Sunday, July 13, 2003

The Buzzing (2003) / Masters of Atlantis (1985)

It is characteristic for potboilers about global conspiracies and secret societies to be flavored generously with ingredients of arcane, if not half-baked, history. From Umberto Eco to Robert Anton Wilson to Dan Brown, the alchemy is practiced from a familiar bag of elements: the Knights Templar, the Illuminati, the Trilateral Commission (or a shadow government of some description), UFOs. But by coincidence (or was it?) I recently read two novels that broke the mold with atypical mixtures.

The Buzzing by Jim Knipfel is the tale of Roscoe Baragon, a once-lauded foreign correspondent who has settled into a comfort zone, killing time between paychecks by covering the "kook-beat" for a fourth-rate New York daily. A few potentially career-saving stories slide across Baragon's desk, but he allows the more legitimate angles to pass to a junior reporter while he pursues the fringes, and begins to discern an unlikely pattern of events emerging from far-flung and sometimes odd sources.

Knipfel rolls out the story in a smooth but irony-edged matter-of-fact style, honed during his own years at the New York Press (undoubtedly the template for Baragon's rag, the Sentinel), that could be classified as B-movie noir -- Raymond Chandler meets Kolchak the Night Stalker. To his credit, Knipfel dismantles the typical and oft-overused platforms for conspiracy theories, instead blueprinting how tiny, odd details assemble for some people into nearly-coherent but ultimately deranged worldviews. Knipfel's main effort is to show just how easy it is for a rational train of thought to become derailed: "It's almost like there are fads in delusional psychosis." (Obviously, the talking heads at Fox News have picked up some pointers.) 

Familiar characterizations evoke the investigative reporter genre while simultaneously subverting it. There is Baragon's boss, the prototypical angry newspaper editor. There is his not-quite girlfriend but certainly devoted drinking buddy, Emily. It is she who provides Baragon the scoop about a radioactive corpse at the city morgue, which starts his snowball rolling. And there is "Eel" O'Neill, a producer of sleazy Z-grade horror movies (Cannibal Boogaloo 3 is his latest), who serves as sounding board and ballast for Baragon's quest. Despite his questionable profession, Eel displays a keen, canny perspective as events unfold.

Legitimate sources (a NASA engineer tracking a falling satellite, a geophysical surveyor analyzing a seemingly deliberate pattern of earthquakes) fuel Baragon's initial investigations, but these are swiftly obfuscated by elements that turn up like random cards from an Old Maid deck: a plot to steal tenement-house plumbing, nuclear meltdowns in the Ukraine, killer whale attacks, and kidnappings reportedly committed by "the state of Alaska." A menagerie of minor characters provides herrings in various shades of red: Baragon interviews Abraham Campbell, an institutionalized church arsonist who claims to be a government-trained operative in the secret war with the "Seatopians." Also lurking is Natacia Ranzigava, a former Soviet refugee who is to crackpot theories what Mary Mallon was to typhoid; she presses Baragon to investigate citywide disappearances of elderly flophouse residents. And finally there is Raymond Martin, the aforementioned radioactive corpse whose trail leads back to many of the other plotlines.

The book is peppered with obscure references (or clues, if you're so inclined) to Japanese monster movies. Baragon himself is named after a creature from Frankenstein Conquers the World (1965), a film that features neither Frankenstein nor his monster, by the way. Likewise with his cat, Hedora, named for the eponymous villain in Godzilla vs. the Smog Monster (1971). Oftentimes these references are fitting: the Gaira is the name of a Japanese fishing boat which sinks mysteriously in one of the stories Baragon goes chasing; Gaira is also a giant aquatic zombie-thing from War of the Gargantuas (1966) that has a penchant for ... sinking fishing boats.

There's even a cryptic nod to Capricorn One (1978), the film about a NASA conspiracy which co-starred OJ Simpson. While to a certain extent this is all in the name of fun, the references do provide a creepy outreach as the novel winds toward its closing moments. "Hollywood makes a movie about some historical event," Baragon says, "and to a huge majority of people, that becomes history. In the end there's no real difference between Destroy All Monsters and some drought in California." Oliver Stone will undoubtedly be pleased to hear this.

Knipfel is the author of two well-regarded memoirs, and given that background The Buzzing feels oddly skimpy on the kinds of details that would truly endear its characters. As Eel O'Neil might tell you, the best horror movies are character driven; ironic since Eel in particular is sorely underdeveloped. Then again, as Eel might also say, The Blair Witch Project (1999) was a brew of slightly underdone characters, but was spiced with enough eerie ideas to overcome those weaknesses. The Buzzing weaves the same kind of spell. Towards the end, Baragon ponders the "paranoids" who continually rattle his office phone: "Without their fears, what would these people do all day?" As Baragon goes about connecting all the wrong dots, there's devilish good fun in the details.

Charles Portis is best known as the author of True Grit, a masterpiece blend of the Western genre and what might be called interior-monologue slapstick. Though the five slender novels in his canon are eccentric and diverse in terms of subject matter, a current of wiseacre humor runs through them all. With Masters of Atlantis, Portis delivers an immensely entertaining comic portrait of a fictional secret brotherhood, the Gnomon Society.

In 1917 Lamar Jimmerson comes into possession of the Codex Pappus, a little gray booklet containing "the secret wisdom of Atlantis." Or something like that. Mainly the pages are "given over to curious diagrams and geometric figures, mostly cones and triangles." Shortly thereafter he meets "Sir" Sidney Hen, and the architecture of the book is cemented as these two deduce (or at least manufacture) not only their roles in the Society, but the aims of the Society itself by straining through the Codex: "This is marvelous stuff!" says Hen, "I can't make head or tail of it!"

They devise a plan to take Gnomonism to the world. With Hen responsible for Europe and Asia, Jimmerson returns to America (Gary, Indiana, to be exact) and struggles to spread the word. Things take off with the arrival of Austin Popper, a character seemingly made of equal parts P.T. Barnum, Dan Quayle, and Wile E. Coyote. Popper assumes the role of Society spokesman, goes on the lecture circuit (with his talking blue jay, Squanto) and becomes a pre-WW2 celebrity. The American Gnomons experience a heyday, but this behavior unfortunately creates a philosophical rift with a now-angry Hen, who denounces Jimmerson's Indiana Temple and credibility. And this is only in the first forty pages.

Masters of Atlantis is essentially a long, perfectly told joke. The story is symphonic in structure, with general exposition sweeping smoothly into manic chapters, set-pieces, and comic monologues, then back again. Popper turns draft-dodging into a career; the benevolent but nescient Jimmerson is coerced into running for Governor of Indiana; there is an alchemical scheme to extract gold mineral from the leaves of bagweed; Sidney Hen is nearly poisoned by his secretary and attempts a late-life return to his London Temple, which has been "turned into a government home for unwed mothers" (Jimmerson's own Indiana Temple is soon also similarly overrun, leading to a bail-out of apocalyptic proportions).

These episodes are executed in the straightforward, knowing language of the best nonfiction; it's hard to imagine John McPhee or the late Stephen Ambrose doing a better job with the material. Portis twists this delivery by saturating every page with a sense of giddy yet deadpan hoax, made possible in no small part by the plausibility of it all; at one point, the description of one of Popper's Gnomonic lectures sounds eerily like a Tony Robbins seminar: "Through Gnomonic thought and practices they could become happy, and very likely rich, and not later but sooner. They could learn how to harness secret powers, tap hidden reserves, plug in to the Telluric Currents ... He bucked them up with the example of his own dynamic personality and they went away thinking better of themselves." A published photograph of a similar rally depicts "a roomful of solemn men standing with their hands clasped atop their heads." Later, Popper admits: "I discovered I had a knack for selling things, a gift for hopeful statement combined with short-term tenacity of purpose."

Though character-driven, there is no psychology in the book. Portis never pauses to examine or even mention motivation or emotion, or to dwell morally on any result. (Only occasionally does he let slip a phrase that acts as a Twain-like wink directed at the reader.) The characters simply are, like random neutrons, dizzily spinning, and often into each other; every act boils peculiarly to the surface, and the actors make up new rules and regulations to account for themselves. Where in lesser hands this would lead to strained if not overblown chaos, Portis coolly minds the tiller for an easy ride up Crazy River. You'd swear Jerry Seinfeld kept a copy of this book handy for reference while co-scripting his sitcoms.

If the characters are saved by anything, it is the integrity of their belief systems; misguided though they are, they yet persevere. Only once does Portis reach beyond their insulated experiences to shed the light of the Outer World (as populated by "Perfect Strangers" in Gnomon-speak) on the principals, and that is for the punchline at the end, when Austin Popper must address a congressional hearing to account for himself and the purposes of the Gnomon Society. But Portis never lets up; even the senators end up buying into the buffoonery during their inquisition: "Experiments are carried on behind locked doors, I am told, with vicious dogs patrolling the corridors. What safeguards do you have in place, Mr. Popper? What precautions have you taken to ensure that these experiments do not get out of hand and set the air afire and perhaps melt the polar ice caps?"

At various points it's tempting to try and decipher exactly who Portis is skewering -- the Rosicrucians? Freemasons? Followers of Dianetics? Art Bell? Glenn Beck? But finally, every fringe group and conspiracy movement worth its essential salts attracts a fair share of oddballs and grifters, making controversial noise in search of celebrity or seeking a quick buck by swindling the rubes. The usual rush towards denouncing and debunking based solely on these elements often neglects to consider the engine spark behind the eventual movement. As one character blissfully says upon first encountering the Gnomon philosophy, "My search for certitudes is over." Portis and Knipfel remind us in comic relief that it is the innocent and misguided who, in the ordinary, everyday quest for answers and meaningful experience, stumble towards truth by way of delusion and often provide the initial fuel for the strangest-colored flames.

Originally published in the Mobile Register as "Conspiracy Theory Double Feature," July 13 2003