the O.C.

School started yesterday, which means my day-tripping ways are officially over...for now, at least. In the spirit of travel, I thought I'd devote a post to "social observer" Sarah Vowell. I read Assassination Vacation during my winter break travels, mostly on the three-leg plane ride back from Bend, Oregon to Boston. I highly recommend it and if she narrates the audio book, go for that version. That's how I was introduced to her essays in The Partly Cloudy Patriot, the title of which inspired my short series of posts about day trips around the Boston area last spring. I'm really drawn to her way of writing, how she blends American history with popular culture in her then and now observations. Like how she digresses into a paragraph or two about The O.C. in the middle chapter of the book that describes the assassination of James A. Garfield. She writes:

Here's a distraction. When researching Luther Guiteau's take on his son's stay at Oneida, I couldn't help but notice that in his letters he refers to the Oneida Community as "the O.C." Coincidentally, The O.C. is the name of a nighttime soap opera on television's Fox network that I am currently obsessed with. Set in Orange County, California, the show's three biggest stars are Peter Gallagher and Peter Gallagher's legendary pair of eyebrows, eyebrows cozy enough to move into - a home, a couple of rocking chairs with a nose between them like a table piled high with every book you ever loved. And thus, when I see the Oneida Community being referred to as "the O.C.," I cannot help but picture all the ladies of Oneida standing in line to curl up in Peter Gallagher's eyebrows, trying in vain not to feel a special love. (The subject of Peter Gallagher's eyebrows, I realize, is a digression away from the Oneida Community, and yet, I do feel compelled, indeed almost conspiracy theoretically bound to mention that one of the reasons the Oneida Community broke up and turned itself into a corporate teapot factory is that a faction within the group, led by a lawyer named James William Towner, was miffed that the community's most esteemed elders were bogarting the teenage virgins and left in a huff for none other than Orange County, California, where Towner helped organize the Orange County government, became a judge, and picked the spot where the Santa Ana courthouse would be built, a courthouse where, it is reasonable to assume, Peter Gallagher's attorney character on The O.C. might defend his clients.)

What I most enjoyed about The Partly Cloudy Patriot was listening to her narration of essays about places we were driving to for the day. Like, for example, if you're on your way to Salem, Mass., you should listen to "God Will Give You Blood to Drink in a Souvenir Shot Glass." And maybe it's because I no longer live in California that I appreciate "California as an Island," perhaps my favorite piece of Vowell writing. Like Vowell, "as a teen beatnik, I had dreamed of growing up and joining some Bay Area subculture." Okay, so I wasn't exactly a teen beatnik, but I did write my eleventh grade honors English term paper on Jack Kerouac's On The Road. And there are other, more significant reasons why I can relate to this essay. Vowell goes on to write about how she lived out that dream, moving to San Francisco when she was 24, getting a job in an antiquarian print gallery. And the similarities continue: "At the end of the day, I would set the gallery's alarm, put very loud grunge music on my Walkman, take the slow bus home, and pull another graduate school rejection letter out of the mailbox."

Geographical displacement (like when your boss sends you to Philadelphia or, in my case, when you finally get an acceptance letter from a graduate school and move to Boston) makes you aware of things you might otherwise take for granted, like California's quest for quality. "Quality," Vowell writes, "is an obsession there - good food, good wine, good movies, music, weather, cars. Those sound like the right things to shoot for, but the never-ending quality quest is a lot of pressure when you're uncertain and disorganized and, not least, broker than broke. Some afternoons a person just wants to rent Die Hard, close the curtains, and have Cheerios for lunch."

Researching prints and maps provided Vowell with consolation and she goes on to describe a period in European map-making that depicted California as an island. "The idea of California as an island was a lie and a myth, but from where I was sitting, it seemed true enough." For me, that myth seems more believable now that I'm 3,000 miles away, looking for the familiar in t.v. shows mostly set in southern California, where I spent very little of my eight years in the state. And to think one of them will be over in just five, short episodes.



Brian said...

Excellent post, Becky. I went to a live "show" of David Sedaris and Sarah Vowell reading from their (then) newest books a couple years ago. Among other things, she read that very passage about the "O.C." and it was as hilarious as you'd imagine. I'm sure the audio version is great, and I believe Jon Stewart does some of the reading on it. Not positive on that.

Re: California as an Island - Even living in SoCal has made me think of the Bay Area as an island. It may be a cliche, but SoCal so often feels like another state.

Becky G. said...

Oh my gosh, I would have loved to have been at that reading! My general feeling - from what I've heard and heard from others - is that authors should not narrate their own stories, but Vowell's an exception. And I wonder how she she feels about The O.C. being cancelled...

Re: re: SoCal feeling like another state - at least one artist has visualized a fictional war fought between Northern and Southern California.

Becky G. said...

Let's try this again (my HTML is a little rusty). Go here for the link I tried to code in above...