In between all the other things I'm doing (or supposed to be doing) right now, I keep mulling over KING DORK. This semester of teaching is almost over - this is the final week - and while I cannot say it was my best semester ever (I've been far too distracted), I find that I'm thinking a lot more about the books we've read, post-class-discussion, than I normally do. Students make remarks, observations, suggestions that get my brain going, and then I end up trying to unknot the textual problems presented by their comments, rather than simply saying "good class, time for laundry/dissertation/vacuuming/etc."
King Dork is high on my list this term of Problem/Puzzlers. It's always been problematic - Portman's humming along nicely until a little more than halfway in, when suddenly, Deanna Schumacher appears with her unbelievable offer of a blowjob.
Once Deanna Schumacher shows up, the book slides headfirst into some seriously troubling misogyny - because there's no other way, really, to describe it. The only female in the book who really gets away unscathed is Chi-Mo's younger sister Amanda, and even she seems to be caught in a kind of Madonna/whore complex which, for Chi-Mo, is organized more as a guru/Mean Girl dichotomy.
Chi-Mo's system of classifying the girls at his school doesn't bother me very much; it's a bit cold, but it also does - I think - reflect a kind of realistic anthropology of the high school. HE doesn't see the girls as just numbers in a system; he is observing a pattern he sees repeat itself throughout groups of his female classmates. He IS guilty of dismissing Yasmynne Schmick, who "genuinely seems happy" to see him but is a #3, dressed in velvet, in a "perfectly spherical" body. Yasmynne is the one girl who never manipulates Chi-Mo (his mother, his sister, maybe even Doctor Hexstrom are guilty of manipulation), and yet - she is the least remarked-upon girl in the book.
The proliferation of blowjobs at the book's end is just plain creepy. It's like some teenage boy's fantasy-fulfillment via fiction, except it doesn't fit with the rest of the book, not really. WHY these girls are suddenly eager to "give [him] a little head" is beyond me, and much to his discredit, Chi-Mo never attempts to figure this out. He doesn't even puzzle over it, just tries not to disturb the balance of free blowjobs (these are entirely non-reciprocal events - I'll be damned if I can see what the girls get out of this, unless they are - as per the fantasy - girls who just really love giving blowjobs).
What's worse is the spitefulness of the cliques, the borderline-insane mood swings of Deanna, the Dud Chart, even Chi-Mo's mom, who is immature and spiteful about her husband's first wife (always calls her "Smellanie"), and moreover, is distant, sad and dishonest with her children.
The women in this book are out of control - except poor old Yasmynne Schmick, and maybe Doctor Hexstrom. The real puzzler is:
Is this Chi-Mo's failing, or Portman's?
I'm coming to see Chi-Mo as more and more of an unreliable narrator with every re-read. Obviously, he's unreliable - but the extent of that unreliability grows, for me, with each new reading. And I'm also coming to see the novel as a very carefully crafted pseudo-puzzler on the lines of The Crying of Lot 49, a book which is in fact referenced as part of the CEH library. The endless iterations of meaning, the promise of meaning and connection where there is (maybe) none - it's got Pynchon all over it, channeled via ex-dork Portman. It takes a certain level of smartness to construct anything that seems Pynchonesque, and so Portman's got some brains. He's also got some skills; there is so much in King Dork that feels very right to me - the voice of Chi-Mo, for example, is dead on.
But then - in perhaps classic Pynchonian behavior - I start to doubt the connectedness of the two novels. Maybe the reference to Lot 49 is a fluke; it gets mentioned once, and never again; Chi-Mo doesn't mention reading it; it's absent from Portman's amazon.com list of the CEH library. But are these intentional lacunae? Is this by indirection we'll find direction out? Or am I simply suffering from a kind of literary paranoia?
But what in Pynchon can help with the misogyny of King Dork?
Nothing that I can come up with. Possibly reading Gravitys Rainbow (the Grail, the Grail!) would help, but it isn't going to happen any time soon.
So again: what do I do with this book? Is King Dork a halfway - but only halfway - decent book? Or is it a paean to misogyny like its predecessor Catcher in the Rye? Is the Catcher connection also the explanation for the crummy (or rather, crumby) way women appear in King Dork?
I'm seriously tempted to email Frank Portman and just ASK him. But then - I resist the intentional fallacy. I refuse to take the author's word for it - because what does he know? He only knows what he can know, and to mix every damn kind of critical theory in here, Freud tells us that none of us (except Freud) can know very much about our own minds.
I'd love to write a brilliant, illuminating paper on King Dork, where I wield the critical scalpel with unparalleled precision and skill, dissecting, labelling and displaying all the inner guts of that novel. But I'm afraid I'd run into that ever-so-postmodern problem of multiplying meanings, and slippages, and the everlasting, sneaking suspicion that the center is not the center.
Then again, what would the book be - ANY book? - if I could pin it down to a specimen card neatly, tidily labelled, and then seal it behind glass for all time? If it was that easy to get my brain around a book, it wouldn't be worth my time.