[7 January 2014]
PopMatters Associate Music Editor
Jerry Stahl is clearly a writer who writes what he knows. He is perhaps most famous for penning a narcotics memoir called Permanent Midnight, which was made into a film of the same name starring Ben Stiller.
In his latest novel, Happy Mutant Baby Pills, there are signifiers of Stahl’s life percolating into the work. Lloyd, the main character, has Hepatitis C. So does Stahl. Lloyd also gets a job writing for CSI, the hit TV show, and coming up with bizarre new twists on the subject matter. Stahl has written for CSI, too, and, for the show, he has written about very transgressive subjects, such as portraying the culture of furries. (Google it if you don’t know what that is.) And, of course, Lloyd is hooked on smack. I don’t know if Stahl is still heroin dependent, but if you know anything about Permanent Midnight, you know that Stahl was an addict while writing for such ‘80s TV series as ALF. So Stahl knows of what he speaks of.
Which makes Happy Mutant Baby Pills all the more disappointing. It’s a crushingly second-rate read, riddled with basic grammar mistakes (did anyone copyedit this thing? I mean, there are numerous examples of parenthetical statements made where the brackets don’t close off, which may only be intentional if the book is meant to read as the memoir of a fictional drug abuser rambling on without paying attention to the finer points of syntax), a plot that goes nowhere, despite a nice twist at the end and, more to the point, characters so depraved that you will not care one iota about them.
It’s sad because Stahl does, occasionally, have very interesting things to say about heroin culture and culture at large – how we’re essentially poisoning ourselves on trash. Granted, there’s conspiracy theory rumbling, especially in the last half of the novel, that is borderline ridiculous (which is probably the point), but, in the first half of Happy Mutant Baby Pills, there are some passages that make the reader stop and really think. More on that later.
The basic plot of Happy Mutant Baby Pills essentially follows the perpetually strung-out Lloyd who works as a copywriter writing the side effects warnings on pharmaceutical drugs before landing a gig at a Christian online dating site (it’s a long story). He’s ousted from that job and takes a Greyhound to L.A., and on the bus he meets a woman named Nora, who Lloyd, in a rather film noir-esque way, falls immediately in love with. Lloyd eventually gets that TV writing gig, but not before he and Nora wind up offing a couple of people for no apparent reason.
Then, the plot shifts to the fact that Nora is pregnant (but not by Lloyd) and, in an act of selfish revenge, begins consuming all sorts of chemicals (even through her vagina in a rather tasteless scene, which is probably the point) in an effort to make a baby with physical or mental defects for reasons that aren’t wholly explained, or at least explained in enough of a compelling manner to make sense (which, again, may be the point). If it sounds like this is a book with a plot that just strings itself along from each point that the author wants to make, you would be right. And if you think this is a book that gets progressively more and more depraved as it goes along, too, you would be right there as well.
Now, I have nothing against “underground” or transgressive fiction. God knows I’ve written some myself in my early days as a fiction writer. The thing with this genre (if you want to call it that) is that it pretty much confines the writer to topping him or herself with the most outrageous thing or things that he/she can think of, all at the expense of plot and character development. Which is absolutely true of Happy Mutant Baby Pills.
When our main character falls gaga over a person they sit beside on a bus, and then goes out to immediately commit murder for this love-at-first-sight kind of love, I really wanted to close the book, put it down permanently and maybe give my brain a good cleanse of some sort. There is very little consequence for the character’s actions – in some ways, you could say that they are even rewarded for their acts of depravity. Not to sound moralistic, but it’s clear from some of the asides that Stahl makes in his book that he’s moralizing to some degree. So there’s a weird disconnect that goes on with this novel.
This is unfortunate, as, alluded to before, there are some passages in the book that really allow the reader to think, even if it’s just about drug culture and how it is portrayed in the world of pop: “You know what I hate?” writes Stahl. “I hate those movies where people about to fix up shoot a little splash into the air. ... Waste not, want not. You just know that whoever wrote those shoot-in-the-air scenes was never a dope fiend. ‘Cause if you’re a dope fiend, you always know you’re going to run out. And the last thing you’re going to do, if you actually have a rig full of heroin, is squirt some of it up in the air, unless you plan on sucking your carpet fibers later. Which you will. When you need the stuff.”
And then there’s this, about our dependence on medicine: “I would argue, if I were the type who argued, that pharmaceuticals provide the secret history of Western civilization; and, pharma-copy, my default niche, will someday be recognized as the representational literature of the 21st century. Future archaeologists (assuming there’s a future) will dig through our detritus and find more pill bottles than books, iPads, or Kindles – life, in America, now being something you treat, not something you live. What are we now, but our symptoms?”
But despite these telling insights into the world in which we live, or, at least, the world in which junkies live, they feel strung out (pardon the pun) – just embedded here and there in the narrative like info dumps. Happy Mutant Baby Pills, with its lack of a plot that makes sense (if you murder someone in a public place such as a washroom, wouldn’t there be a camera, somewhere, recording it – such as at the door in and out of said washroom? Or wouldn’t there be a witness? Or something?) and characters that you want to see drive off a cliff in a fancy car and die a horrible death in a fiery crash, should have just been a spoken word stand-up act of the sort that a Jello Biafra or Henry Rollins might pull off. There, Stahl could have made his points in a salient, entertaining manner without saddling someone down with about 250 pages of druggy narrative that doesn’t make much sense.
While Happy Mutant Baby Pills does work in an entertaining manner before we meet Nora, from there the entire novel is a downward slide into the dumpster. And the more and more sickening things that Stahl can think up for his main characters to do, the less and less that the reader ultimately cares about the characters or the book as a whole. And there are some real whoppers to be had: it may be possible, but one person gets killed in a very CSI-esque seemingly implausible manner by means of a paper clip to the temple of one’s head.
You can tell, just by reading this book, that the author was rubbing his hands with glee in certain places, confident that he was topping himself with each successive thing that he could think up. Which is too bad, because, in the author’s more pensive moments, he does have some very astute and important things to say about our dependency on legal drugs (i.e., medicine) and the so-called industrial-medical complex of America. Ultimately, Happy Mutant Baby Pills is a book suffering from different personalities, and offers little more than a wild ride into the underbelly of society. With a great deal more restraint, and a lighter, less hyper-masculine noir-ish touch, this could have been a novel that said something important, instead of just wallowing in debasement. Jerry Stahl clearly knows his subject matter. All he needs to do in his fiction is not marinade in it so much.