Tuesday, June 14, 2011

The smell of secession

The Oregon Experiment, by Keith Scribner, has a couple really interesting things going for it. Namely:

1. A nose. One of the main characters works as a nose.
2. A secessionist movement.

But it turns out that this is a novel with a breast fixation. This book is all about the breasts. Large, or too small, fleshy, pillowy, ample, lactating, infected, hard, soft, sharp, droopy, pointy. We know all about the characters' breasts, and the characters' mothers' breasts, and the characters' lovers' breasts.

On the other gendered hand, we know very little about what the men look like. Apart from one male "milky torso," there is little indication whether the men are fleshy, flabby, sinewy, sculpted.

A little imbalance doesn't usually faze me. But this book is top-heavy to the point of tipping over. It's too much.

And breastfeeding. The pressure to breastfeed. The romance of breastfeeding. The bond that results from breastfeeding. And such issues. Is it OK to be breastfeeding 4-year-old girls? (Boys?) How about grown men?

Not that I'm a prude or anything. But there's a lot in this novel that made me uncomfortable. Maybe that's the point. But I don't have a good (constructive?) feeling about it.

The characters are all pretty messed up, and none of them particularly likable. They're all pretty selfish actually.

There's Scanlon, a poli sci prof specializing in mass movements and radicalism. His wife Naomi is a former professional "nose" (perfuming and such), but she posttraumatically lost her sense of smell some years ago. Baby on the way, they're moving from New York to Oregon for Scanlon's work.

Naomi's sense of smell comes back, and along with it a hormonal flood — resentments and memories and worries about (in)dependence and career fulfillment and striking a family balance and reclaiming one's body, one's self — issues not uncommon to new mothers.

They befriend a local anarchist. Angry young man. And this relationship I don't see as credible. I just don't see what Clay gets out of it, why he would stick around. Whatever. It's kind of essential to the plot that there be an anarchist, and that he be entwined within this family. So there he is.

And the leader of the secessionist movement, Sequoia, is a near-ideal, free-loving, all-giving vegan earth mother goddess. But I can't really like a character who's chosen to call herself Sequoia. Plus, in complete contrast to her usual policy of openness, she lets her past drive a wedge between her and her daughter.

Scanlon needs both these locals for his work. He tries to convince himself that he's not a bourgeois slumming it for the sake of his research, he tries to walk the talk, but really, who's he kidding?

And it all ends very badly, making me think much the worse of all the characters.

Somewhere in its heart this book is about leaving a life behind, running away from your past, it catching you up even while you yearn for it, ambling toward a life you think you're supposed to be living. Maybe outrunning your past, or just forgetting it.

Somewhere toward the end, the book purports to be about love, the bonds of family, and betrayals thereof. But there's very little real love here. Maybe that's the point. But I can't shake the feeling that this book was written by a man with a superficial grasp of what love is, who just plain doesn't understand women. It makes me angry, and sad. Maybe that's the point.

I'm reminded a little of Doris Lessing's The Good Terrorist, for the street-level view of a movement, the day-to-day practicalities that weigh the lofty ideals back down to earth. Also, Annette Gilson's New Light, for it's Americanness, for putting the commune back in community.

It's also a very olfactory book, though it's neither Proust nor Süskind; only when the smells of fear and danger crop up, I'm afraid the nose has some rehabilitation to go before her alleged genius specificity fully returns.

So, there's some pretty heady stuff in here, but it didn't come together for me. I may or may not pick up Keith Scribner's next novel, depending on its subject matter. I'm sure he'll be fine; his wife must have quite the rack.
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