By Jim Knipfel
“In using the myth, in manipulating a continuous parallel between contemporaneity and antiquity, Mr. Joyce is pursuing a method which others must pursue after him. . . . It is simply a way of controlling, of ordering, of giving a shape and significance to the immense panorama of futility and anarchy which is contemporary history. . . . Instead of narrative method we may now use the mythical method. It is, I seriously believe, a step toward making the modern world possible for art . . . ” – T. S. Eliot
And so it was, in 1923. But if the futility and anarchy has only increased in the last 80 years, what new methods (or should that be defence mechanisms?) have we developed to make our world “possible for art”? Where will a contemporary author find a way of “ordering, of giving a shape and significance” to our confused and chaotic reality? Not from reading The Golden Bough, surely.
Believing in such an order and shape is still a prerequisite for art, not to mention a basic psychological need for most people. Experience is nothing without understanding. Here, for example, is one modern Seeker’s attempt at an epiphany (for this is a religious impulse):
For it was now like walking among matrices of a great digital computer, the zeroes and ones twinned above, hanging like balanced mobiles right and left, ahead, thick, maybe endless. Behind the hieroglyphic streets there would either be a transcendent meaning, or only the earth. . . . Another mode of meaning behind the obvious, or none. Either Oedipa in the orbiting ecstasy of a true paranoia, or a real Tristero. For there either was some Tristero beyond the appearance of the legacy America, or there was just America and if there was just America then it seemed the only way she could continue, and manage to be at all relevant to it, was as an alien, unfurrowed, assumed full circle into some paranoia.
Thomas Pynchon’s The Crying of Lot 49 (which is where this passage comes from) has some claim to be the current generation’s Ulysses. Instead of the mythical method we may now use the paranoid method. It is the conspiracy that gives life purpose. Without the Tristero there is only the earth, “only death and the daily, tedious preparations for it.” Yes, there is a pattern, an order, a “true paranoia,” a meaning to all of those seemingly unrelated messages and trivial occurrences that make up our everyday lives. But it is hidden. That’s the way they like it. God works in strange and suspicious ways.
The hero of Jim Knipfel’s The Buzzing is Roscoe Baragon, an investigative reporter now relegated to covering the “kook beat” for a New York City daily. These kooks are all paranoids: convinced that various agencies both natural and supernatural are plotting against them. And before you can say “Miss Lonelyhearts” Roscoe has been sucked in – seeing the outline of a Grand Unified Conspiracy behind a falling spacelab, a chain of earthquakes, strange whale behaviour, radioactive corpses, and a mysterious real estate company staffed by white-robed “Seatopians.”
As a conspiracy thriller, The Buzzing is clever and twisted enough, though sometimes a little too confusing for its own good. Part of that confusion is meant to mimic Baragon’s own descent into paranoia, where even the innocent and innocuous become twisted. Seeing connections everywhere is a fertile madness. Knipfel also has a tendency to fall into cliché, especially with his characters: the jaded reporter, the fresh new kid with a journalism degree from Columbia, the irascible editor. One has the sense that even their creator isn’t very interested in these people.
The turn of the screw in this conspiracy story is that it comes via Japan’s Toho Studios, famous for their Godzilla movies and related creature features. The Seatopians – if that is what they really are – made their first appearance in Godzilla vs. Megalon. Whatever the reality, Baragon imagines the Seatopian conspiracy in movie terms (luckily he is a fan of Japanese monster trash and is able to figure out all of the connections). It is the paranoid order – the plot! – of the movies that Baragon is seeking. His Golden Bough is a library of Grade Z horror flicks. His girlfriend tries to explain:
“Real life isn’t a movie, Roscoe. I’m sorry. No matter how much you want it to be sometimes. There aren’t big plots with clean resolutions. Things are sloppy. Things just happen.”
Things just happen? Life not like the movies? That’s just giving into the immense panorama of futility and anarchy. That’s just making life a preparation for death. We need our plots. We need supreme fictions, significant forms that matter, to bring meaning to life. And where else will we find it expressed but in our most dominant form of art:
That’s the one thing none of the paranoids he’d interviewed had ever admitted. Oh, all the conspiracies were evil and horrible and terrifying, yes – but where would they be without them? There had to be a certain tingle of superiority in knowing you were the only person in the world who really knew what the score was. Conspiracies, moreover, also help make the normal redundancies of life a little more bearable. More than bearable even – they made things exciting. It was pretty seductive, leaving the world of stubbed toes and clipped coupons and phone bills in order to enter the world of spies and evil scientists and monsters. In short, stepping into the movies. Without their fears, what would these people do all day?
Review first published online September 29, 2003.