“We are who we pretend to be at any given moment, no more, no less, no one, no thing. We are nothing, less than, duped into believing we’re something we’re not,” writes Jesús Ángel García, relaying the thoughts of a narrator and protagonist also named Jesús Ángel García, or JAG for short, who has a tendency to philosophize in light of his experiences in two alternative arenas, each rich with symbolism and writhing, inchoate need. JAG straddles, so to speak, two communities, working as a Web designer for a local pastor intent on extending the gospel message into political action (banning sex toys, for instance) while also (thanks to said pastor’s prodigal son) spending time on another Web site, one built around the Internet’s paradoxical offering of anonymity alongside the opportunity for over-exposure, a site where people can post their most private desires, their secret lusts, along with pictures of themselves or of someone they want to be, are pretending to be, etc.
Christianity, from its inception, has also always been about trying to be something you are, at present, not. The imitation of Christ might seem a far cry from posting shadowy and sharp-angled cell phone pics of cleavage, but García wants to toy with the similarities, crafting a narrative wherein the desires of disparate communities are revealed to be not so different after all—wherein addiction, manipulation, and insincerity exist alongside transcendence, radical freedom, and utter authenticity, all of these manifest, at times, by hypocritical zealots, pious believers, abusive pervs, and vulnerably open creatures aware that whatever they are, this identity is constituted, foremost, by their physical needs and wants.
So some people await a messiah who will come bearing a sword, and some folks have a fetish for reliving a formative rape. Some throw stones at any trace of difference and some rock out in a perpetual masquerade. Some cultivate snuff fantasies and some just want to see their son, sleeping in a nest of blankets at their ex’s house. And, as is the case for JAG, some are willing to tote guns and go covert in order to catch such a glimpse, all earthly laws and norms outranked by some irrational call.
JAG’s got plenty of issues, apart from the son—to whom this book is dedicated, raising another level of doubt about avatars and authors, characters’ names and continual fictions. He’s got a little thing with the pastor’s wife, a brother he’s speaking to throughout the text—in the traditional Christian autobiographical form of confession—and assorted associations with women whose desires are elaborately specific, including the one who feels the need “to reconstruct this atrocity” that happened to her years previous. “I need to be hurt to be healed,” she says. JAG gets his own dose of hurt one night at a bar, and while he’s initially reluctant about putting that Chekovian gun in the rifle rack of his new truck, he’s as driven by missionary zeal as any fundamentalist reformer. Taking a virtual hatchet to Web site servers, JAG wipes away those profiles while he takes to be products of “fakes, flakes, freaks, fantasies and fraidy cats” as opposed to the work of “those seeking true fulfillment,” while simultaneously contemplating how all identity might be nothing more than temporary play-acting and how God might be a collective. John Coltrane, jpegs, and alcohol can lead a man to think all sorts of things.
But badbadbad, while populated with straw man preachers who rant against teen sodomy and the evils of relativism, makes clear the asymmetry of otherwise neatly parallel stances. In a major scene, JAG shows up for a showdown protest/counterprotest of white supremacists and gay pride contingents. “The Klan processional was led by a pointy-headed knight on a white horse, trailed by a contingent of foot soldiers. Spearheading Gay Pride was a team of pony boys, saddled and harnessed, silver bits in their mouths. At the reins a king and queen in swapped gender roles steered an outsized red wagon straight down the thoroughfare.” There’s a neat visual parallel, two campy camps in outlandish outfits, theatrical, each with their own flags. But the parallels stop there, for while surely “advocates for broadmindedness and equality” can fall prey to plenty of flaws—self-righteousness and solipsism among them—“gay pride” and “white power” are ideological platforms that just don’t line up. There may always be a whiff of queer supremacism at such rallies, but it’s far from the defining line, are not coupled with canned hatred, weapons or the implication of weapons, or eschatological dreams of a “purified” world. In short—and this is an obvious point but worth belaboring in order to dig deeper into García’s text—a rainbow clown wig differs in some basic, practical ways from a face mask designed to allow anonymity while participating in terrorist action.
For JAG, however, the goose-steppers and the glitter queens are all acting out fantasies of self, all edging around issues of anonymity intertwined with loudly out self-expression. At one point a Klansman yanks up his mask, so angry he is with the motley mocking crowd. And for JAG, the street is already an old time venue. While the novel begins on the asphalt of a Piggly Wiggly parking lot, soon most interaction is happening online. “I realize the digital domain is a place where some folks play identity games,” JAG says, and though he means a more blatant adoption of new identities, he, too, is pushing into a kind of game of self, scrolling through profiles, “reading between the lines, holding close the heartache, the longing in all the profiles I’d come to see as naked portraits of need built up over a lifetime. There were so many girls I could care for. It was my moral responsibility to do so.”
So in a world where people are constantly pretending—what JAG calls, elsewhere “endless storytelling” wherein “life comes to you in fragments”—our narrator develops some kind of odd messiah complex, seeing himself in a unique position to salve the wounds of various damaged girls. But while he at once argues that we’re all always pretending, posing, he also obsessed, especially in connection to the online spaces where he’s doing all his foreplay, with “what’s for real and what’s made-up, who’s authentic, who’s a poser, what matters, what means nothing.” There’s a desperation for meaning even in a world where meaning seems to be nothing more than a wig worn for a particular parade. All of which makes sense. What doesn’t make sense, to me at least, is why this need for meaning gets channeled into sex, into picking up girls from an online site and helping them fulfill their pregnancy or snuff kick. Why is some need, some desire, recognized as marrow-deep and therefore commendable, even when it’s explicitly nutty and destructive (of self and others) when other needs (like, say, those white folks with their Nazi badges and dimwit chants) are quickly dismissed. The preacher who wants to rid his town of dildos seems as deeply motivated as his wife in wanting to fill up her vagina, but the sexual need is linked here with something admirably true, transcendent, positively communal—everything “good,” in short, in a system that rejects relativism on gut reflex—whereas the prudish anti-dildo stance is seen as a kind of repression, an inauthenticity, as if the preacher, in his opposition to such devices, is just lying to himself, refusing to acknowledge his actual and inescapable nature.
This is less Rousseau than de Sade—the path to be followed here is through the lusts of the body, however twisted by society. Exit through the sewer, as it were, or the bowels. The denial of desire is a deadlier perversion than the aforementioned snuff fetish, and JAG seems to mean this literally—he’s even, via all the bits of Christian symbolism that have been tossed his way, able to view an individual death as redemptive, holding up the hope of salvation for a wider society that needs to get in touch with its true urges before it morphs into monsters. The human, JAG insists, is right there above the tendrils of those Daisy Dukes. “For the record,” he tells us, “I’m not a sex addict. I’m not a pervert or a freak. I’m not less moral than anyone else who lives his life according to his beliefs, who tries to do right on the path laid out before him.” The addiction, the perversion, here is precisely one of beliefs, of moral claims. badbadbad is the story of a man who feels there is a “path laid out before him,” a straight path in a crooked world. It’s an odd religion, one that passes judgment on the jukebox and the sex site with far more fury—albeit it also with more nuance, more investment—than it does on the Klansman or the raving preacher. It is a path that leads to extreme acts, and, in turn, to this extreme confession, a weird gospel, one man’s account of his journey through the wilderness.