18 March 2004

New Jerusalem by Len Jenkin

Unless you've spent some time in New York's alternative theatre scene, you've probably never heard of Len Jenkin. He's one of the most entertaining and interesting playwrights in the U.S., and though for a while he was regularly produced by Joseph Papp at the Public Theatre, for the most part his work has been produced in very small venues which the average theatre-goer never finds. If you ever get a chance to see one of Jenkin's shows, go. Particularly if it's his masterpiece, Dark Ride -- drop everything, leave the wedding or funeral or whatever silly event you're attending that night, and go.

Jenkin has written two books that I know of, The Secret Life of Billie's Uncle Myron, a children's book that is only mildly amusing, and a novel for adults, New Jerusalem.

New Jerusalem was originally a play (in the late '70s, I believe), and then Jenkin rewrote it into a novel which was published in 1986 by Sun & Moon Press. It was not a bestseller. I've only ever seen one copy of it, and that's the copy I own, purchased at a used bookstore in Manhattan, somewhere around West 20th Street.

I didn't read the book for years. I was afraid it would be disappointing, that it would be as unorganized and unengaging as The Secret Life of Billie's Uncle Myron. I adore Jenkin's plays, and I don't particularly like reading flaccid work by writers I otherwise revere.

But I saw the book on the shelf recently, and it lodged itself in my mind. It was time to face it, no matter what I ended up thinking. I could handle the disappointment if it was terrible. I would be cheerfully surprised if it was not.

I was cheerfully surprised.

No, it's not as good as his best plays. But it is as good as his not-best plays. Which is damn good.

Since finding a copy of this book is difficult, let me give you a summary and, I hope, enough details to make you seek it out (the seeking is half the fun -- and since much of what Jenkin writes involves quests for lost or apocryphal items, it's appropriate).

Though published by a respectable lit'ry press, New Jerusalem is a science fiction novel. It takes place somewhere around the year 2037 in a future where all criminality has been ended through drug treatments which eliminate criminal tendencies. Our narrator is a hardboiled newspaper reporter named Farber. He's a reporter of the old school -- in 2037, most newspaper stories are complete fiction, because truth is boring and doesn't sell. Farber misses the old days where reporters actually went out and covered stories that had happened.

There's one story left that might be interesting enough to compete with the fiction on the front pages, and Farber begs to be assigned to it: The United Nations is closing a penal colony they had created (in 1987), an island called New Jerusalem, where, until the advent of the drug treatments ten years later, convicts were parachuted for a life sentence. There haven't been any visitors to New Jerusalem in a long time, ever since some problems with the Tourist Promotion Board, which, under the direction of a charismatic leader named Arnheim, was the closest the island ever came to having a government.

Farber goes to New Jerusalem to cover the island's final days as a penal colony -- all the convicts are being brought back to the U.S. to have the drug treatment, so long as they aren't completely insane. Farber quickly finds himself caught up in a quest for the last of a substance called "keph", which was once made from the brains of dolphins, but the only person who knew how to make it has since gone completely insane and isn't able to communicate his knowledge. Keph is immediately and irrevocably addictive, and everybody wants some, because everyone knows that once they get off the island, they're going to have to have something to sell. A bizarre cult has formed around keph, and their members vie for the remains with various other unscrupulous folks: a gangster/wannabe-dictator, an obsessive film director who has been shooting imaginary movies for twenty years, and even a Confucian pirate.

The story progresses to a drastic ending, but the plot isn't the real fun of the book. Jenkin had a grand time imagining the pecularities of the island's culture and history, and the joy of the novel is in seeing what he can come up with next. For instance, the cult. They've never gotten over the loss of New Jerusalem's tourist trade, and they desperately want modern appliances. Their leader, Big Tiny, manipulates them into worshipping gods named Motorola, Betamax, and (the mean and nasty god) Magnavox.
"They believe the ship is coming, yes, but to bring at last all the appliances they have performed their magic to obtain. ...

"They believe the ship is filled with rotisseries, coffee makers, plate warmers, dishwashers, dryers, hairblowers, electric carving knives, pot scrubbers, toasters, telephones, radios, television sets, entire cinemas, simultaneous translation booths, HomEnt units, biofeedback units, lie detectors, stereo equipment, and motorcars. ...

"Mr. Faber, they even believe there is a child who will lead them to their paradise -- Big Tiny's son. He's been raised for this purpose from birth. They call him the Kephiboy. Big Tiny tells them that the child commands a number of spirits who sail the seas about New Jerusalem in boats with black sails, each armed with a flowering stick that has the power to cause any dolphin who smells it to follow its possessor. Under this spell, the unhappy beast swims along to shore, where it is netted, and carried to a clearing far from any human habitation. Here the spirits seize the living fish and bore a hole through the top of its skull. It is then suspended, head downwards over a caldron of boiling oils. The drippings from the dolphin's brain fall into the hot oils and supposedly form a most valuable medicine..."
You might think from the above that New Jerusalem is a simple satire of greed and consumerism, and though at moments the words walk that way, there's a lot more going on here. Desire is dangerous in this story, and it doesn't matter what the desire is for -- appliances, drugs, money, freedom, love -- it all leads somewhere, and that somewhere is seldom good. The most virtuous person in the book, perhaps the only virtuous person, is the Confucian pirate.

One of the tendencies of Jenkin's work is for the characters to be enlivened stereotypes. New Jerusalem, like many of his plays, feels like a mosaic of bits of American pop culture from no later than the 1950s. Unlike some post-modernists, Jenkin doesn't patronize or beautify his stereotypes, he doesn't use them for any obviously ironic intent. Mostly, he seems to like the language they produce. He likes to listen to two-dimensional characters talk, and to put them in situations where their talk is definitely odd, but also oddly appropriate. While many of his characters and settings seem to come from classic film noir, Charlie Chan movies, and old comic books, they are made to play their hands and smoke their cigarettes and plot their triple-crosses in a world where nothing is absolute, and endings seldom arrive. (Unlike many of Jenkin's plays, New Jerusalem not only follows a linear plotline, but it has a real conclusion. Dark Ride's ending sums up the feeling many of his characters get to, though: All of the actors end up saying, or chanting, "I'm not interested in philosophy. Just tell me how it ends." New Jerusalem suggests that this is a fatal wish.) It's like Edward Whittemore with fewer spies, and though there are plenty of conspiracies, they only affect the conspirators.

It's not a perfect book by any means -- it answers too many of its own questions, some of the incidents are considerably more effective than others -- but it has perfect moments, and some images that will live with me, I expect, for a long time. Consider the following, which, published alone, could almost be mistaken for something by Russell Edson:
The city of New Jerusalem hops like a tethered hummingbird. The sun has set hours ago, and the heat is still overpowering. Along the docks, in the narrow area between the piers themselves and the warehouse godowns, men are gathered in small groups, eating out of wooden bowls which they wipe clean with their shirttails. Tied up along the wharves are junks, sampans, old Chris-craft inboards, an antique U.S. Coast Guard destroyer fitted over as a nightclub. Black barges with panels of corrugated sheet iron roofing them over, torches lit at the prows, glide slowly past the piers. These barges carry rice husks, sawdust, charcoal, green bananas -- whatever else has been made, grown, or delivered up by the sea.

A butcher stands in the tail of his pigboat like a Venetian gondolier; a pig's head is nailed to the prow, the rest of the carcass laid out in the anatomically correct order down the length of the boat. The curled tail is nailed to the stern. The pig has been expanded, so to speak, and set out for sail.

1 comment:

  1. Nice review, I love this book.
    The stuff about the kamoro cult and the kephiboy is also a comment about the "cargo cults" of Papua New Guinea and elsewhere in Melanesia. I have actually been to PNG in '84 and been to remote cargo cultist villages and spirit haus in the highlands, quite fascinating.

    ReplyDelete