In his 1963 review of Thomas Pynchon’s “V.”, George Plimpton used the term “American picaresque” to describe a style being employed by the daring young novelists of the time.
“Such novels,” he wrote, are “heavily populated with eccentrics, deviates, grotesques with funny names (so they can be remembered), and are usually composed of a series of bizarre adventures . . . in which the central character is involved, then removed and flung abruptly into another. Very often, a Quest is incorporated, which keeps the central character on the move.”
What Plimpton was describing would come to be known as the “postmodern novel,” and more than 50 years later, Dustin Long’s sophomore effort, the gamely discursive “Bad Teeth,” fits this description to a T.
“Bad Teeth” follows Judas, a freelance translator, as he bounces among Brooklyn; Bloomington, Iowa; Berkeley; and Bakersfield, Calif., in search of the elusive Jigme Drolma, a buzzed-about writer known among the hip as “the Tibetan David Foster Wallace.” This quest, however, is just a pretense for Long to relate a quartet of engaging stories about meandering millennials coming to grips with the banalities of life in the 21st century.
Along the way, Judas introduces us to a whole crew of troubled graduate students, including Adam, a creative writing professor wrestling with personal and professional jealousies; Selah, who flounders in relationships with men who either treat her like a trophy or like an afterthought; and Mark, a degree-seeking drug dealer who conveniently claims his petty crimes are in fact activism, done in the name of SOFA — an absurdist protest group led by Drolma’s son (who goes by the nom de guerre “Viv LaRevolution”).
Steeped in social media and rarely emerging from their academic enclaves, these characters find themselves living lives that seem increasingly devoid of substance. They struggle with an unshakable sense that the “ease of modern life” has led to “an increasing meaninglessness of modern life.” And they aren’t sure what to do about it. “We’re supposed to be attacking headspace or whatever now,” says a well-meaning student, “Right?”
Long does a great job capturing the casual rhythms of youthful speech, and his dialogue is rich with imprecision. “That’s cool,” Judas tell a potential love interest, “I mean, I like you but I’m not saying we have to be in a relationship or whatever. . . . I just like hanging out with you, though.” She responds with what the author describes as “a vibrato ‘blah.’ ”
Although the characters seem to recognize that their world is profoundly different from the one that preceding generations lived in, they continue to look to the past as a guide — with disappointing results. In the Berkeley section, Judas’s roommate Thomas recalls a student riot that took place in the run-up to the invasion of Iraq. “I don’t know what it is exactly that makes modern times different from the sixties,” Judas says in the aftermath, “but all in all this felt like a pretty cheap imitation.”
And that’s the rub — throughout the book, characters seek satisfaction by doing things they’ve been led to believe have intrinsic meaning, only to find themselves let down when it doesn’t solve their problems. But as Selah discovers, “Meaning isn’t something that exists outside of us; it’s something we create for ourselves.”
Though the book’s “picaresque” approach to narrative may seem scattershot at first, Long uses it skillfully, and his philosophical insights into the vagaries of modern life reveal themselves slowly, without overwhelming the flow of the action.
“Bad Teeth” is both a darkly humorous satire of millennial self-involvement, and a thoughtful dissection of the anxieties and very real social circumstances that lead to it. It’s an incisive look at our culture of abstraction, where “Designed in California, Made in China” has supplanted “Made in the USA,” and the lessons of the past seem like they may not prepare us for the problems of the future.