Everything you need to know is contained in my experience somewhere, that’s my philosophy, but I’m afraid you’re going to have to make the knowledge out of it yourself. The world operates according to a mysterious logic, Juan-George, I want to illustrate some of its intricacies.
THIS IS WHAT Oppen Porter, narrator and protagonist of Panorama City, tells his unborn son. Porter has “the gift of the gab,” and in his tapes for his growing child, he literally makes a gift of it. Like the child’s mother, the reader is positioned slightly out of frame, invited to listen in, and the result is an astonishing narrative that offers the pleasures of irony without the sting.
Oppen may be illiterate, but he is obsessed with the importance of constructing experience in words. He stresses the distinction between his words, borrowed words, and ascribed words. Words are part of his own birthright, and words are the greatest part of a father’s legacy. The story Oppen relates is the sum of his experience and his final testament. For convenience’s sake, Oppen records his tale over the word of God: the tapes he uses come from a Christian fellowship. This earnest heresy — the fruits of his own experience replacing the handed down word of God — sums up Oppen’s attitude as neatly as anything else in the book.
When the novel opens Oppen has been living “the life of a village idiot.” He cares for his father, a shut in, in rural Madera. He has spent his first 27 years riding his bicycle through town, working odd jobs, and enduring the taunts, pranks, and outright cruelty of his pickup driving “friends” who play a “game” in which they run his bicycle off the road and into a ditch. Oppen’s offhandedness hints at the stresses — and the tragedies — that bedevil him. He accepts these cruelties with the insight that if he is being teased, then someone else, someone who isn’t as strong, will not be bullied. “Being a shield made me a stronger shield.”
Oppen loses his bicycle and his father on the same day. He buries his father in their yard beside the hunting dogs, according to the man’s wishes. To his chagrin, he discovers that “Everything is permitted until it isn’t.” Oppen’s innocent crime attracts the notice of television news crews, and his life is cracked open. Bereft, he leaves town dressed in his father’s suit and hat, on a quest to become a man of the world. (Wilson admits that one reason he chose Panorama City as Oppen’s destination is the joke — Porter thinks he’s come to the big city without ever reaching Los Angeles itself. )
Oppen’s voice blends three primary concerns — what he calls “the collision of ideology and improvisation one sees all over Los Angeles”; the love between a father and son; and the quest for self-actualization — into a seamless narrative. And Oppen himself acts as a hinge between generations. Over the course of the novel he buries his father and awaits the birth of his son. His own self-actualization takes place between the two events.
From the narrator’s name to his series of adventures, this story has qualities of fable, and the Los Angeles area lends itself nicely to fabulism. The name Oppen Porter suggests open doors, gateways, and a person employed to carry burdens. Porter, with his artless candor, is an open book. He is also burdened. When overwhelmed he takes breaks to hole up and “breathe his own air.” He is deeply considerate of others and his delicacy, while comical, is the result of his close observation and generosity. Wilson has admitted in interviews that the character’s name is both a play on the word “open” and a tribute to Objectivist poet George Oppen, a man who fellow poet Robert Creeley described as “trying all his life to think the world, not only to find or to enter it, or to gain a place in it but to realize it, to figure it, to have it literally in mind.” This sums up Oppen Porter’s project too.
In his quest to become a man of the world Oppen dabbles in particularly American practices — he works in fast food, submits to psychotherapy, gets shoehorned into strip mall Christian fellowship, explores the occult, has brushes with sex and the law, and rides a lot of buses. He finds a mentor, he falls in love. He becomes employee of the month and finds the experience empty. The Los Angeles area and the suburbs that surround it are the perfect environment for Porter lose and find himself again. With its sprawling population, its strata of beauty, commerce, high and low art, poverty, crudity and ingenuity, the valley is a fertile ground for self-mythologizing, a mecca for transformations, fabrications, dreams, fantasias, lies, and longing. In an area founded on the premise that anything is possible, Oppen’s observations and hold up an unclouded mirror.
When Oppen arrives in Panorama City he tells us, “it was like driving through a crazy book […] I tried to understand how we had entered a new place without ever having left the old one. […] We had crossed a whole series of invisible lines.” These invisible lines are more than just geographic. Like the narrators in The Education of Little Tree, Huckleberry Finn, and Don Quixote, Oppen misreads social cues, and his misconstructions indict what he observes. However, in each of those three books, the narrators are either children or insane. Porter is neither, and this is a crucial difference. Oppen is an innocent, but he is neither naïve nor undiscerning. He simply comes from a place of curiosity, openness, and observation.
“Answers get all of the glamour and attention, answers are what everyone seems to be after, but the real value is in basic questions. This is because once you have an answer you stop, you’re done, but life doesn’t stop, you become a plaster statue, life begins to pass you by, only by asking questions can you keep moving, and only by asking the right questions can you keep moving in the right direction. Or to put it simple, to put it in clear and concise terms, you have a choice, you can either feel smart of be smart.”
Oppen’s attitude annoys his aunt, thwarts his therapist, mystifies his coworkers, and leads him into alliances with undesirables. Oppen apprentices himself to an eccentric “man of ideas,” with hilarious and thought provoking results. Just as Oppen construes bullying as a rite between old acquaintances, he perceives the con artist as a man of ideas who has much to teach him; in his beloved, a woman of negotiable affections, he sees rare warmth, toughness, and beauty. Oppen is not blind — quite the contrary — he notices gnats floating in a square of sunlight (“they seemed to prefer it”) and the infant alligator quality of the con artist’s smile. He understands that his Aunt Liz’s brain has a “dark magnet” in it, pulling her thoughts askew. His perceptiveness glides past the constructions (or constrictions) people place on one another and sees, in its odd but apt way, the humanity at work beneath it all.
Panorama City lampoons our culture’s tendency to pathologize difference. Oppen’s aunt uses the unexamined truisms of every self-help standard in her attempts to restore him to society. Get a job, get a therapist, find God, make friends. However well meaning, her evaluations of Oppen are superficial and cruel. Oppen’s take on others is far more compassionate. Surrounded by charlatans, blowhards, and bitterness, he devotes himself to the task of conformity in the spirit of gallant inquiry. But sometimes the gentlest voice gives the sharpest reproof.
“There’s no manual to life, there’s no arrow pointing at what’s important and what isn’t, you have to feel your way there, and of course if you had a thousand years you could do it on your own, but nobody gets a thousand years, most don’t get even a hundred, life is short even when it is long, and so we have to listen to other people, we have to listen to others and then decide for ourselves, based on what we’ve heard, what’s important and what isn’t, which seems simple enough but is in fact treacherous because if everyone believes something it’s probably not true.”
Ultimately, Oppen finds that the society to which he is being restored is not worth joining. He never tries to change anyone, and he takes on the task of social conformity as an experiment, abandoning it when it proves fruitless. Nowhere in his purview is there blame or regret. He travels from innocence to experience without falling into disillusionment. The great triumph of the book is that Oppen matures without spoiling. He comes to affirm the integrity of his innocence, which is its own wisdom.