(Vintage, $12.00, 260 pages, paperback; March 2003)
Here is a book that's potentially enormous fun but which, through flaccid,
characterization and a general lack of coherent focus offers a major
Roscoe Baragon was once a prominent investigative journalist, but now
he's old, alcoholic and complacent. His previous achievements having
brought him to the prestigious (well, sort of) newsroom of the New
York Sentinel, he has gravitated towards what's popularly called
the Kook Beat because reporting on the conspiracy theorists doesn't
require him to get off his (literally) fat butt to go out and do any
real journalism. He's the ear of choice for all the crazies of New York,
of which there is no short supply; they fax, phone or e-mail him the
wildest products of their own persecution complexes, and these he translates
with minimal effort into "news" stories. The job is a matter of money
for as near to nothing as Baragon can get it.
But then a cluster of conspiracy theories start making a sort of synergistic
sense, especially when taken together with genuine news reports coming
in from around the world of multiple earthquakes along a line associated
with no known plate margin, of a Japanese fishing boat being struck
by a US nuclear sub, and so on. His own best friend and not-quite-girlfriend,
the seemingly equally alcoholic Emily, is something in forensics at
the city morgue, and she leaks him the story of a drifter found strangled
in a nearby park whose corpse, on arrival at the morgue, proved to be
so radioactive, through and through, that he'd have died within hours
had he not been strangled first.
All of this -- plus the contents of Godzilla vs Megalon (1973),
one of the lesser of Toho's offerings -- Baragon weaves into the granddaddy
of all conspiracy theories. It can be nothing more than lunatic ravings,
of course, and so his editor spikes it and fires him; yet in The
Buzzing's closing pages we find indications that Baragon is right...
Not the most original of plots, but no one would care about that if
the conspiracy theories themselves were sufficiently imaginative, if
the one-liners came fast, furious and witty, if there were a bizarre
cast of larger-than-life characters, if the writing were full of flair
or sophistication, or...
Instead the writing is clumsy and leaden. There are a few laugh-out-loud
moments, but not many grins between them; one has the feeling of ploughing
on through a prose wasteland hoping that someone will have dropped a
rose by the path that hasn't had time to wither. Baragon is a reasonably
drawn character, and possibly his hostile editor and one of the theorists,
Nastacia, just about scrape the grade as well; but all the others, surprisingly
including Emily, are mere names on the page. As for the conspiracy theories,
surely a potentially rich lode for entertainment, these, save alone
the one that Baragon himself painstaking constructs over the course
of 200-plus pages, lack the fastidious complexity -- the careful plaiting
of different data strands to produce a perfectly self-consistent tapestry
of misinformation -- that is essential for the full fascination and
delight of this quasi-literary form. One has the constant feeling that
Knipfel hasn't bothered to do enough research to familiarize himself
with the whole ethos of the conspiracy theory, and has assumed that
just coming up with a few crazy notions will humour the reader.
Overall, this isn't an out-and-out bad book, and some of the
descriptions of New York life are evocative; it's just that it's, well,
all somewhat dull where it should sparkle.
Review by John Grant.