Like Freedom, Keith Scribner’s third book, The Oregon Experiment, is hugely ambitious, decidedly modern, distinctly American novel, with complicated family dynamics, and remarkable depth of character and psychological nuance.
I’ve heard it said that the best art makes you see the world in a new light, but before Keith Scribner’s terrific third book, The Oregon Experiment, I’d never read anything that literally made me smell the world differently. Naomi Greenburg, half of the married couple at the center of the novel, had been a “nose” in New York City, possessor of a unique olfactory genius, designing scents for soaps and breakfast cereals and trying to bring her own perfume fragrance to market. But Naomi lost her sense of smell in an automobile accident seven years prior to the opening of the novel. When she started dating Scanlon Pratt, the up-and-coming academic who would become her husband, he nurtured her through the ensuing depression and he became her “surrogate nose”:
She taught him to distinguish between a dozen different lilies, breeds of dog, the smells of the city at seven a.m., noon, and midnight…She taught him to identify the vegetative barnyard odor of bad cabernets, and each spice in an Italian sausage. She asked him to describe the smell of his past lovers (he had no idea) and herself (crisp apple, buttered toast and, when she hadn’t showered in a few days, molasses and capers). After a month with Naomi, Scanlon realized he’d never known what peanut butter actually tasted like. Or ginger ale. Or the smell of an elevator, a museum, or freezing rain melting from an ice-encrusted branch in the morning sun. He sometimes disappointed her with his average olfactory pipes, but then he’d describe an aroma so exquisitely she was elevated, as if by music. Naomi had taught him to experience the world more fully—which was as good a definition of love as he knew.
The Oregon Experiment is full of such passages, from Scanlon’s point of view and Naomi’s even more discerning one as well, and I suspect that most readers will find that they too are being taught to experience the world more fully. As the novel opens, Scanlon and pregnant Naomi are pulling into their new home in Douglas, Oregon, and with the smell of mint through the open car window, Naomi suspects that her olfactory sense has returned. It will be quite some time, however, before Naomi will share with her husband that this most prized ability, central to her identity and how she once perceived the world, has returned to her. It will be longer still, before she admits to him what they both feared and what might be insurmountable in their relationship: she doesn’t much like the way he smells. They have moved from the Northeast, that Naomi loves and is determined to return to, to Douglas, Oregon where Scanlon has accepted a tenure-track position in the university’s Political Science Department.
Scanlon is a professor of radical and mass movement studies, who has a history of becoming overly involved in and sympathetic to the movements he studies:
Scanlon had ended up here by accident—by luck, really. The Pacific Northwest was the true front line of radicalism in America—environmental demonstrators, anarchists, survivalist, anti-globalists. Seattle erupted when the WTO came to town, not Boston or New York or D.C. Scanlon had traveled across the country to Seattle—partly for research and partly to show his solidarity—and he’d felt an excitement in the streets like nothing he’d known from the tweedy, Volvo radicals back east. In Oregon, his research could be more hands-on, in touch with the players, inside their heads. That’s what was missing from radical and mass movement studies in the East—an understanding of what was happening on the ground. Many of his colleagues at Binghamptom and Brandeis wrote exclusively about the sixties, the forties, or the thirties. They did research in response to other research. Scanlon knew an anthropologist who was a leading scholar on Quechua Indians but didn’t speak Quechua…
Scanlon, on the other hand was jumping right into the chaos. Primary material would fuel everything he did…he’d now landed in the middle of every source he’d need. Their baby was a month away, his job was tenure-track, and he’d bought his first house. His life was beginning. A new life.
Well, if the overall trajectory of his fall may be apparent, the actual events never fail to surprise, ranging from tender connection to startling violence. The rifts already lurking below the surface in Scanlon and Naomi’s relationship are fractured further by the couple’s relationships with Clay and Sequoia, the novel’s other two main characters. Clay is a young, angry anarchist wounded by one loss after another in his short life; his propensity for violence never seems quite as threatening as it actually is. And Sequoia is a sensual single mother, owner of the local coffee shop Skcubrats (get it?) and leader of a group of peaceful secessionists whose efforts seem doomed to be forever hapless until Scanlon energizes them. Both of these characters are developed with the same psychological texture and detailed back-story as Scanlon and Naomi and one of Scribner’s real accomplishments is the depth of sympathy they invoke in the sections that are told from their points of view. Clay is shockingly adept helping both Scanlon and Naomi through the delivery of their baby, Sammy, and in the process, Clay becomes almost viscerally bonded with their young family. Meanwhile, Scanlon’s relationship with both this violent anarchist and the crunchy secessionist, Sequoia, is complicated by his academic interest in their radicalism.
The Oregon Experiment captures the sheer physicality of new parenthood as well as its emotional tyranny in our age of awareness better than anything I’ve read, fiction or nonfiction. When Scanlon’s divorced parents descend upon Scanlon and Naomi and little Sammy, the grandparents both heighten the tension in the marriage and provide the reader considerable comic relief, without ever distracting from the deeper movement of the story.
In many ways, The Oregon Experiment belongs in the same class of modern social realism as Jonathan Franzen’s The Corrections and Freedom. It is a hugely ambitious, decidedly modern, distinctly American novel, with complicated family dynamics, and remarkable depth of character and psychological nuance. The action often seems to arise as much from the political zeitgeist as the characters’ natures. But Scribner is more sympathetic to his characters than Franzen, and for all their transparent foibles, we’re never tempted to think the author holds them in contempt. We feel empathic rather than dirtied when their good intentions and ideals go astray, as they must in a world that is not particularly kind to ideological purity.
Ultimately, The Oregon Experiment is a wonderful meditation on marriage and healing, and what we may be willing to sacrifice for both. A couple of the scenes between Scanlon and Naomi are excruciating in their pointed admixture of love and hate. It is a novel about compromises made and refused, and the way the political is impossible to disentangle from the personal. And yet for all its dynamic story-telling and clashing ideals, it is as sensuous a novel as I can remember, uniquely grounded in the sense of smell.