Paul Madonna’s ‘On to the Next Dream’ Sketches out a Rapidly Changing San Francisco

Progress -- that is, gentrification -- marches on in San Francisco, for better and for worse, in this fantastical narrative from the creator of All Over Coffee.

What separates On to the Next Dream from other stories of gentrification is the strange sense of unreality (oddly reminiscent of Norton Juster’s The Phantom Tollbooth, of all things) that accompanies artist/writer Paul Madonna’s fictionalized struggle to survive in a rapidly changing San Francisco. As the author meanders around the city attempting to process the fact that he has been priced out of his old home and studio, he runs into a mass of people in line to view an apartment, when suddenly the sky is overtaken by a storm of code in this memorably dry passage:

[…][S]omeone screamed, ‘It’s a rush of investment capital from China!’ Another voice cried out, ‘No, it’s Canadian!’ And suddenly everyone’s clothes began disintegrating, as if we hadn’t been wearing actual fabric but body paint that was now washing off in the rain. Completely naked, people began running in all directions (37).

The tech scene’s conquering of the Bay Area is rendered here, however, in much more visceral, physical terms — strange, fantastical, frightening, and above all unavoidable. A couple that Madonna continually encounters at various apartment showings try to disguise themselves to fit whatever they think the desired demographic — and manage to fail at this task every single time. This also has a touch of the wryness of that particular children’s book.

The prose of On to the Next Dream is clear, crisp, and effective, and the accompanying illustrations of San Francisco streets are intriguing enough to make me wish there were more of them, perhaps interwoven more directly into the story itself rather than merely used to break up vignettes. I’m not familiar with All Over Coffee, Madonna’s former San Fransisco Chronicle series (I’m a Los Angeles Times reader), but a cursory look at his past work reveals keen use of sepia tones and an overall sense of melancholy; his version of San Francisco is moody and sparsely occupied, often with mysterious text-art interventions. The drawing style is similar to that of On to the Next Dream, albeit with the bonus of a running narrative of its own that eventually comes back to synchronize with the main written story.

On to the Next Dream’s attempts at humor constitute a mixed bag, however, because in some cases, it feels like we’ve read it all before. For example, the “Complicapp” joke (“an app that creates unnecessary steps in already functioning systems so that developers can justify making new apps”) seems like something out of the mind of Dave Barry on an off day: funny in the most general way, more worthy of a head-nodding reaction of acknowledgment than a laugh-inducing one (36). A throwaway line about a young woman wanting someone to design an app “to stop San Francisco summers from being so cold” also has a bit of that “get-off-my-lawn, Millennials” vibe to it (36).

Meanwhile, the tech-phobic sentiments expressed by some of the colorful characters Madonna encounters on his apartment-hunting quest are essentially hot-take op-ed headlines put into people’s mouths; I’m fairly certain that I could find think-pieces along the lines of “the geeks have taken over” and “emotion has become e-motion” with only a modicum of effort (67).

At other moments in the narrative, Madonna does introduce some nuance into questions of progress and technophobia, making the broad nature of the aforementioned arguments, alas, seem all the more disappointing. The issue of how new generations inevitably see older ones as out of touch, and how this clash speaks to these demographics’ diverging larger values, is indeed an important one, and San Francisco is the perfect place in which to explore it. As Madonna tries to find a place for himself in this rapidly-changing city, his social position as a creative (a category often on the fringes of society) is at risk of being seen, in hindsight, as a member of the “techie-phobic conventionalists” (23). As one character succinctly puts it towards the end of the novella:

The techies think you’re old […] and the rich think you’re common. Activists think you’re bourgeois, and the bourgeois think you’re just another weird artist […] Who do you think you are?(65)

Fortunately, another moment of satire fares better: a trendy local business’ manager gushes about her organization’s emphasis on being a true part of their community, patting herself on the back for going the proverbial “extra mile” to eat at a local restaurant once a month, yet is completely petrified of people from said neighborhood —

a neighborhood they clearly are not welcome in as well-meaning gentrifiers — coming to the office disguised as takeout deliverers but with the intention of hurting them. That scene, at least, definitely rings true, fleshed out with the self-righteous quasi-guilt of the gentrifiers — guilt that Madonna himself experiences when he considers perpetuating the same cycle that has displaced him by moving to Oakland, only to be quickly disabused of that notion in short order.

The story’s effectiveness and poignancy, however, is ultimately undermined by what feels like a rushed sense of resolution. For nearly 70 pages prior, we’ve been inside Madonna’s head as he tries to make sense of his own looming status as a relic — the starving artist responsible for the original gentrification being pushed aside in favor of the ubiquitous tech bro as the rents go through the roof. Yet after a dreamlike encounter with a future version of himself, who assures him that everything will end up being all right, as well as some well-deserved screaming as Madonna accepts the loss of his apartment, the ending comes rather quickly.

A quick revisiting of the major themes of the narrative, and it just… seems to wrap up. The conversation with the future Paul undercuts any feeling of suspense the reader might be left with upon finishing On to the Next Dream, because it’s clear that Madonna is moving on to another dream, that things will turn out all right for him, even if he’s not exactly sure who he is in the end.

RATING 5 / 10
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