In badbadbad, Jesus Angel Garcia blows religion up blimp-size and lights taboos like Molotov cocktails tossed on a manicured, Christian lawn in his biblical, technologically charged landscape. Good and evil have a face-off in every scene in his erotic, binary world. In contrast, the protagonist JAG is duplicitous: He’s a redeemer and a criminal. He’s messiah and a fuckup. He’s a violent martyr. He contains tenderness and violence like “dark clouds and acid rain.” In badbadbad, he seeks redemption but he’s fueled by empathy and guilt. He falls prey to self-destruction and emerges beat to shit. He hooks up with chicks online in a compulsive attempt to connect and he’s a real Lothario. He’s lost and loose and hell-bent on moral transgression, but he goes to church every Sunday and is in love with the Reverend’s wife. He’s modern man personified: disconnected while longing to connect deeply, a caged animal, lashing out at the world. Morbidly lonely and full of rage, JAG goes to great lengths to serve the women he encounters in the cyborg playpen of the online dating site “fallenangels.” Stripped of the roles of father and husband, he’s forced to rebuild his identity. He engages in a metaphysical fistfight between acceptance and self-destruction in a culture that shows neither love nor mercy. Like all of us, JAG seriously fucks up. The question that haunts him: ”Who among you loves him- or herself?” He has lost his son in a nasty divorce and wants to kill his ex. But instead, he plays Jimi Hendrix and picks up a hooker at a bus stop who has never seen the beach.
The metaphysics of self-representation are one of the most intriguing threads in the book. JAG can seduce, create distance, vent, mediate and he can disappear predators from fallenangels. In the phantasmagoric landscape of Internet dating, he is forgiven and washed clean, baptised: free to soar or sink. Using technological identity as his playpen, he is able to cross class, age and race and perform the roles that are demanded. He responds to the call: helping women fulfill their desires, but while assuming many identities, he traps himself into a lonesome corner, unable to accomplish his task (obtaining custody of his son). In the beginning of the book, I thought the custody battle was going to be paramount, but that aspect was more of a symbol of redemption: the recovery of something lost or sold. That lost thing was his identity.
The Rumpus: I love the naiveté of the first scene, where JAG picks up the bus stop hooker who we will call “Daisy Duke.” He feeds her a hamburger and calls her a saint and a superhero. He describes her lips as “split cumquats” and he promises her a movie and the beach (read: creating new, virgin memories as if with a child–his son who was stolen away from him). She calls him a “damn faggot” and demands to be taken back to her pimp. In that scene, JAG’s innocence and romantic messiah complex is bleeding out everywhere and it made me love JAG right away. The hooker is so real. The scene is outrageous, humorous, tense and ironic. The narrator rejects the role of customer and is rejected as a suitor. So the book begins in a naked landscape of shirking roles. What kind of man is JAG at the beginning of the book?
Jesus Angel Garcia: What kind of man? A lost man, I think. Betrayed, broken, suffering, confused, clueless, amorphous but not closed, not yet, trying to be open, I believe, longing to connect, and determined to get his son back while dealing retribution to his ex.
Rumpus: So what’s the deal? Did JAG abandon the actual baby for other global babies? Did the book begin as one thing and expand? By the way, the custody battle thread as visible and invisible worked well.
Garcia: Thank you. I think you nail it with the actual baby v. global babies thread. The search for identity in the book was primary for me from the start–and it’s not only JAG’s struggle. It’s like a house of mirrors, maybe, of contemporary social interaction, where the reflections/refractions are kaleidoscopic, beautiful at times in the nobility of the effort, mostly bent in execution, no matter how well-intentioned or wide-ranging. Then there’s the micro/macro lens: the infant son and the infant-like neediness of JAG and the fallenangels, individual aggression and a global War Without End churning in the background, preaching from the First Church pulpit and the moral judgments, justifications and hypocrisy of believers and non-believers alike.
Rumpus: At first, I was sidetracked by your exciting characters and playful scenes, mesmerized by the sexual desire as a revolutionary fuel towards JAG’s identity search. I was an enthusiastic passenger on the cyber-ride, but what was missing for me was a tangible emotional risk. I found it, halfway through, in JAG’s desperate longing and failure to connect. JAG’s loneliness was like watching a computer explode. JAG was hooked on the surround sound of tech babes, using them to shield him from his destructive nature, to distance himself from the men in his life, and he lashed out by hurling his broken heart at a computer screen. He OD’d on the emptiness of the simulacra, crashed on the floor, having hit a spiritual bottom. It was like watching a cyborg melt. In that scene, the women were all cyber-chatting at once, and there were phantom connects, but mostly a ringing emptiness in the room. I think the best line in the whole book is this: “No one was reachable” (p. 221). I think this is where we are as a culture. All of our tech toys are built to connect, but what they accomplish is desolate isolation. Would you say technology is reshaping male identity? If so, how?
Garcia: I’m convinced technology is reshaping human identity, but I don’t know that it gender discriminates. We’re all cyborgs now, bound to our keypads and touchscreens and earbuds like never before. We can’t move through the world in a typical day without facebook or Twitter or logging on to our blogs of choice or texting or emailing or messaging or Skyping or downloading videos or mp3s or clicking from this to that to this to that nearly every waking moment. And if that’s not enough, talking heads or disembodied voices and sounds churn continuously in the background. That’s a lot of noise.
What this means in terms of identity might be something like we’re now more distant and less intimate while trying desperately to construct a solid sense of self through fragmented electronic interfaces rather than one-on-one contact. Even though we’re glutted with all this so-called connection, we’re hungrier than ever, yet we’re toothless: We’ve lost the ability to chew and taste and savor, but we’re really good at swallowing. If we’re lucky, maybe we spit up sometimes or dribble on ourselves. There’s your contemporary male (and female) identity: dribblers and pukers, jonesing for a French kiss.
Rumpus: For a guy who just bought his first cell phone last week, your book is chock-full of sophisticated cyber jargon. Are you on any dating websites? Do you have several online identities? Do you think we are lost as a society, driven to isolation or do you think we can use technology to connect as much as we can to hide? Do you think we are “just warm bodies longing for connection” (p. 140)?
Garcia: I used to do the cyberdating thing. It was (ehem) research for the book. I would sometimes play with identity just in the way I’d first approach certain women, kind of like using their profiles as prompts for fiction-writing exercises, to push myself as far as I could go, see what might come back. I’m a strong believer in putting yourself out there in any situation and going for what you want. You never know what you’ll get. Then you have to decide if it’s really what you want.
I think we are warm bodies longing for connection, but a lot of us have forgotten how to connect, what it means to be with another person without an e-interface as safety net or guard. The worst is watching people together at a bar or restaurant, each with a cellphone in hand, each checking messages or texting someone else. That’s so far gone. What? We can’t spend a few minutes or hours exclusively in the presence of another person we like or even love without needing to check in with our electronic lives? I think this behavior is what drives us to isolation. We’re addicts to elsewhere, as if meaningful connection isn’t what’s right up in your face; it’s the next thing, and the next, and the next. Seems like awful isolated disconnect to me. Pathological. And yet, sure, yeah, of course, we can also use technology to connect in positive productive utilitarian ways undreamed of just five years ago.
Rumpus: badbadbad is bursting at the seams with fascinating women who are outrageous in their demands and crackling with desire. The women perform different versions of the self. Helen Cixous claimed “artifice is on women’s side” because seductive masks travel beyond oppositional logic where women can dis-identify and play around, honoring life’s multiplicity rather than as a subjugation of the truth. In badbadbad, the women have multiple signifiers: Dream2live4evR (Remedios), the Vocabularist (Ms. V), Blossom, Lil_Girl, Philomela, takemehigher, SexxxeeYoungMama (Shannon), Good Charlotte (the Reverend’s wife), Daisy Duke (saint, superhero and whore), ticktockclock, happyhappy, CondeeCandee, watch_me_now, sultrysuccubus and Kaddisha Lemonade. They demand pleasure; they demand to be taken back to their pimps; they demand pain, satisfaction, drugs, tater tots and orgasms. JAG taps that sweet spot between lover and savior. Forced to renegotiate his identity, and fueled by the guilt of his grave mistakes, he spends much of his time on this sort of alternative Christian dating website for women in need while on the clock working for First Church of the Church Before Church. Most importantly, he uses his identity to serve the needs of women and empathize with their suffering. So, JAG also subjugates the truth in a kind of feminist cyborg manifesto, serving women and exploring new roles. Was this your intention?
Garcia: Male versus female, straight versus gay, “white” versus “colored,” Christian versus non-, and so on. I was hoping with all the identity shape-shifting to punch holes in the rigid Western belief of duality as “reality”–everything is black or white, this or that, right or wrong, one or many – which includes conventional gender expectations: how we’re all supposed to act or be. I saw a tattoo at a recent Radar reading in San Francisco that said “Both And.” That’s the idea. Everything is both and, not either or. I like what you said above: honoring life’s multiplicity. When we roleplay or shift identities, are we really subjugating truth if “truth” (or self) is multiple (fluid)? Where we run into problems, I think, and this is JAG’s thing, is that roleplay is dangerous for everyone involved when you’re out of touch with yourself, when you can’t differentiate between fantasy and what’s real, tangible, authentic right before your eyes.
Rumpus: But the tech landscape (or cyborg community) always already blurs those lines, and then there are the fakers, the identity stealers and the posers. And there was JAG, who wanted to explore and showed up gangbusters for every role he was asked to play. He was kind of bottoming to the women.
Let’s talk about the women and what’s “real.” To me, they seemed more real than the ex, the brother and the lost son. The women in badbadbad are beyond real. When I was reading in the framework of the confessional structure, I thought, this is a manual for how to love and serve women. He is writing to his son about how to love. There’s a great line when JAG is reflecting on his chats with Remedios: “I wanted to wrap my wings around her and rock her back to health, love her like no one else could.” Do you agree?
Garcia: Sure… yeah… one could argue, I think, that learning how to love and serve (and communicate and connect with) women – and putting such learning into action in our everyday lives – would benefit the entire human race. Of course, this extends to everyone, regardless of gender, all the time. But given the path of history and the iron fist of patriarchal rule and endless war that brutalizes countless lives – women and children being the most vulnerable in such situations – I think we might understand maybe everything there is to know about how to treat each other with loving-kindness by learning how to connect with the hearts and minds of women, which naturally includes connecting through the body. Not a bad deal, I say.
Rumpus: The women in badbadbad are complex and smart. They’re layered characters with histories of suffering and stories of sexual abuse, hormone-balance issues, fainting spells, ex-boyfriends and parenting struggles. There are also some very troubling scenes, sexually violent scenes, and a loaded S/M sex scene. JAG is compassionate and educated about sexual assault. He genuinely seemed to want to help and listen. I’ve never read a character like him before.
For example, there’s happyhappy, who was raped on a Christian college campus. She reached out to JAG requesting to relive the experience as directed by her therapist. This scene was emotionally risky, more than the elusive son and the anger towards the ex. JAG was becoming unhinged, and he seemed to get lost in his desire to please women. He was vexed. He struggled with the question: Who would he be as a man if he performed the rape? At the same time, it was clear JAG was keenly aware of the consequences of rape, the statistics, the PTSD and he was full of compassion. Did this feel as risky to write as it felt to read?
Garcia: I guess it was risky because it’s not a place I would choose to go in my personal life. It’s a challenge as a writer – as a person – to empathize with multiple sides of a character or an issue to try to gain a fuller understanding of how we’re affected by what happens to us and how what happens to us affects how we behave. I believe rape and child abuse are the vilest crimes imaginable not just because of the extreme violation of the acts themselves but also in how they affect the victims for the rest of their lives. I don’t know how anyone recovers from such violence or manages to rebuild themselves or even continue living. Those who do so must have incredible power.
Rumpus: The character ticktockclock also left a big impression, because there was a real lack of desire between her and JAG and that intrigued me. It was her emptiness that drew him to her and they existed in that emptiness together. Her house and her sexuality were the most depressing out of all of the women. It reminded me of Bataille linking sex and death to disgust. What was JAG trying to accomplish by meeting her needs while ignoring his own?
Jesus Angel Garcia: I think that’s where we really begin to see how he’s going down an ugly path that’s probably not going to turn out well. I feel like he’s trying to remake himself, latch onto a new identity, as this good guy who does for others, who does what’s “right” – that’s how he can be of use in the world – but by ignoring his own needs (does he even know what he needs? who he is? how to be?) he sets himself up for extreme self-gutting. What does he accomplish? He gives her a fleeting feeling of connection while further distancing himself from himself and, thus, everyone else.
Rumpus: CondeeCandee demanded toys and would never allow JAG to spend the night. My favorite scene with her is when she strapped on her “Dragon” and made JAG take it in the ass as she commanded. In a story that’s not driven by S/M relationships, it was a surprise to read that sex scene. The end result was that JAG decided she was too selfish and nixed her from the fallenangels website. Why such a strong reaction against CondeeCandee post-anal-penetration? Is her name a word play on “Condescended?”
Garcia: I like the condescension connect, though I hadn’t thought of it, I don’t think. His reaction, I believe, comes from being fucked over (and now literally getting fucked when that’s not exactly what he wants or needs) for so long in so many ways simply for being “selfless [in his] aim to please.” At this point in the narrative he’s struggling against self-imposed martyrdom and is finally fighting back. Axing her from the website, which is where so many of these characters “live,” is the best he can come up with for administering what he sees as appropriate justice.
Rumpus: The framework of badbadbad is a confession but it’s more of a transgression of that structure. At times, it’s more of a diary of cyber chats, and that changes the domain of the confession. As in Donna Haraway’s Cyborg Manifesto the laws in the cyber world are outside of Western myths and salvation history. She points to pleasure in the confusion of boundaries and for responsibility in their construction. The idea of a confession is very Catholic because there is a transmission of history coupled with the Western idea of inheritance. To paraphrase Avital Ronel, “Inheritance isn’t something you ignore – it’s part of you, you have to have a face with it and see where it traps you.” In badbadbad, there’s a bloodline issue, a custody battle, the birthright of the father, where male identity is being held up to the light and rewired. What I’m suggesting is you offer a traditional Western Christian framework and then blow it to smithereens. Is this accurate?
Garcia: I like how you put that. Yeah, I tried to pull that off. Thanks for seeing it. To my mind, Western paradigms about family, religion, politics, race, class, gender, etc. are largely a farce, driven by division, riddled at best with hypocrisy from all sides, and it’s all okay: Everyone’s a hypocrite, so it’s all good. Here, buy this new cell phone. You can download porn and a complete annotated bible in 2.5 seconds with a 4G connection for only $89.95 a month (plus applicable taxes and surcharges and a two-year contract required).
Rumpus: I loved the risks that were taken in scenes that were tense and horrifying. Your female characters were layered with meaning, including the character, Kaddisha who was full of surprises. Her name is Aramaic for “prayer for the dead.” I looked up almost all of your character’s names for clues to try to hack your codes. I was pushing for JAG the whole way through to get his shit together and get his son back. And, I wanted to cruise bus stops with him, eat a burger and listen to “Castles Made of Sand.” Music is textured throughout your book. Can you talk about the transmedia aspect of your work? I heard one of the short films made it into a festival.
Garcia: No festivals yet for the film (I only finished it two days before kicking off this summer tour I’m on) but it was screened for the first time in its entirety at The Film Bar, a one-of-a-kind venue in Phoenix dedicated to indie productions. The nearly one hundred song references in the novel can be found on this YouTube playlist, which was the first transmedia idea I had for the book. From there, it blew up big-time.
As I mentioned in a recent Monkeybicycle interview, for me, a transmedia novel is a mashup. It’s a narrative that transcends the printed page, that fuses a wide range of storytelling techniques and technologies to essentially tell the same story in different ways potentially to different audiences who might not otherwise come across the work. It’s also the idea of translating literary constructs into other media or languages, which use other means of communication and thereby expand on the original story.
In practical terms, this means badbadbad combines a traditional print book, a soundtrack of original songs derived from the narrative and a five-part documentary film based on some of the novel’s themes. Then there’s the performance aspect of the live “readings,” which add another layer. Some badbadbad shows are simply a straight reading from the text, but more often than not they mix-match the various elements or incorporate a theatrical embodiment of a character, which changes the way the narrative is presented and perceived. I think my aim with all this is provocation and subversion – and a whole lotta hell-raising fun.