An asterisk precedes a footnote five pages into “Brooklyn,” the first of four parts (“Bloomington,” “Berkeley,” and “Bakersfield” follow) comprising Bad Teeth, Dustin Long’s pointedly referential work of fiction: “*This was, of course, still in the days when most perceived SOFA as a novel but ultimately harmless organization.” The supposed clarification is tethered to sarcasm (“‘How revolutionary’*”) uttered by Caissa, “an assistant editor at Byner’s, a sort of third-tier magazine on the New Yorker/Harper’s/Atlantic model,” at a party thrown at a converted office space in celebration of a trend-conscious, punningly titled literary journal (E: modern cultural criticism) co-founded by Walter Benjamin (author of Challah-caust, a debut novel about a “pretentious literary type” praised that very week on the front page of the Sunday Book Review), who’s a rival to Hal Auerbach, another literary figure masterminding two magazines, Brother and Sister. The sibling publications embody the jeu d’esprit of the West Coast literary scene and are, consequently, at odds with the putative high-brow intellectualism of Manhattan.
“[O]ne of those vague young men on the verge of no longer being young… whose sense of purpose in life had been too long dependent on early promise,” thirtysomething Judas is the recipient of the “‘How revolutionary’*” comment. A translator transplanted from California, he’s at the E party making small talk with Caissa and networking because he’s keen to undertake a project involving a rumored new book by Jigme Drolma, a gnomic but upward-trending Tibetan author “about to explode” all over the literary map. When Judas read Drolma’s Xiangxin Quitan (meaning “something like ‘believe a crazy story’”), it had struck him as plagiaristic, a virtual re-write of Tourneé du Chat Orange by Magnus Valison (an imaginary author identified in Icelander, Dustin Long’s likewise footnote-indebted debut novel, as “one of the 20th century’s master prose stylists”). The Camusian plot of Valison’s novel, “about a chess match in 1950s Algeria between an Arab and a Frenchman, [and] set against the backdrop of impending revolution,” is then described over six of Bad Teeth’s restless and busy pages.
While the hinted-at SOFA (what the acronym signifies is anyone’s guess) and its ominous (and similarly undefined) Oakland Apocalypse share an affinity with Tyler Durden’s Project Mayhem in Fight Club, the self-involved Brooklyn scenesters read as pastiche Tama Janowitz circa Slaves of New York. And though the narration continues referring to the perennially offstage SOFA, the Oakland Apocalypse, and the anti-capitalist organization’s mysterious leader, Viv LaRevolution (who is, coincidentally, the son of Drolma), these elements are authorial gameplay, a whole school of red herrings.
The most productive question prompted by that inaugural footnote (there are some 25 after it) is: who’s the speaker? Handily, subsequent footnotes answer the question. The plot advances, tracing Judas’ path to California on a quest to meet the remarkably elusive Drolma. Before he can reach his goal, though, plot detours and new characters proliferate, as do scenes featuring party, restaurant, living room, bar, and bedroom conversations (from varying narrative points of view) about creative writing graduate student obsessions (books digested, books to write, ideas about books to write, ways of expressing the myriad ideas they have for books and essays they may or may not write) and the pursuit of love and sex. Within hundreds of pages of these scenes, the novel’s ho-hum truth is unveiled: Judas was a judas to his former roommate (whom Judas called a “bucktoothed Chinaman” among other slights related to his “crooked, discolored teeth” and ethnicity; the roommate’s actual name is Long Deting or Thomas). Years earlier, Long Deting/Thomas expressed interest in a girl whom Judas then hit on. In retaliation Long Deting/Thomas writes a circuitous story about Judas’ failed quest for Jigme Drolma that also casts Judas in an unflattering light and involves him getting rejected and beaten up. As an (ersatz) novelist, however, Long Deting/Thomas makes mistake after mistake. For one, he writes cringeworthy sex (the term “making out” appears notably often, and when he gets lyrical, there’s poetry like this: “You note the niceness of her boobs, the way they hang, neither too small nor so large as to sag”).
Crucially, though, he assumes that these grad student stereotypes and their endless musings and self-absorption are fascinating. They’re not. Consider “Berkeley.” The section alternates narrative viewpoints between replicating the tortured-yet-fatuous unsent letters written by a female grad student to her ex, a male grad student (named Adam, who’s on center stage in “Bloomington”), and the judas-author, who veers from serial digressions to floods of ‘intellectual’ musing. About his storytelling detours, judas-author writes: “One of my problems is, if I try to tell a story, I can never tell it straight, starting at the beginning and progressing steadily to the end. First I have to tell you about what made me think of the story in the first place, or what was going through my head when the events of the story happened. Or then I have to…” A few pages later, here are his musings: “What do our habitual remembrances have to say about us? I’ll give you an example of what I mean by ‘habitual remembrance’: at any moment, the word ‘Mesoamerican’ is apt to pop into my head. I don’t know why, I have never been particular fascinated by the United States’ southern neighbors, linguistically or culturally; growing up Sino-American, I already had enough to worry about between the country of my descent and the country of my birth. But I’ll be standing there washing the dishes, squirting the soap onto a wet sponge, and, suddenly, Mesoamerican! Resonating in my skull. Does the word hold some hidden meaning for me?” And so on. Too much sharing from too many interchangeably narcissistic grad students is both wearying and uninteresting.
As for Long’s supposition that a reader will be game to play along with easy-target satire and what amounts to an extraordinarily long and quite dull revenge plot? Unsupported by this reader’s experience.