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The Buzzing

by Jim Knipfel

(Vintage, $12.00, 260 pages, paperback; March 2003)

Here is a book that's potentially enormous fun but which, through flaccid, sloppy writing, cover scanpoor characterization and a general lack of coherent focus offers a major disappointment.

Roscoe Baragon was once a prominent investigative journalist, but now he's old, alcoholic and complacent. His previous achievements having brought him to the prestigious (well, sort of) newsroom of the New York Sentinel, he has gravitated towards what's popularly called the Kook Beat because reporting on the conspiracy theorists doesn't require him to get off his (literally) fat butt to go out and do any real journalism. He's the ear of choice for all the crazies of New York, of which there is no short supply; they fax, phone or e-mail him the wildest products of their own persecution complexes, and these he translates with minimal effort into "news" stories. The job is a matter of money for as near to nothing as Baragon can get it.

But then a cluster of conspiracy theories start making a sort of synergistic sense, especially when taken together with genuine news reports coming in from around the world of multiple earthquakes along a line associated with no known plate margin, of a Japanese fishing boat being struck by a US nuclear sub, and so on. His own best friend and not-quite-girlfriend, the seemingly equally alcoholic Emily, is something in forensics at the city morgue, and she leaks him the story of a drifter found strangled in a nearby park whose corpse, on arrival at the morgue, proved to be so radioactive, through and through, that he'd have died within hours had he not been strangled first.

All of this -- plus the contents of Godzilla vs Megalon (1973), one of the lesser of Toho's offerings -- Baragon weaves into the granddaddy of all conspiracy theories. It can be nothing more than lunatic ravings, of course, and so his editor spikes it and fires him; yet in The Buzzing's closing pages we find indications that Baragon is right...

Not the most original of plots, but no one would care about that if the conspiracy theories themselves were sufficiently imaginative, if the one-liners came fast, furious and witty, if there were a bizarre cast of larger-than-life characters, if the writing were full of flair or sophistication, or...

Instead the writing is clumsy and leaden. There are a few laugh-out-loud moments, but not many grins between them; one has the feeling of ploughing on through a prose wasteland hoping that someone will have dropped a rose by the path that hasn't had time to wither. Baragon is a reasonably drawn character, and possibly his hostile editor and one of the theorists, Nastacia, just about scrape the grade as well; but all the others, surprisingly including Emily, are mere names on the page. As for the conspiracy theories, surely a potentially rich lode for entertainment, these, save alone the one that Baragon himself painstaking constructs over the course of 200-plus pages, lack the fastidious complexity -- the careful plaiting of different data strands to produce a perfectly self-consistent tapestry of misinformation -- that is essential for the full fascination and delight of this quasi-literary form. One has the constant feeling that Knipfel hasn't bothered to do enough research to familiarize himself with the whole ethos of the conspiracy theory, and has assumed that just coming up with a few crazy notions will humour the reader.

Overall, this isn't an out-and-out bad book, and some of the descriptions of New York life are evocative; it's just that it's, well, all somewhat dull where it should sparkle.

Review by John Grant.

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