One of the most important (and productively hurtful) things a writing mentor once said to me, after reading a piece I’d written and rewritten I didn’t know how many times, was “Good job. Second draft out of ten.”
Jesus Angel Garcia’s “transmedia” novel, badbadbad, though presented as finished, seems in actuality at a similar awkward stage of development. This child is precocious, lively, simultaneously endearing and frustrating, and carries so much raw potential; this child wants to light the world on fire, has probably been encouraged to do so, but at the moment of truth must run to the men’s room to tend to an unexpected mess. The high level of talent is apparent, but unfortunately, so is the inexperience.
Here’s the quick version of this review: The book is campy, pulpy, postmodernish; it’s filthy and blasphemous; it’s fun in parts; in other parts, it begs to be skimmed; the end of the book calls to you from a place difficult to reach. The story’s good. The dialog starts fresh but transitions to nonsensical. The book begins as a pro, retires an amateur–or at least as a tired pro who peters out.
In the longer version, we start with the good, which is really, really good for about 70 pages. The protagonist, who shares his name with the author and goes casually by JAG, glimmers with postmodern sparks of Holden Caufield, as though Caufield were reborn into the modern American South. And reminiscent of Caufield in The Catcher in the Rye, JAG in the first chapter mistakenly romanticizes a prostitute—a naïve and ironic scene that nearly gets him killed. The language is fresh, jive, and modern, the scene simultaneously funny and horrifying; the pages turn on their own, and the reader has a good time on one wild ride. Here the author sets up well JAG’s disturbing psychosis. Attempting to live up to his name, Jesus Angel is on a mission to save the whores of the world. Naturally, that’s just blasphemous and ridiculous enough to keep things interesting.
Trying to raise money for a custody dispute with his ex, JAG lands an unlikely job running the website of The First Church of the Church Before Church. He fends off the advances of the preacher’s wife, and he befriends the preacher’s prodigal son, who runs an underground casual fetish sex website. All great. All ridiculous and ripe with potential page-turning terribleness. But as any good comedian knows, the setup is only half the joke, and the punch line in this book never really comes, or at least never really hits.
It never really hits, I think, because the author in his ambitious freshman novel is swinging above his head. It seems an attempt at postmodernism, however ill-defined that term is, but comes off more gimmicky than postmodern at times, and the writer commits just about every writing sin one is warned of by the elders of the Church of Fine Arts. We’ve established that the story itself is good, which is the principle driving force of the book, the reason one continues to read, but the story is terribly plot-driven rather than character-driven. The reader finds himself longing for more character development but in most cases is left wanting. This effect is intensified by a series of brief sex-site hookups and IM conversations with women going by chat handles instead of their names, and also by, as another mentor once put it, the narrator’s “head-up-his-own-assishness.” Thus, many characters do not invite the reader to become fully invested in them, and the ones who do are more interesting than JAG himself, but JAG’s attention span seems so short these characters never get the development they should.
Other writing sins: ·
Copious use of song lyrics—something all writers try at least once before they learn they should stop. Garcia promises a soundtrack to accompany the book, as well as a series of short films, which is how he will deliver the “transmedia” experience. That is something one can appreciate, the experimentation with storytelling forms in a new media world. ·
Lack of any real antagonist—The narrator’s ex is the closest we have to a dark force driving him, but the reader never really gets to know her. She remains some abstract hatred in the back of the narrator’s mind. ·
No tension payoff—The seeds of tension are sown everywhere: a potential affair with the preacher’s wife, a standoff with the prodigal son, a murder of the ex, a chance the pastor will discover a deviant sex site hiding beneath the church’s site, a horrifying asked-for rape, on and on, but the narrator spends most of his time either online, listening to music and recreating the song lyrics, having sex, waxing philosophical, and inflating his abstract purpose in the world. The real conflicts, though, ripen and wither on the vine. ·
A ghost reader—The narrator’s half-brother, another character who never really is known, is the narrator’s intended audience for the story. It’s natural for a writer to wonder, “Who’s the narrator talking to?” But addressing anybody but the real-life reader is very difficult to do right or well. In this case, the gimmick fails.
Authorial lecturing—Though his actions remove any credibility, the narrator drops nuggets of wisdom and insight throughout. This could be fine, great, even ironically Holden-Caufieldish if these nuggets didn’t seem indulgent authorial insertions. The metaphor is supposed to suggest, to show, not spell out.
But this brings us to what perhaps is the biggest issue. Stephen King, in his book, On Writing, gives this incredibly important advice: Stop trying to be brilliant and tell the goddamn story. Naturally, King takes a more modernist stance on storytelling, but it’s safe advice because anything postmodern (or post-postmodern?) is so amorphously difficult to pull off, anything short of perfection kills it. As for badbadbad, it’s only half what the title promises.