Sifting through the detritus of the celebrity obituary pages, where lives are reduced to a spoonful of lurid bullet points cooked and ready to be mainlined to a jonesing public, author Harold Jaffe’s latest collection “OD” synthesizes the duality of a culture both ravaged and repulsed by addiction to a potent condemnation of hypocrisy. His preferred delivery method for this much-needed cultural critique is a synthesis of journalism, pre-existing media and fiction he terms “docufiction.” Structurally, blurring fact and fiction reflects the book’s pervasive theme of perception versus reality — imbuing “OD” with a state of altered consciousness that would otherwise be lost if told through purely factual means. Jaffe, a professor of creative writing and literature at San Diego State, uses the 13 docufictions that comprise “OD” to depict controversial icons across the entertainment and artistic spectrum whose untimely deaths were drug-related and, in the process, confronts the way society reacts to addiction.
Whether recounting the sexual exploits of Marilyn Monroe to demonstrate the objectification that led to her destruction or dovetailing into a Kafka-esque exploration of artistic suffering, Jaffe’s prose remains taut and lucid across a myriad of genres and forms. The list of subjects selected for “OD,” including Jimi Hendrix, Aldous Huxley, Sigmund Freud and Edgar Allan Poe, is a catalog of the most important artists and thinkers of the last 150 years. The author also deftly weaves a cast of minor characters through the various docufictions against a backdrop of anti-communist, COINTELPRO operations that gives “OD” its cohesiveness.
In a subtle display of pop culture detournement, the author often uses the speculative language of tabloids to insert wild assertions regarding the circumstances of the celebrities’ deaths — drawing a parallel between the addictions that ended the lives of the subjects in the book with the TMZ-addled, consumerist addictions deemed socially acceptable.
With all due respect to the epigraph by philosopher and “OD” subject Walter Benjamin, the book’s declaration of purpose is best articulated by “Man of a Thousand Faces” Lon Chaney who states, “I wanted to remind people that the lowest types of humanity may have within them the capacity of supreme self-sacrifice.” Jaffe’s multifaceted writing illuminates the humanity of his subjects through a collage of interviews (both real and invented) and dialectics that encourages the reader to reconcile the life of these individuals with the celebrity status that generates the tabloid headlines.
“OD” is available online and in SDSU’s Bookstore.