On “Orange City” by Lee Matthew Goldberg

IN EPISODE 70 (“The Nightmare of History”) of the podcast Our opinions are correct, hosts Annalee Newitz and Charlie Jane Anders and guest P. Djèlí Clark discuss how genre fictions (such as sci-fi and horror) give writers new ways to write about personal and cultural stories by highlighting the similarities between generic conventions and real world phenomena. Newitz, for example, invokes Antananarivo Due’s recognition that the story of slavery is a horror story. This means that Due’s work, and the work of many in the horror genre, isn’t just about trying to imagine horrible new things; instead, these writers see the horrible things that are already present in the world and use the conventions of horror to highlight them. Stories such as Get out and Lovecraft Country, they argue, take the familiar tropes of horror and use them to express the historical horrors of colonialism, sexism and racism. These writers have the added benefit of using horror’s own tropes against racist narratives from authors like HP Lovecraft, who used the genre to express his own biases regarding interbreeding and immigration.

Likewise, dystopian fiction is a reflective genre that – doing its best – does not simply imagine a world like ours with additional dysfunction, but rather attempts to locate and diagnose a dysfunction in our own society. Dystopian narratives attempt to observe social mores and stretch them to their logical ends – sometimes as a warning, sometimes to test our moral strength and challenge our own views, and quite often as a means. to generalize personal anxieties. The aspiration of many dystopian writers must be to find common ground with readers who share these anxieties in order to create an identification between the reader and the characters in the novels. Margaret atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale, for example, achieved wide acclaim and popularity precisely because many felt the same creep of religious fundamentalism in real life and feared the spread of personal prejudices into systemic misogyny. Likewise, if a dystopia is about authoritarian surveillance, drugs used to suppress emotions, or the banning of literature and creative thinking, there must still be some shared fear that society is shaping individual will against it- even. At the same time, the dystopian novel also plays on the themes of isolation, because it is often the protagonist of the dystopian novel who alone realizes or tries to denounce such a dysfunction.

The central tension in many dystopian novels emerges at the intersection of these elements: the dysfunction of dystopian society combines with the sense of isolation the protagonist experiences to convince them that not only is something sinister going on in the world, but that they are the only ones to see it. But as necessary as this isolation is in pursuit of the narrative of the dominant culture, such isolation is often illusory, a tool of a dominant and authoritarian culture that aims to discourage dissent by erasing the individual for the benefit of the collective.

Lee Matthew Goldberg enters the cluttered realm of contemporary dystopian novels with his new book, City of Orange, a novel that asks the reader to examine contemporary anxieties regarding advertising, managing emotions through substances, surveillance, and bodily augmentation in a post-American world. Goldberg presents us with a new take on how advertising and consumption act on the psyche to cut off self-awareness and replace it with raw craving and uncontrolled emotion. While many other dystopian novels feature protagonists with a clear world view, City of Orange offers an alternative of interlocking revelations in which the protagonist gradually learns more about his own society and his place in it. Goldberg structures the novel so that its protagonist relives a variety of mirrored episodes and must first overcome his own mental confusion and cycle of addiction to see the world around him for what it really is.

Goldberg places the novel in the indefinite future after a war ravages America, destroys the country’s landscape, and leaves much of the surviving population mutated. Inside the eponymous city, however, the world has somewhat recovered and is now ruled by a mysterious figure called “the man.” The main story follows Graham Weatherend, a man stuck in a job at an advertising agency who becomes a guinea pig for a new brand of soda that he’s supposed to be testing in marketing. The sodas Graham drinks conceal mood-altering substances that cause him to act erratically and which, in turn, cause him to question his own sense of reality. Graham’s sense of isolation grows over the course of the novel as he finds himself unable to comprehend his mood swings and growing disconnection from reality. Graham and his colleagues are watched in their daily activities and are hyper-aware of the hidden cameras they know surround them. Goldberg explores the mix of work and private life in this novel, shutting down Graham’s world to include only those he works with. The limits of Graham’s social circle reinforce the centrality of work in modern life; Graham was already isolated in his own world even before the events of the narrative isolated him further.

One of the strengths of the story is his ability to superimpose multiple competing anxieties in Graham’s life so that he feels disoriented and unable to fully identify the sources of his stress. The drugs he involuntarily ingests further destabilize him, and this confusion fuels a feeling of isolation and paranoia. The narrative repeatedly confronts the protagonist and reader with images of bodies that have been damaged by war or mutation that serve as a constant reminder of the lost America and their place in a new society. Because Graham is working on a new branding project, he is perpetually aware of the publicity surrounding him. These and other stressors in Graham’s personal life build themselves up so that it is not a single incident that pushes him to a breaking point, but rather a constant surge of intolerable turmoil from all directions. Graham’s sense of isolation grows as he begins to lose people in his inner circle until, in the tradition of Orwell and Atwood, Goldberg allows his protagonist to slowly come out of his sense of being. isolation, so that he comes to realize that he is not completely alone in recognizing the damaging elements of his society.

One of Goldberg’s major accomplishments is to place the reader directly into Graham’s desire-fulfill-regret cycle – a cycle he himself does not understand for much of the novel. The addictive nature of the sodas he drinks leads to his craving. This need isolates him in a more effective way than the state of anomie he experiences at the beginning of the story. Not only is he caught alone in this cycle, but he is also baffled that he cannot understand what is happening to him, or why it is not happening to others. He is alienated from those around him as much as he is isolated from himself and his own impulses.

The sodas ultimately transform Graham from a rational human into a creature of raw desire and need. This is, I think, one of the main concerns at the center of the novel, and it is what stands out most in the story. The connection that Goldberg makes between advertising and consumption, and the way that this confuses our senses of desire with real need (while also mixing with physiological addiction) so that we can no longer tell when we have been manipulated is central to Graham’s experience, and it more accurately reflects aspects of our own world than some of the other more speculative elements of the narrative. So many other dystopian novels focus on stripping emotions or creating a rational and orderly society that to hijack the method of controlling rationality so that it is our emotions that are manipulated in ways that we cannot detect seems all the more frightening.

There are parts of this text that point to a larger story – and there is already a sequel planned, Lemonworld, in the works. Due to the anticipation of a second novel, there are elements of the world that Goldberg creates in City of Orange which are not yet fully trained for the reader. The advertising scheme is interesting and the author does a good job of drawing his characters, but I didn’t quite understand what the big picture was or how the different pieces fit together. There are building blocks of the world that are alluded to but remain unexplained, and I found myself wanting to know more about what happened to America and its citizens, how the city came into being and how it came to be. man came to power. These are elements that I hope Goldberg will develop further in the rest of this book.


Matthew Raese teaches English part-time at Kent State University in Stark and sporadically writes on SF and punk at https://betweenroundandsquare.blogspot.com/ and elsewhere.

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