Taking after the old pulp tradition, badbadbad starts off on a sharp note: A man has been left by his wife, taking their son along with her. The prose is as razor sharp as you’d expect in old hardboiled paperbacks, with the same juxtaposition of opposites creating the same tension we’ve come to love from the genre, and the cover is designed with the same campy grittiness in mind. badbadbad, however, isn’t a pulp novel, but a taut psychological examination, a blueprint into madness, all wrapped up in a nice pulp package. This is an important distinction to note because the novel is shot through with this sentiment, this idea of covertness, of hidden layers, of people masquerading as things they’re not.
The Artifice of Media
Jesus Angel Garcia, the narrator, has just been left by his wife, who took their son with her. Looking for money in order to hire a divorce lawyer, he’s hired by the Reverend Puck to be webmaster for the First Church Before Church, helping build their online presence. The community grows so large that he’s picked up by other area churches. Around this time, he meets Cyrus, the ex-communicated son of Rev Puck. Cyrus and JAG bond over music on almost a molecular level. They are fluent in punk, jazz, soul and communicate through in the innate language of aesthetes. He also introduces JAG to fallenangels, a website forum created as a safe haven for fetishists. It’s this site that triggers a revelation for Jesus, that it is his calling to be a sexual messiah for these broken women, fulfilling their needs.
The institutions of church and chatboards—assuming the interwebs can be labeled an institution by this point—are ripe for exploitation, especially if crosscut. In the hands of an overwrought undergrad, this could quickly become tired and the motives transparent. Garcia—the author, Garcia—has a steady, old-fashioned storyteller hand, though, and makes even small elements like the First Church’s name feel more organic, clever maybe, instead of twee. The storylines of each venue are beautifully thrown against each other, informing the next while never outright commenting on either, rather letting the reader draw their own conclusions. At First Church, the Reverend’s passionate sermons—with the help of JAG’s photography and podcasting—begin to attract an increasingly large amount of parishioners to the website, where they discuss sermons, Christian living and local politics. This conversation, though, is monitored and even stoked by JAG himself under a variety of names. When conversation veers to the unchristian, the posts are deleted; when discussion lags, an incarnation of JAG starts talking, sometimes even conversing with himself. During his evenings, he trolls through fallenagels, chatting with numerous women, recreating himself to fit within their pleasure’s parameters in order to satisfy them. At points, he has so many different names and women—each with their own screenname and Christian name—that it nearly requires notes. Keeping all of these straight in his head is a feat unto itself, much less devoting himself, morphing into whatever it is that they need.
All of the varied media address one of the major themes in the book: communication and intimacy in the digital age. Namely, is communication—real communication—possible with all our social networks, and if so, how does this impact our ability to connect and be intimate? Digging further into the novel, peeling back more layers of Jesus Angel Garcia, we start to see his thoughts on this materialize.
The Artifice of Man
All of these personalities and facets dictated by the various media begin to wear on Jesus. He becomes increasingly distressed by the inability to connect with people, despite overextending himself to meet their needs. This is where I began to wonder about the book, reevaluating my understanding of it and starting to consider that I was slowly wandering into unreliable narrator territory. The prospect of this was especially interesting as Garcia’s voice is so confident I hadn’t had any cause to question him.
Structurally, badbadbad is an epistolary novel, told to JAG’s younger brother. Recounting events, particularly ones as intense as these, is already subject to revisionist tendencies. It’s a nice corollary, too, that the veracity of the events mirrors Jesus’s constantly changing identity. This kind of revision is apparent any Friday night at a bar, where we put forth only the best of ourselves. He takes it a step further, though, even streaking his hair with grey dye and using colored contacts for women with specific needs. Regarding his sexual God complex, I understand that he believes it’s his purpose to satisfy women’s urges, to be a martyr of the mattress, but at points it began to feel like he was actually thriving on these missed emotional connections. He seems to constantly point out these superficial interactions, but they all occur in a venue that is impersonal itself. It was almost like he was trying to atone for something in his past by offering himself as a sacrifice, to heal the sexual wounds of these women in order to heal himself. The naivety with which he approaches many of these interactions calls into question his actual intentions as well.
At various points, JAG dips into asides to his brother, hinting at an abusive household that he fled, leaving his brother behind to fend for himself. This could be the wound he’s trying to heal, but it also made me wonder from where he’s narrating the story. To try to avoid (more) spoilers, I won’t go into it, but again it made me question JAG as a narrator, which then led me to look into the son storyline. The issue of the ex and missing son, though being pretty much the inciting incident of the story, plays a surprisingly small role in the overall story. The lack of focus—bordering ‘tacked on’—on an element so large in a novel that is so well told sent alarm bells clanging inside my head. This possibility of unreliability casts some of his other trysts in a very different light after the book is finished.
badbadbad is one of those novels that requires more than one reading, the kind that forces you to consider and reconsider its implications for weeks after reading. It’s a constantly morphing novel, with prose that is (could be?) deceiving in the best possible way. It’s a beautiful debut by Jesus Angel Garcia, and sets the bar high for his next.
– Nik Korpon is the author of Stay God, Old Ghosts and By the Nails of the Warpriest. He is an Associate Editor with Dirty Noir and Rotten Leaves magazines. He lives in Baltimore. Give him some danger, little stranger, at nikkorpon.com