Last Updated on November 15, 2021, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1705
The Buzzing is columnist and memoirist Jim Knipfel’s first novel. A longtime writer of a column titled Slackjaw for The New York Press, Knipfel wrote two highly personal books, memoirs about going blind (1999’s Slackjaw) and his time in a psychiatric ward (2000’s Quitting the Nairobi Trio ),...
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The Buzzing is columnist and memoirist Jim Knipfel’s first novel. A longtime writer of a column titled Slackjaw for The New York Press, Knipfel wrote two highly personal books, memoirs about going blind (1999’s Slackjaw) and his time in a psychiatric ward (2000’s Quitting the Nairobi Trio), that in some ways lay the groundwork for the main themes of The Buzzing. Painted in broad strokes, The Buzzing is a purposefully ambiguous, satirical novel about the press, urban society and the people who fall through its cracks, conspiracy theory, paranoia, and Godzilla movies.
The Buzzing‘s protagonist, Roscoe Baragon, is an overweight, middle-aged, once-important reporter for the New York Sentinel. He has been reduced—mostly through his own devising—to covering the “kook beat” for his tabloid newspaper, writing stories about alien abductions, convoluted governmental conspiracies, and voodoo curses. Knipfel clearly draws upon his own experiences with tabloid newspapers in his portrayal of Baragon and the New York Sentinel. What is less clear is how much Knipfel’s struggles with mental illness are reflected in Baragon’s frustrated quest to winnow the truth from the confusing array of theories thrust upon him by disenfranchised paranoiacs. The novel continuously deconstructs its own plot as it develops; is the reader to regard Baragon as a reporter on the fringe of society, working against the system to find the elusive, hidden truth, like his television hero, the reporter in Kolchak: The Night Stalker (1974-1975), or as a paranoid slowly sliding into madness?
As the novel begins, Baragon had once been a respected investigative reporter, covering stories like the fall of the Berlin Wall and the student riots in Beijing. Over recent years, however, his status and reputation have faded as he has spent more and more time covering the “kook beat,” and at forty-two he has lost all ambition to further his career as a reporter. Instead, he regards his right to smoke at his desk—perhaps the last place he would be allowed to do so in New York—as the most important facet of his career. His lack of ambition and his interest in unverifiable stories like “Voodoo Curse Haunts Natural History Museum” have earned the enmity of his editor, Ed Montgomery.
Baragon’s reduced status becomes most clear after he interviews sequestered arsonist Abraham Campbell. Writing about his interview, Baragon concentrates on Campbell’s belief that ocean-dwelling “Seatopians” will soon be invading the surface world. Frustrated, Montgomery has twenty-three-year-old journalism school graduate Livingston Biddle rewrite the story; Baragon is not even given a byline. Instead of fighting for better stories, Baragon spends his nights at a neighborhood dive, getting drunk with his friend Emily Roschen, a pathologist for the city morgue, and calling his friend Eel to discuss their shared obsession with Japanese monster movies.
The reader learns that Baragon has had little taste for the world because it has never engaged or entertained him in the way that movies have:
When he was younger, the theaters were his cathedrals. Ornate ceilings, heavy velvet curtains rippling down the walls, the reverent hush as the lights began to dim. That first electric crackle of the sound system kicking in became his call to service, the warm smell of buttered popcorn his incense, the closing credits his benediction.
He never had close friends as a child because they would have interfered with the films that were so important to him.
Baragon’s cynicism and weariness with his occupation are revealed in his own first two rules of journalism, posted on a sign above his desk: “1) There are some stories that, for whatever reason, simply cannot be told,” and “2) Everyone’s a liar.” Baragon has so little faith in people or in the world at large that he sees the delusional people he speaks with daily as symptoms of the entire world’s malaise. Where once he might have tried to be a force for change, he now seems mostly to have given up. In the past, Baragon had justified his journalistic focus on the “kook beat” by arguing that he was the only reporter trying to give a voice to the eternally disenfranchised. Now his cynicism is so profound that he is not even sure he is helping such people so much as belittling them. In The Buzzing, however, he will find—or possibly create—a way to help them.
Baragon is weary of his stale life and sputtering career; he fails to be excited by a telephone conversation with a man named Nick Carter who believes that the entire state of Alaska is out to get him and that he had been spirited away to Point Barrow in Alaska. Before long, however, Baragon learns of a series of events that do not seem at first to have anything to do with one another. Emily tells him that a homeless man brought into the morgue has set off radiation detectors, which begs two questions: Why was he radioactive, and why does the morgue have radiation detectors? Baragon then learns that there are three earthquakes on the same day, and that two of them—one at Point Barrow and another at Kaneohe Bay, in Oahu, Hawaii—are on the same longitude line. His curiosity is pricked by the coincidence of the earthquake in Point Barrow, the same place Nick Carter told him he was taken.
Before long, Baragon learns that an orbiting space station—Biolab I—is going to fall from orbit into the ocean off the coast of Chile, where the third earthquake was. He also learns that there is some strange problem with a fungus on Biolab I that may have unforeseen repercussions when the space station splashes down. Two of his sources for strange stories—Natacia and Colonel Hans Heg—disappear, and he finds that each lives in a “flophouse” or slum apartment building owned by the same corporation, which also owns the building that houses the morgue. Baragon begins to think that it would be impossible for all these connecting events to be mere coincidence and becomes more and more invested in his sense that something momentous is about to occur. More important, Baragon seems to realize that this might be his chance to regain his sense of integrity, to prove himself yet again, to show that giving voice to the paranoiacs who people his world is a worthy endeavor.
Investigating the corporation that owns the flophouses Heg and Natacia lived in before vanishing, Baragon meets Antonio Dunham and his secretary and is struck by the fact that their office is incredibly overheated and humid and that both of them wear togas. They make strange references to “the gods,” and before long Baragon is convinced that Dunham and his corporation are actually representatives of the Seatopians feared by Campbell.
Baragon digs deeper and deeper into the conspiracy he has discovered and eventually suspects that, somehow, the movie Godzilla Versus Megalon (1976) could hold some of the answers to his dilemma. As the web of events surrounding Baragon is spun into more and more convoluted designs, the reader understands that Knipfel is commenting on the nature of modern, urban society. During his visit to the Seatopians, Baragon has to be “buzzed” first through one door and then another. From this buzzing the novel’s title is derived, and the metaphor of corporate suits separating themselves from the unwashed of humanity through a series of doors that open only at the whim of the empowered is integral to an understanding of the novel. No one actually worries about the Abraham Campbells and Nick Carters of the world. Society only becomes interested in someone like Campbell after he commits arson and in a homeless man like Raymond Martin after he becomes a radioactive corpse.
The joking platitude “It is not paranoia if they are really out to get you” takes on multiple meanings here. On the one hand, perhaps the various interlocking conspiracy theories collected by Baragon—and eventually believed by Baragon—are manifestations of simple paranoia. On the other hand, society and the various systems employed by it show very little tolerance for immigrants like Natacia, homeless men like Martin, and deranged veterans such as Campbell. If, in a sense, the world truly is out to get them, why not be paranoid?
The Buzzing has been reviewed both as a science-fiction novel in the vein of the works of Philip K. Dick, author of science-fiction classics Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? (1968) and The Man in the High Castle (1962), and as an almost clinical study of the descent into paranoia. The author aims for a purposeful ambiguity and seems to unfold two plot lines—the science fiction conspiracy and the tale of madness descending—simultaneously. Although it may be a mistake to do so, the reader is tempted to read The Buzzing allegorically. The approaching menace at the end of the book—whether it is a real-world Godzilla or a space-born Biolab I fungus—perhaps serves as a symbol for the Zeitgeist of modern American life. In the consuming need to develop or advance prosperity and material comforts, what is one to make of the people left by the wayside, destroyed by the Godzilla of the modern United States as it tramples over those unable to scamper away? Is one’s focus on constant information feeds and hard news a way of staying in touch or rather a way of categorizing events so that one may easily dismiss them?
Knipfel’s strengths throughout the novel are most manifest in his layered characterization of Baragon and the dialogue that does an admirable job of capturing the cadence and pitch of New York. Other characters are not as finely drawn as Baragon, and the plot does become a tangled web, albeit purposefully so. Knipfel’s casual, inside references to popular culture’s eccentric fringes contribute a level of nuance to the story and in some ways offer a key insight to Baragon’s personality: What are monster movies about more than saving the world?
Booklist 99, no. 12 (February 15, 2003): 1048-1049.
Kirkus Reviews 70, no. 23 (December 1, 2002): 1721.
Los Angeles Times, May 4, 2003, p. R14.
The New York Times Book Review, March 30, 2003, p. 21.
Publishers Weekly 249, no. 51 (December 23, 2002): 43.
Review of Contemporary Fiction 23, no. 2 (Summer, 2003): 141-142.