THOUGH SHE HAD BEEN PUBLISHING fiction and poetry since the early 1970s through small and independent presses, Jessica Hagedorn’s first career milestone took place with the publication in 1990 of Dogeaters. The first novel written by a Filipino-American author to be printed and distributed by a large mainstream press (Penguin Books), the book received high-profile critical acclaim — Robert Stone called it “the definitive novel of the encounter between the Philippines and America and their history of mutual illusion, antagonism, and ambiguous affection” — and it became a finalist for the National Book Award, securing Hagedorn’s reputation as an important voice in Asian American letters. The narrative style of Dogeaters impressed readers as well as critics: a multiple-character point of view that wove American pop icons into the Filipino cultural fabric, it illuminated the chaotic and wondrous post-colonial Manila of the 1950s. At the center of this world is Rio, a young woman who absorbs everything she sees and hears and, as a new immigrant in the U.S., attempts to make sense of the rubble from afar, once the dust has settled in her beloved homeland.
Hagedorn’s second novel, The Gangster of Love, appeared in 1996 and tackled the challenges of identity-formation in an increasingly multi-ethnic, multi-cultural American society. In this case, Rocky Rivera, who arrives to San Francisco from the Phillipines in the 1970s, seeks orientation through her many loves — American rock music, her fellow band members Elvis Chang and Keiko Van Heller, and her crush, a Cuban-American sound engineer. But the more Rocky loses herself in the hipster scene of drugs and music, the more she’s haunted by the familial ties that bind her to her home. Again, critics found it deft, serious, and elegant, and Russell Banks was moved to write that Hagedorn had “a first-class literary gangster’s nerve.”
In the stunning Dream Jungle (2003) Hagedorn returns to the Phillipines, this time in the 1970s, in the midst of martial law and the reign of Ferdinand and Imelda Marcos. The theater of dictatorship, disguised as civility, is mirrored by two plots loosely based on true events: the “discovery” of the Tasaday people, a primitive tribe hidden deep in the rain forest of the Phillipines (which turned out to be a hoax); and the making of Napalm Sunset, a film based on the production of Apocalypse Now that attempts to reconstruct embattled Viet Nam by exploiting the Phillipines’s current social anxieties and political upheaval. (It is a widely-known fact that President Marcos provided the military equipment — the same he had used to suppress any attempts at insurgency among his people — for the filming of Coppola’s movie.) These three books were praised by everyone from John Updike and Howard Bloom to Junot Diaz for their technical virtuosity and incisive social analysis.
In her newest book, Toxicology, Hagedorn turns her sights back to America, and the east coast meccas of Filipino migration, namely New York and New Jersey. The centripetal force holding together the multiple narratives in this edgy new novel is best articulated by one of her protagonists, Mimi, a middle-aged Filipina filmmaker and substance abuser living in Manhattan’s West Village: “New York is my home…Fucked up as it is. Fucked up as I am.”
Mimi is a bohemian, but one from an earlier era, before NYC’s gentrification began to price out working artists and started becoming the playground for Hollywood’s spoiled children. She watches the Olsen twins, Lindsay Lohan and one Romeo Byron (a “moody star” who sounds startlingly similar to the late Heath Ledger) arrive to usurp the party scene and to redefine what constitutes local celebrity. In fact, it’s Romeo Byron’s untimely death that sends Mimi spiraling out of orbit: he’s a reminder of a tragic lifestyle that has lost its street cred, but which will mythologize him nonetheless. Byron is a fallen “artiste” in the age of social networking and over-eager paparazzi, a digitally-fabricated icon, and his death intrigues Mimi’s sensibilities as someone who has labored mostly in obscurity. There is no room in this New York for the aging starving artist, Mimi discovers, as she’s forced to engage the academic world of fellowships, grants and feminist scholars who interpret her low-budget slasher film in ways that diverge from her initial vision. She’s losing ownership of her art as painfully as she has lost control of her life: her marriage has dissolved, her latest lover goes missing, and her errant daughter prefers to communicate with her via text message.
Mimi slowly comes to recognize that she is a younger version of her eccentric neighbor, Eleanor Delacroix, a literary star of yesteryear who now lives like a shut-in and no longer “up to the scrutiny and the schadenfreude” of the public eye. Eleanor, like Mimi, can also “handle copious amounts of toxins” as she numbs her various pains: the death of her long-time partner, her isolation from the New Yorker social scene, and a renewed interest in her writings by a group of young MFA upstarts who embarrass her with their effusive praise and admiration. Once a groundbreaking lesbian pioneer with a scandalous reputation, Eleanor now withers away in front of the television, resigned to spending “the rest of her solitary life embracing the sordid confessions, elaborate menus, and weepy make-overs of the twenty-first century.”
Her simultaneous attraction and repulsion from Eleanor fuels Mimi’s resolve to return to the contemporary voyeuristic world. So when her brother Carmelo enlists her to investigate the mysterious disappearance of their cousin Agnes, a nanny in New Jersey, Mimi sees a potential project, “another gorefest about unwitting young women who find themselves in precarious situations.” But the closer Mimi ventures toward the truth about Agnes’ fate (and her own), the more she has to rely on her artistic and compulsive temperament to survive.
Hagedorn’s lean, quick chapters and impressionistic scenes (with flashes of extraordinary dialogue) have the effect of sound bytes, and perfectly complement the tone of the world her characters inhabit: a landscape where lives are driven by technology and shaped by the narrow parameters of the screens on their media devices. But she grounds this dimension with a portfolio of Eleanor’s emotionally intelligent writings, and with startling flashbacks set in third-world countries like the Philippines and Mexico, reminding readers that the ghosts of the past and the shadows of memory still haunt the electronic networks of the present.
Toxicology provides a stunning portrait of our modern-day addictions to the fictions of fame and an insidious pop culture. The integrity of artistic expression has indeed been compromised, yet somehow. “Her world was a hostile, brutal place, a brothel to be navigated with exquisite care,” Hagedorn writes of Mimi, and she, in anger, in petulance, in love, in haste, makes some bad decisions along the way. But in the end, Hagedorn suggests, a creative genius like Mimi will adapt. It’s a superb journey of a book by a writer whose last two novels did not get the audience they deserved, though they too portrayed complex examples of a world surrendering to fantasy and illusion. Toxicology will definitely stand on strong legs, pitch-perfect and timely, an indictment of a plugged-in society made with a cool caustic delivery.