Closing in on Death
An inconclusive report on the lifestyles of the rich and famous
It is peculiar that Jessica Hagedorn's fourth novel, Toxicology, is preceded by epigraphs about Lorca's idea of the duende—an enigmatic Spanish term "about the struggle and state of possession that go into making great art," as one of her characters puts it. "Duende's hard to explain. Sorta like when black singers are said to have soul." It’s peculiar because as the story unfolds, we are introduced to artists who have lost their passion—base creatures posing under the guise of genius whose real struggle seems to be between hedonism and self-pity.
The first chapter opens with a loud text message: "OMG MOM HES DEAD TURN ON CNN NOW!!!" He, in this case, is Romeo Byron, a thinly veiled Heath Ledger (he's the villain in a highly anticipated superhero movie, his corpse is discovered in his Lower East Side home, the Olsen twins might be involved). The receiver of this text is Mimi Smith, an alcoholic one-hit-wonder horror film director. Mimi arrives at the death scene with her Flip cam. Rumors start circulating—from people's mouths, from an unknown narrator, from wherever. And it becomes apparent that the jumbled cacophony of imagination and speech, blurred by long paragraphs that don't separate the two, will become a theme in Toxicology.
That's where things start feeling a lot like a mimicry of Bret Easton Ellis' earlier works (The Informers, Less Than Zero), with the MTV generation replaced by adherents of Us Weekly and text messaging. But as Hagedorn's characters evolve, they do become more humanized, and the book doesn't really have much to do with our age of media misinformation. Unlike Ellis' characters, Hagedorn's aren't simply apathetic, pleasure-driven nihilists. They’re just people too weak-willed and distraught to move forward. And they've got enough booze and coke to keep it that way. "I've achieved a raggedy nirvana, a fleeting bliss," Mimi tells herself while high one night.
Toxicology 's narrative, like its characters, retreats the very moment it finds a direction that could lead to something redeeming.
The most fleshed-out, intriguing character in the book is Mimi's next-door neighbor, Eleanor Delacroix, an octogenarian fallen-from-grace writer who was the feminist Henry Miller of her heyday. Like Mimi, she also knows death a little too well. Her solution to grief is to snort blow, receive oral pleasure from women a third her age and reminisce about what a grand old party life used to be. "I've been thinking about death all my life,” she confides to the reader. “I've never been afraid of it. Dry your tears, dispense with the grief, and throw a party."
The flashbacks are where the story gets good. Poetically beautiful, even. One such scenario finds Delacroix meeting her now-dead lover in a small Mexican town. They sit on a veranda and sip mescal at sunset, thinking about primal beasts and sex. It's pretty scintillating stuff. This and a chapter about a Third World child who’s literally scarred by her mother are poignant asides.
But as the book plods on, these lovely kernels get lost in hazy duende metaphors and a lack of plot resolution. Narrative all but disappears. Poems, excerpts from Delacroix's books and "interviews" are mashed together over the last half of the novel to form something that is thematically consistent, but also aloof and tedious. It feels like the book was over-workshopped in a highbrow creative writing class.
The Heath Ledger thing falls apart and Mimi suddenly becomes a secondary character to Eleanor. Toxicology's narrative, like its characters, retreats the very moment it finds a direction that could lead to something redeeming.
If the book had been manicured into a short story collection, à la Ellis' Informers, it could have worked beautifully. There is enough haunting stuff about love and death here to resonate with any reader. One chapter, titled "Slave," is particularly evocative of Ellis' work. "The woman is wide awake, curled inside a sleeping bag that smells of charred ash and sex," it begins. She is locked in a basement, the sexual plaything of a bored aristocratic couple. A disclaimer at the end of the chapter informs us that the scenario is just imagined. Like Ellis, Hagedorn unleashes anecdotes of grotesque cruelty, often driven by the perverse boredom of the overprivileged, and like Ellis, the line between reality and hallucination is obscured.
The most concrete summation of Hagedorn's characters is provided by Mimi's neglected teenage daughter: "We're under the sea or in heaven," she muses. That paradox is at the heart of Toxicology. Its characters are fools, some of them brilliant, some not, but all tightrope-walkers exhilarated by the freedom of heights, paralyzed by the vast emptiness beneath them. In the end, Toxicology's ensemble might as well be a revived cast of Allen Ginsberg's "Howl." Which begs the question: Why should we give a fuck about great artists who are too self-consumed to create art?