A review by Joey Madia
What a weird thirteen months it’s been for writers of dystopian fiction.
Between a pandemic whose origins are heavily debated; a fractured political system and radical electorate featuring the storming of the US Capitol, outcries of false-flag ops and conspiracy theories fueled by the mysterious Q; increasing evidence that social media is more Big Brother and psychologically/economically invasive than we feared; a sizable portion of the populace dependent on prescription drugs and illegal opioids and somewhat distrustful of a rushed-to-market vaccine; and the ongoing Cult of Trump, so-called Real Life has all the makings of what used to crawl with clicking nails and crooked limbs solely from dystopian writers’ minds.
So I spent a lot of time while reading Orange City—well… the entire time—whispering to myself… this could really happen… yes, it really could…
Which admittedly puts more weight on the quality of the writing.
No worries here: Goldberg is up to the task.
Like any genre writing, Orange City draws on plenty of established symbols and tropes and pays homages aplenty. To me, it’s value added.
Take the cover, designed by Christina Loraine, featuring a building shaped (fittingly) like a medicine bottle with an eye atop. Take your pick: Sauron’s tower, Barad-dûr; the optician’s eye on the billboard in The Great Gatsby; or the all-seeing eye prevalent in the ancient mystery religions and the architecture and symbolism of the Freemasons.
Here’s a tip: each one, on some level, applies.
From the opening moments, when we enter a world where a “gloved cellular let out a piercing ring. A timer turned on, ticking down with each buzz,” we know we’re in a postwar, tech-controlled world where most of the population is suppressed through a combination of forced poverty, designer drugs, and pervasive surveillance. All of the darkest decadences are in play, including Laughing Gas Lounges.
See what I mean by familiar? It’s all a matter of degrees…
The story takes place after The War to End All Wars, the inciting incident of most dire, dystopian visions. The City at the center of the story comprises Regions, which have Walled and other subregions (none of them appealing), and many of the characters are known by only a first initial, such as the first character we meet, E (think Kafka’s K or the aforementioned Q).
E, one of the Selected, takes a taxi to his job, where he has a meeting with the Man in the Eye Tower [a nice homage to Man in the High Tower, by Philip K. Dick—a master of “hey guys, here’s some fiction that actually isn’t, or won’t always be”] after rising “ninety-nine stories, [in] an elevator [that] rose through black translucent glass to a windowed office at the top in the shape of an eye.”
If a writer’s at their best when calling upon the Gods, Goldberg couldn’t do better than PKD.
Body mutilation and modification provide a good bit of the story’s dark intensity. Eyes and limbs are valuable commodities, both as a source of power and as bargaining chips in the dire, decadent business of Orange City.
And dire, decadent business abounds.
Think Queensrÿche’s rock opera Operation Mindcrime (without the young nun).
Without giving too much away, the descriptions of The Man remind me of an amalgamation of highly distorted Men in Black, the Internet tulpa named Slenderman, Tim Burton’s Jack Skellington, and Frank Miller’s Doc Oc.
The Man’s obsession with the lengthening of his limbs also recalls the Roaring Giant himself, Emeric Balasco, from Richard Matheson’s classic Hell House.
That’s a potent potpourri of the grotesquely bio-non-normal. What a man won’t do to make himself seem grand…
It’s here, as we get to know the players and how they can be leveraged with positions and dwellings within the City and more desirable spaces, that we learn the Big Brother–with-a-twist truth of it all:
It’s an advertising agency that truly runs this corroded carnival of a system, their aim to coerce the citizens into spending their Stipends on a variety of questionable-for-their-health-and-sanity products.
Once again we see the facts in all the fiction. Remember: Madison Avenue–style marketing was created by the nephew of Sigmund Freud…
Enter a character called Graham. At this point, E retreats to the role of secondary character and, world-building done, we journey with Graham inside it.
Graham’s job is testing new flavors of a product called Pow! Soda (think all the worst elements of Madison Avenue, Wall Street, the AMA, the FDA, the CDC, and the Military-Industrial-Intelligence Complex conspiring to create ingestibles).
The various flavors of soda allow the author to colorize this drab, dreary world. There are clubs called Citrus (featuring screwdrivers and tequila sunrises), Lime Lounge (gin rickeys and appletinis), Blue Moon (where the music is Miles Davis’s Kind of Blue), and Red (I had to smile when they ordered, of course, red rum in addition to the Blood Marys; Danny Torrance would be proud).
Red also has an additional homage, with its Lynchian velvet curtain situated at the end of a hall that leads to more halls, with additional red velvet curtains.
All I’ll say is, it’s kind of like living in a mood ring worn by a psychopath.
As we take the ride, clues abound that reality and dream are layered, manipulated, and intermixed—from a dream book a coworker reads to nightmares, alien-abductionesque operations, false memory tech, and increasingly interlocking waking–sleeping states.
By the halfway point I was right beside Graham, deep within the labyrinth, even more hungry for answers as to the exit because I, as a reader, have a better view and more control. I can walk away awhile. Take a break. Get my bearings. Or, if I choose to stay, I can linger my cursor long enough to ponder the clues the author so skillfully lays out.
Graham begins to figure out that something is way off, that he’s being used… While it might not be a shocker, the aftermath has plenty of twists and turns. I’ll leave it to you to find them.
In case you haven’t reached your threshold (I could certainly handle more), Orange City ends on a cliffhanger.
How much closer it will get to “our” reality, one can only take a breath, do a shot of something colorful, and guess.
Orange City is Lee Matthew Goldberg’s fourth novel. He’s a 2018 Prix du Polor nominee and writes for a number of prestigious journals. He’s the editor-in-chief and co-founder of Fringe, dedicated to publishing fiction that’s outside the box. His pilots and screenplays have been finalists in half a dozen contests, including Stage 32 (where I am a frequent blogger). Learn more at LeeMatthewGoldberg.com
TITLE: Orange City
AUTHOR: Lee Matthew Goldberg
PUBLISHER: Atmosphere Press