weekly on the sidebar) reminded me both of my own experiences with bad novels and my favorite quote from one very good novel, Waguih Ghali's Beer in the Snooker Club:

What do people who do not drink do on such occasions? Face the facts perhaps. But facing a fact is one thing, and overcoming it is another. Cognac was going to overcome the facts.

Judging by the review, I hope Bonca had a snifter handy as he slogged his way through Strange Bedfellows. He writes “there's not a single moment when I believed in the verisimilitude of her characters, who are supposed to resemble human beings.” And that's not the worst of it.

From the novel's title (other titles in Woods' Charlotte Justice series include Stormy Weather and Dirty Laundry) to the chapter headings (“Hell on Wheels,” “Losing My Marbles”) to the strings of predigested phraseology Woods calls sentences, the prose practically begs you to put it out of its misery. This kind of writing encourages beta-wave brain activity—it sort of gets to be like watching a TV rerun for the sixth time, only when you watch TV, there's at least stuff that's in color and moving fast, and there are pretty pictures, and there's always the chance that some actor will take a piece of utterly hackneyed dialogue and twist it into something unhackneyed. But all you've got in this novel to look at is black words strung out on a white page, line by line, and if those words don't do something to lively up themselves—by at least trying not to read like the other 1,200 novels in the mystery section at Borders—then reading gets to be a little like sitting vigil for the dead.

It wasn't masochism that made Bonca take up this book– he was just following orders issued by a cruel and shadowy figure referred to only as “my boss”, who was interested in Strange Bedfellows because it's set in Orange County. But even there the book fails: “there's no OC ambience… in fact she titles the chapter in which the lady cop first drives from LA to OC “Behind the Orange Curtain,” which should maybe tell you all need to know about the OCness of this book”. Still, you can understand why the boss wanted this book reviewed. Aside from the numbing collected works of T. Jefferson Parker– books of the sort that a much greater Parker, Dorothy, had in mind when she wrote, “Some books are not to be tossed aside lightly; they should be thrown with great force.”– there really isn't much in the way of OC novels available.

In January 2005, Bonca surveyed the state of the OC novel for the Weekly (available only through Google cache at the moment). Featured prominently was Kem Nunn's Tapping the Source, which I think just might be The Great OC Novel (to me, it's only real competition for the title is Philip K. Dick's never-quite-finished Radio Free Albemuth, which Bonca doesn't review). Nunn is no Woods, as Bonca makes clear:

His Huntington Beach is indelible…

Nunn gets it all—the physical elementalism of beach culture; the sense of entrapment at being young and poor and emotionally lost; and the dangerous lure of sex, drugs and waves when there's nothing else to keep you grounded. Nunn's style is cool and exacting—he's amazingly restrained, even when his material gets sensational—but he always cares: what happens to his teenage-runaway hero, what the boy learns about himself, comes directly from his encounters with his environment, with H.B. and its end-of-its-tether hedonism, and therefore makes Tapping the Source a powerful OC novel, but not merely that. It's a novel that should have a long afterlife, and not just in the county.

I'm a little less enthusiastic. While I think Tapping the Source may well be The Great OC Novel, I don't think it's a great novel. It falls apart towards the end. Nunn loses his grip and the story becomes somewhat ridiculous. By the time the fingerless Samoan with the specially modified machine gun shows up at the black mass (a combination of words I guarantee you will never use unless you are discussing this book), I was almost ready to throw Tapping the Source across the room with great force. But that doesn't mean it's not The Great OC Novel– as Donald Rumsfeld would remind you, you have to go with the novels you have, not the novels you wish you had. And as Bonca points out in his survey, “The Orange County novel is in its infancy—it's where LA was 40 years ago, before Pynchon, Joan Didion and Steve Erickson showed up”, so there's still time for someone else to seize the title. Until then, we must just soldier on with Rumfeldian resignation.

Nunn's second novel, Pomona Queen, is a much better book. It reminds me of Jorge Luis Borges small masterpiece, “The South”, only with psycho bikers instead of gauchos. It makes you think of the exceptionally normal Pomona as a place where something unexpected and fearsome is lurking beneath the surface, waiting to breakthrough. And judging by a recent report from Pomona, that's just about right. Only these days, it isn't the psycho bikers you have to watch out for, it's the deputies.

In a barely readable blogpost at the Huffington Post, John Seery, a professor of politics at Pomona College, reports that his colleague Miguel Tinker Salas, Arango Professor in Latin American History and Professor of History and Chicano/a Studies at the college, was recently questioned in his office by two plainclothes sheriff's deputies claiming to be from “L.A. County Sheriff's Department/F.B.I. Joint Task Force on Terrorism”. Professor Tinker Salas is an expert on Venezuela, and initially the deputies told him they were there to ask for his help in understanding in L.A.'s growing Venezuelan immigrant community. But, as Seery writes,

Professor Miguel Tinker Salas didn't buy that line and asked them point blank why they were really there.

At that point, they opened a folder, revealing that it was a file on Professor Tinker Salas, along with his picture. And, they said, they had some questions for him. Those questions: What is his immigration status? Is he a U.S. citizen? What is the nature of his contact with the Venezuelan embassy or consulate?

Seery speculates that this visit was prompted by Tinker Salas' recent visibility in the media as a commentator on the tensions between the US and Venezuela.

That “conversation” was clearly meant to serve two purposes: to add to Professor Tinker Salas's ongoing file in a fishing expedition to uncover something incriminating against him; and to let him know that THEY are watching, a not-so-subtle warning to intimidate in order to curb his speech.

(The quotation marks and the all caps THEY are just a hint of Seery's juvenile prose style.) This is deplorable, of course, but not really that surprising. Federal attempts to monitor and intimidate people considered subversive have been well documented throughout the Bush era, and State Senator Joe Dunn (D-Garden Grove) is still investigating the California National Guard's spying on such menaces to national security as the Ragin' Grannies, so it was only a matter of time before monitoring and intimidating people in the name of national security reached the local level of law enforcement.

Living with secret monitoring and constant low level intimidation by government officials, who justify their behavior by invoking national security and a vaguely defined terrorist threat, is one of the themes of Philip K. Dick's Radio Free Albemuth, a book that may edge out Tapping the Source as my The Great OC Novel, if things keep going the way they are. Of course, if things keep going the way they are, I might just fall back on Waguih Ghali's advice on how to overcome facts, and give up reading altogether in favor of the bottle. Fortunately, I can find plenty of advice about that in the Drinking Issue.

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