Bisexual teenage girls. Drugs and booze. Sex. Love. Youth rebellion. Intimations of the supernatural. Life on the road. This is a list of ingredients that can produce just about anything in a novel, from a superficial story built for speed and titillation to touching on a slice of reality with empathy and clarity. Sparrow Patterson opts for the latter in Synthetic Bi Products, her debut novel that contains all of these elements, or is rather, about all of these elements.
Synthetic Bi Products opens with the story of Orleigh, an eighteen-year-old girl who has just graduated from summer school to finish her senior year of high school. Orleigh lives in suburban Illinois, far enough away from Chicago that the city is a non- ntity in her life of boredom. She’s smart, pretty, tough as nails—and she’s bisexual. For the first part of the book, these are the relevant details of Orleigh’s life. From an outside point of view, this might lead to a static and cardboard characterization, but Patterson takes us on a first person ride through Orleigh’s head, making all the difference.
The plot breakdown is simple enough. Set in 1989/1990, the story recounts Orleigh’s development from a teen with an attitude to a young adult with an attitude. We learn about the strange twists of circumstance that lead Orleigh to embrace her bisexuality, spring her best friend and potential lover from a mental home only to simultaneously lose her and gain a male boyfriend for whom she falls head over heels, eventually heading on a cross country trek of petty crime and danger. We follow Orleigh on the road as she travels to Grateful Dead shows and remote camping spots and as her attempt to build up enough speed to reach escape velocity and leave her suburban past fails and she is drawn back to its orbit. We even accompany her into a women’s jail as a pregnant mother.
And yet for all these places and changes of setting, the story of Synthetic Bi Products doesn’t really go anywhere. Instead, it just winds up in places much like the teenage world of boredom and struggle for meaning that the novel depicts. Plot becomes secondary to the manner in which the characters deal with the situations they are dealt. Purpose is deliberately subordinate to affect, and judgment is as mature and developed as one could expect from teenagers.
My biggest problem with Synthetic Bi Products is that I wanted to like it more than I did. Despite all the reasons that I enjoyed the book and was impressed by Patterson’s ability to paint these images and bring them to life, I was also frustrated and infuriated by the delivery. The biggest problem herein is Patterson’s ambiguity of tone. Is this a sympathetic tale meant to evoke a real connection to our heroine, Orleigh, or is it an ironic expose of the banalities of teenage existence? Rather than answer that question, Synthetic Bi Products walks the fence (bisexuality pun intended) between both, making it disturbingly vague. This is a Venus Flytrap for readers (especially wannabe critics) who smell this ambiguity and are irresistibly drawn to it, only to meet our doom in being forced to leave this question unanswered.
On the one hand, Orleigh is likable in her refusal to compromise on herself and interesting enough, in her hard-assed attitude, to keep the reader engaged in her tale. She’s also a self-admitted bitch, and more or less manipulates the other characters in the story to her own advantage. Although she is smart and usually accurately perceives the character of others, she makes ridiculous choices and sets her mind on destructive courses. She is world weary but completely naïve about relationships that aren’t about her being in control. She has no problem with being sexual, but love is strange and foreign, and yet she falls in love easily.
This bundle of contradictions carries over into all aspects of the book, primarily because Patterson exercises incredible control in staying within Orleigh’s head and not interjecting too much authorial intervention. One case in point that is perhaps deliberately ambiguous is the dialogue between Orleigh and her boyfriend and true love, Mark. Mark is the kind of boy who dresses in black, likes to wear makeup in order to look like Robert Smith,and in fact loves The Cure. Yet, he also inexplicably likes hanging around Dead shows and gets a Grateful Dead lightning bolt tattoo. Still, his heart and soul are undeniably goth boy. When he speaks to Orleigh about how much he loves her, his language is almost ridiculously stilted and their conversations border on the absurdly dramatic. Of course, Orleigh loves The Cure as well, and such a forced poetic approach to dialogue might be an imitation of “real” dialogue between personalities such as these. Or the failure of the dialogue might be Patterson’s best attempt at conveying passion. But it’s impossible to tell, and that is perhaps the point.
Then there’s the whole problem of bisexuality. Simply by placing ” “Bi” in the title of the novel, Patterson seems to be making a point about sexuality. It must be important. As the novel opens, one of the first ideas with which we’re hit, as we are introduced to Orleigh, is her bisexuality. It takes up a significant portion of the first part of the book, through both her crush on her best friend and her crush on Mark.The facts of how Orleigh came to “swing both ways” is explained in the second portion of the book, but by the time the book reaches its conclusion, this characteristic has vanished. For making such a big deal of it early on, and including it in the title, it seems like a huge void to just drop it halfway through. Could it be that Patterson is just making some kind of political statement to gain credibility with certain groups and/or notoriety with others? Or is it that Orleigh has grown up and out of this mindset in some way by the time the book closes? Again, no way to tell.
In fact, incidental and even completely arbitrary characters are littered through this book. Incidents that help propel the plot are also sprinkled with little scenes that mean absolutely nothing in the context of the whole.
While this is in some sense frustrating to the “tie every thread back together at the end” approach to storytelling that has by far dominated late twentieth century media, it also adds an odd perspective of realism to this story. At times, the arbitrary elements make it seem autobiographical, as we all have meaningless walk-ons and scenes in our everyday world, yet this irritant makes the comfortable enjoyment of the book a challenge.
Acknowledging that I’m taking a lot of critical license with this analysis, it seems that perhaps this is the true strength of the novel. None of the themes in this book—in fact none of the plot points in this book—are necessarily original, yet it reads as refreshing and honest. While it is possible, as adult readers, to negatively judge the sentiments, choices, and actions of the characters in this book, they are startlingly accurate for the mindset of a post-teen young adult. In other words, Patterson doesn’t pull any punches nor tries to point the finger nor even gives us room to be critical of Orleigh except in relation to our own lives. She simply tells it the way it is. The way it is might be stupid, ugly, frightening, or beautiful, but these are conclusions that Patterson leaves up to the reader to determine for themselves.
Ultimately, this book really spoke to me. Not only was I approximately the same age as Orleigh in the same time period, but her experiences were similar to those of many friends who are still important parts of my life today. It is easy to recognize aspects of your own life in Orleigh’s wild adventures. And if you’re in your twenties today, then some of these things almost surely happened to you or someone you know. Ennui may have finally been exposed as the emotional state of the suburbs in the last couple of years, but books such as Synthetic Bi Products show how it has shaped and directed lives on many unseen levels. Maybe you didn’t like The Cure’s Disintegration, but you probably had that coffee shop in your town you were excited about discovering, the one that harbored all the “cool people” (the freaks and geeks). If you didn’t go see the Grateful Dead and get blissed on acid, then perhaps you traveled out of state and lived on Spaghetti-O’s and whatever money your could bum. Or perhaps you knew someone just like Orleigh who broke your heart.Synthetic Bi Products is certainly not about universal themes, but it is about themes that in some way we all experienced. It ranks as a “quintessential” coming-of-age novel.
Still, Synthetic Bi Products leaves things hanging that keep it from being perfect. It has splinters that get under your skin and bother you even as you reach the moving conclusion. It draws you into a world that is believable because it is familiar, yet it is a world out of which most of us have grown and is frustrating to revisit. I don’t have the insight to claim some sort of authorial intent, but whether or not Sparrow Patterson meant to achieve this awkward balancing act, I can think of nothing but commending her for pulling it off.