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Is it local?

June 27, 2013

Anyone familiar with the offbeat sketch show Portlandia, set in Portland, Oregon, has a pretty good idea of what it’s like: a city where people ride bikes and unicycles, eat vegan cupcakes, own lots of things with birds on them, and buy books like Vaginas: An Owners Manual from the Women & Women First feminist bookshop. Basically, it’s Hipstertown, and the sort of place young people go to ‘retire’.

The same year Portlandia had its television debut, American novelist Keith Scribner released his third book, The Oregon Experiment. Scribner’s depiction of small-town Oregon might not be as over-the-top satirical as Fred Armisen and Carrie Brownstein’s comedy, but it certainly reinforces the cultural tropes we’ve come to associate with this part of the world. It’s a fascinating and elegantly written portrayal of secessionism, social conviction, and the personal betrayals and conflicts it can cause, and—surprisingly—the intense power of scent.

New Yorkers Scanlon and Naomi Pratt relocate to the small town of Douglas, Oregon, when Scanlon—an academic whose area of expertise is mass movements and domestic radicalism—lands a job at the local university. Although clearly good at what he does, Scanlon’s not had much luck in the fickle world of academia; he’s hoping that the Pacific Northwest, with its history of secessionist movements, will offer him the perfect field research opportunity. He’s intent on improving his standing by writing a book that will ultimately win him a teaching job at a more prestigious university back East.

Naomi’s story is more complex. A former fragrance designer, her sense of smell—a sense that defined her experience of the world—inexplicably disappeared following a minor car accident 12 years ago. Scanlon’s attempts to describe the smells she can no longer detect has long been part of his role as her rescuer—a role Naomi has always been happy for him to assume. But as soon as the couple drive into Douglas, the heavily pregnant Naomi’s smell suddenly returns—and with it a shift in the dynamics of her relationship with Scanlon.

Scanlon settles quickly into Douglas life, becoming involved in the local Pacific Northwest Secessionist Movement (PNSM) and befriending one of its leading members, earthy café owner Sequoia Green. Sequoia is immediately convinced that someone like Scanlon could be the key to the PNSM’s success, although Scanlon’s advice at the first meeting he attends is to change their name, since ‘PNSM, I don’t know, it sounds like a regional association of podiatrists’. Guiltily attracted to Sequoia, who is ‘built like a tree: sturdy, lush, limby’, Scanlon also finds himself deeply intrigued by Clay, a young anarchist, believing him to be the perfect research subject. But Clay has a troubled past, and although he openly dislikes Scanlon, he quickly becomes infatuated with Naomi.

Despite being lost in the thrall of her returned nose and the birth of her child, Naomi remains scathing of Douglas—it’s the kind of place where people pay using ‘Douglas dollars’ and summer fairs are full of ‘booths selling black walnut cutting boards, redwood-burl yoga stands and gun racks’ and artists sculpting beavers out of wet sand. While Naomi clings to the belief that their new home is only temporary, she and Scanlon’s growing involvement with Sequoia and Clay weaves an increasingly tangled web of desires, beliefs, and loyalties.

While the story itself is engrossing, with its gradually tightening knots of the personal and political, Scribner’s writing is what makes The Oregon Experiment such a standout novel. He’s intent on conveying his characters’ sensory experiences, from Naomi’s devastating realisation, when her nose returns, that she doesn’t like Scanlon’s smell (‘his scalp and skin were in the dusty family: canvas stored in the basement, pages of a book pulled from a garage-sale box, a stranger’s wool sweater’) to Scanlon’s description of Sequoia’s ‘honey-dripping’ tofu pancakes (‘sort of malty. Like bark, or potting soil’) and the distinct surrounds of Oregon itself, with its lush forests, thick morning fogs, and endless rain. Scribner’s vivid rendering of his characters’ inner and outer worlds is sometimes uncomfortably intimate, drawing us deep into their hearts and minds.

Scribner undercuts the novel’s drama with sardonic wit (particularly memorable is a visit from Scanlon’s father Geoff, a former lawyer in the throes of a ‘sustained midlife crisis’ who feels compelled to share intimate details of his life in a nudist RV camp with his revolted son), and a provocative exploration of radical politics and our often skewed characterisation of its practitioners. Yes, The Oregon Experiment is full of hippies and anarchists—the stereotypes we think we know, the novelised versions of the kooks we love to snicker at on Portlandia. But appearances aren’t everything, and belief isn’t truth. Scribner’s richly detailed narrative world of sensory perception and social activism is an insightful rendering of the rewards and limitations of trying to turn idealism into reality.

One Comment leave one →
  1. July 31, 2013 9:23 pm

    Sounds fascinating.

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