The Oregon Experiment, by Keith Scribner

The Oregon Experiment

The Oregon Experiment

by Keith Scribner

2011, Knopf

Recommended? Sure, why not.

I’m going to cut this review into two parts. The first part, the shorter part, is just my “why you might like to read this book, why you might not.” The second part is a longer analysis of the ways in which mainstream sympathetic fiction is portraying anarchists.

So, The Oregon Experiment, by Keith Scribner. Scanlon and Naomi are a middle class couple that moves to small town Oregon, and soon their American dream crashes into the rocks of anarchists, secessionist hippies, and the repression thereof. Scanlon is an academic who studies radical social movements, Naomi is a depressed “nose” who was forced to retire from the perfume business when her mental health destroyed her ability to smell. Scanlon gets mixed up with Sequoia, a sexy hippie mama who wants to peacefully secede from the US, while Naomi spends too much time a Clay, a depressed, angsty anarchist who hates everything. Hijinks ensue.

It’s a short, entertaining novel with interesting enough characters. I read it, I enjoyed reading it, and it left me awake thinking after I’d put the book down for the night. While the plot focuses on the gulf between academia and radical action, the themes of the book are much more about parenting and relationships, which I appreciated quite a bit. I appreciated the often-realistic and incredibly flawed characters, though the intensity of male desire directed at mothers—on the basis of them being mothers—is kind of intense. Overall, the book made me nostalgic for early-aughts Oregon.

But frankly, I read the book because I care about the ways that anarchists are represented, and I was curious to see how we came across. I probably wouldn’t have given up on the book without that motivation behind my reading, but I probably wouldn’t have bothered to pick it up in the first place either.

I admit I took a weird sort of glee in studying the book. There I was, an anarchist author who researches the ways in which literature represents us, studying a book about an academic whose field of research is radical social movements. And of course, the book itself was written by an academic who researched radical social movements (perhaps getting tangentially involved just as our Scanlon did? I can only guess.).

So how did he represent us? Hereafter in this review I discuss spoilers.

There’s this thing in movies and books where if there’s a lovable rogue character, and he isn’t the protagonist, he’s going to die (I use “he” here because this trope seems to be about men most commonly. I’m well aware that women get more than their fair share of being killed off, but usually by way of other, more culturally pervasive, tropes). Our lovable rogue has to die—it’s the only way for the protagonist to truly reach the epiphany they need to complete their hero’s journey. But don’t mourn our dead rogue—death was really the only way he could be redeemed. So I wasn’t really surprised about what happens in this book to our anarchist Clay.

It’s clear that Scribner did his research, and he’s familiar enough with anarchist culture (or at least, anarchist culture in the pacific northwest during the era of anti-globalization protests and the Earth Liberation Front). He got enough stuff right that I didn’t just throw the book down in disgust. The anarchists work shit jobs and find random places to crash or they have money from god-knows-where. They tell war stories about protests. They have cafes and run Free School classes. They’re kind of elitist and some of them are unbearably moralizing. They drink cheap beer and are excited when strangers buy them coffee. They’re not lone wolves, overall—they are part of a movement. I have a low bar for anarchist representation in fiction, and this meets said low bar.

I have a feeling the author understands at least the basics of anarchist theory—he references Proudhon and Stirner—but he doesn’t drop any of that knowledge on his readers, leaving them with no understanding of the anarchist position other than protests, Food Not Bombs, and vandalism.

For all his research, there are some things that rang out as untrue. I can’t speak for every anarchist in the country of course, but I don’t hear too many call people “chicks.” I’ve never been sitting around an anarchist cafe and had people discuss the hows and whys of building explosives—the ELF cell dismantled during Operation Backfire, for example, was substantially more security-savvy than the anarchists of The Oregon Experiment. Most anarchist arsonists don’t wear their anarchist-emblazoned jackets to the scene of the crime.

And of course, Clay isn’t an anarchist because the world is unjust, he’s an anarchist because his dad killed himself, because his baby mama left him, because his life sucks. He lives by himself in a crappy apartment. (Which I’m sure plenty of anarchists do, but most of the ones I know—particularly those of the young poor variety—live communally.)

Scanlon, the academic protagonist, realizes that the local anarchists are well-meaning but naive. He knows breaking the bank windows won’t change anything, but he thinks he understands why they do it. He probably doesn’t think torching some SUVs is a nice thing to do, and he’s convinced it couldn’t ever accomplish anything, but he knows it’s clearly the greater evil for the government to sentence the Panama, the captured arsonist, to 23 years in prison. (This action and trial are a direct reference to the case of real life anarchist Jeffery Free Luers, who torched 3 SUVs and was sentenced to 23 years in prison). Clay was involved in the arson but got away, and he was only tangentially involved in his co-consiprator’s defense. And he seemed more or less unfazed by the sentence, and doesn’t, you know, stay out of town.

In one particularly agonizingly ignorant turn, the cuddly, bumbling local anarchists are compared to the “hard core” out-of-town anarchists who don’t care whom they hurt. In fact, they’re so “hard core” that they don’t get upset when a police officer is hit and hospitalized by a speeding cop car!

In real life, I’ve run across this fallacy time and time again—that maybe some anarchists are okay (even ones who are destroying property and fighting police?) but that there is, hidden in the dark recesses of the movement, a shadowy group that exists only to destroy everything in the world. A group of emotionless men who thrive on violence and just want to see the world burn and whatever else string of cliches I can come up with. It’s frustrating to see that presented in a mostly-sympathetic portrayal of anarchism.

And then, right there at the end of the book, Clay dies. He blows himself up trying to destroy a dam. He doesn’t succeed at destroying the dam, of course. And the reason he dies is because he’d been too busy falling for Naomi, the middle class woman, to remember to meet up with his anarchist contact and buy better explosive supplies (which he was going to buy in the local infoshop). So his faulty supplies set off his explosives early and he is finally happy because he’s dead.

And Scanlon is given the chance to write a book about Clay and gets to advance his career.

But to the author’s credit, Scanlon capitalizing off of Clay and his friends is actually handled well. As critical as the author is of the anarchists’ naive idealism and love of destruction, he’s at least as critical of bourgeois academia and the lifestyle attached to it. In one scene, Scanlon convinces Clay to destroy another professor’s fancy car so that he can do Sequoia a favor and get laid. In another, Scanlon and his wife Naomi are able to reconnect through the shared experience of betraying Clay’s deepest secrets to the newspaper—this despicable act is shown for what it is.

In the very beginning, when Clay and Scanlon first meet, Scanlon is excited to get to know an anarchist. Clay tells him to fuck off, says he doesn’t trust some academic trying to study the anarchists. In the end, Scanlon’s actions prove that Clay was right. When Scanlon writes that newspaper article, he makes his career on misrepresenting Clay—who never would have agreed to be profiled in the first place.

It’s my suspicion that the first scene between Clay and Scanlon was based on some experience that Scribner had trying to get anarchists to let him research them. Those anarchists too, I suspect, might have been right. Because as much as he tried to show us in a sympathetic light, the author paints us as naive idealists, completely detached from our history, who are only in the struggle because we don’t know how else to express our rage. I appreciate the work he did in humanizing us, and I don’t think it’s always wrong for outside voices to try to represent us. But he saw only one tiny part of anarchism and wrote a book about it. I wonder if he was as conflicted about that as he is about how Scanlon behaves.

Either way, I, for one, am tired of dying to move the plot along.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *