When I started reading Odsburg, the new novel by Matt Tompkins (Ooligan Press), the events it portrays seemed, well…odd.Today, though, we could all be in Odsburg. At the very least, it’s a worthwhile trip while you’re social distancing.
The novel is a study of the fictional town of Odsburg, Washington by the world’s first (and only) socio-anthropo-lingui-lore-ologist, Wallace Jenkins-Ross. Included in the study are excerpts from historical documents, transcribed interviews and conversations, wine-tasting menus, flyers advertising the Existential Doubters’ Nondenominational Discussion Hour, a cease-and-desist letter from the law firm representing OdsWellMore (the shady pharmaceutical developer headquartered in the town), an excerpt from a reading comprehension quiz, minutes from a public meeting, and a rejection letter from a male modeling agency, among other pieces of ephemera. Jenkins-Ross helpfully includes his field notes before each item.
If you haven’t guessed already, the book is very funny. Odsburg is a weird town where life is decidedly strange in some ways and entirely, utterly human in others. Consider the extract about “Karatechop HIrsch, 48, of Ridge Road (whose parents let him name himself on his third birthday)”.
But Odsburg has bite, too. Sometimes I laughed and sometimes I felt a barb hit particularly close to home. The various records in Jenkins-Ross’ study illuminate issues such as our dependence on prescription drugs, our healthcare system, social media addiction, forgiving the parents who disappoint us, our need to please others, beauty standards, substance abuse, and more.
One of my favorite “records,” and one that feels particularly relevant to our immediate moment, is “The World on Fire,” which was originally published in the Summer 2015 issue of the Little Patuxent Review. It’s a transcription of a field audio recording featuring Ben Jemison, a 29-year-old who, after getting LaserTek (“OdsWellMore’s budget-friendlier version of LASIK”), begins to see flames around everything. This was “definitely not part of the advertised experience,” but what Jemison goes through resonated deeply with me. He slips into “the snug wrapping of angst that was quickly becoming my new norm,” before suddenly being seized with panic and an urgent desire to seize the day (no word on whether that includes stocking up on toilet paper). If there’s a better description of life in 2020, I have yet to see it.
We are the storytelling species. We have a profound and basic need for narrative to be fulfilled, we must tell our stories and feel that others have heard them.
I enjoyed following the adventures and misadventures of Odsburg’s residents, as well as the absurdity of Jenkins-Ross. He tries so hard to be a model researcher — his field notes before each piece of ephemera outline his collection methods and any subjectivities he feels his readers should be aware of. Through these field notes, Tompkins pokes gentle fun at his protagonist. For instance, Jenkins-Ross notes that, to blend in, he “spent most of my time wearing soft flannel shirts, worn blue jeans, and hiking boots, all exceedingly comfortable, albeit quite different from my tweedy academic norm.”
But for all the effort that he puts into his study, and for all his utter commitment to his field, Jenkins-Ross clearly never quite “gets” it. He never connects the dots about what’s going on in Odsburg. As readers, we get the extra fun of connecting the dots for ourselves and watching Jenkins-Ross’ attempts.
The socio-anthropo-lingui-lore-ologist does have moments of surprising clarity, however. When asked to describe his profession, he explains, “Though the title is complicated, what I do is simple: I collect stories. Stories from ordinary, everyday people, just like you.” Isn’t that exactly what a writer does? It’s the stories of everyday people that tell us most about what it’s like to be human.
Jenkins-Ross goes on to say, “We are the storytelling species. We have a profound and basic need for narrative to be fulfilled, we must tell our stories and feel that others have heard them. And to be truly whole, we must also hear and absorb the stories of others. If we pay attention to those stories…they will speak to us in the most profound ways, and we will learn from them invaluable lessons.”
Readers already know this, of course, and sometimes I wished Tomplins would let me come to that conclusion without spelling it out so thoroughly. But the message is still a worthy one, and the journey to get there is still a fun one.