Addendum to Vaporfornia
Vaporfornia is available in paperback on Lulu.
“Highly offensive, wrong and laugh out loud hilarious - a perfect encapsulation of the cultural insanity holding California hostage in 2022”
-Bay Area Architect Adam Mayer on Vaporfornia
My new novel Vaporfornia is a surreal dark comedy that is the sequel to my first novel, Journey to Vapor Island. Vaporfornia has much of the surrealism, detailed aesthetic depictions, satire and outlandish humor of Journey to Vapor Island, which blogger Rick Houck described as “probably the trippiest book i've ever read. at one point i thought i was having some sort of fever dream.” However, the sequel is more introspective, with a sense of intimacy in how it deals with the protagonist’s inner dialogue and subconscious.
Vaporfornia is a coming of age story set in California. The narrative begins in the aftermath of the massacre committed by Noam Metzenbaum, the anti-hero of Journey to Vapor Island, with the massacre used as a refence point early on. The protagonist, Max von Mueller serves as the narrator and has many similar characteristics to Noam from the first book, such as alienation. Max may appear more conscientious on the surface but perhaps the two characters could be read as different avatars of the same archetype.
Max crosses paths with Noam and other characters from Journey to Vapor Island, and without giving away too many spoilers, these connections are revealed like peeling layers of an onion. Max becomes fascinated with Noam and the online subculture surrounding him which leads him down a dangerous rabbit hole that transforms his life through the adventure of a lifetime. Both novels capture the zeitgeists of their eras, 2017: the election of Trump for Journey to Vapor Island, while Vaporfornia encapsulates the current zeitgeist. Vaporfornia could take place on an alternative timeline or in the near future, which was intentionally vague when I wrote it.
Vaporfornia serves as a travelogue for California with graphic architectural and geographic depictions, with a wide range of locations including an urban tour of San Francisco, life in the affluent suburbs of the inland East Bay, including Walnut Creek where Max grows up and Mount Diablo, a daytrip to Santa Cruz, a move to Modesto, an abduction in the Sierras near Yosemite, a jaunt to Reno, and then a culmination with the glitz and glamour of Hollywood and Beverly Hills. The sense of place is important, and it is a fast paced narrative. Online personality Gio Pennacchietti described the writing style of my first book as a literary extension of Robert Stark’s visual art and Matt Pegas’ forward to Vaporfornia describes “Robert Stark—as much a painter with words as a novelist.”
The book is groundbreaking in as far as being a fiction novel about California’s social, cultural, political, demographic, urbanist, and class dynamics, complementing my articles about California issues. The story begins right after Max’s graduation from high school. He is still dealing with high school trauma but desperately clings on to hope for a bright future, even though he doesn’t have a clear path forward. More specifically, it tells the story of California’s White upper middle class demographic that is downwardly mobile. Being of that background in an increasingly woke environment in the Bay Area, Max has immense class and status anxiety. At the beginning of the novel, he is perhaps unconsciously suffering from the social reality of elite over-production, and some of his flirtation with the woke ideology of the elite is doubtlessly because of this. Even though he lives in a very desirable area, he can sense the decline of both society and his own socio-demographic group, and is unsure where he fits in with class and social hierarchies. Despite these anxieties and struggles to make his way in the world, Max clings onto his idealistic progressive principles that he was brought up with, from social pressure and a personal burden to be morally righteous.
Like the first novel, there are many references that satirize online subcultures, meme culture, and dissident political spheres. Max is initially drawn to the incel-sphere from a progressive standpoint, a naive aspiration that incels will help dismantle oppressive social hierarchies of privilege and oppression, under a progressive intersectional incel friendly framework. For instance woke and incel terminology are used interchangeably throughout his inner dialogue. However he realizes that that is forbidden and further questions where he stands in the intersectional hierarchy. He has reservations, both personal moral guilt and concerns about the social ramifications, and a sense of guilt that he is a transgressor against society. He has a few incidents that get him into trouble, and he builds up a sense of resentment against a society that he perceives as unjust.
He begins to further question his own privilege; whether he is an oppressor, or an ally to the oppressed within the intersectional hierarchy, or whether he is a victim, being screwed over by society, and that he should demand social justice for himself in a woke sense but also demand his birthright in a more rightist sense. He questions whether he deserves his lot in life based upon his intelligence and talents. He could be described by the gamma male archetype, one who is talented and intelligent but resentful about being low rung on the social hierarchy.
He comes to a realization that he has been deprived of a future, or rather that because of extreme social pressure he does not have the same opportunities that he might have had in the past. Which is just the essence of liberal capitalism, that one must make it in the world as an atomized individual, sink or swim. Even when very woke, he can subconsciously sense that there is something very wrong with society causing him to search for answers to the questions of life and a better understanding of his place in the world. He becomes intellectually curious about the darker baser side of human nature as well as illiberal and dissident politics.
Class is a major theme as far as the nature of hierarchies, questions of which traits are incentivized, and the idea of being part of a promethean caste of creators as empowering in contrast with just being from the downwardly mobile middle class or an alienated loner. Max also struggles with his relationship to his Whiteness, White privilege, and White society. He encapsulates the racial neurotic in that he struggles to find a healthy balance between the woke side and White guilt with more racist and misanthropic thoughts, as well as a realization that he is rational for wanting to look out for his own self-interest. I can assume very neurotic White liberals often alternate between rationalizing woke and racist thoughts. Since Max lacks meaningful connections with his peers, the symbolism of identity groups becomes more significant and the humor comes from his neurotic inner dialogues.
The events that happen to him throughout the book challenge his principles to evolve. In my initial draft, Max becomes a hardcore bigot, a sort of American History X in reverse, but I decided against that, as it would be too cliché and there is nuance to his political and philosophical transformation, just as society and politics is full of nuance and not one political narrative is 100% correct. How Max becomes “radicalized” is more by the exposure to the hypocrisy of society (insert buzzwords like neoliberalism, late stage capitalism) being extremely hierarchical and Social Darwinist while gaslighting him about his own privilege. However, he is not an egalitarian nor some color blind class reductionist. He, like upper middle class White Californians in general, differentiate between who and what are more desirable and he desires access to people, places, and things that he views as desirable based upon aesthetic components. His downward class mobility and mental state are what differentiate him from affluent White liberals in California who maintain face.
The book chronicles Max’s psychological process of going from woke to identitarian, while skipping color blindness altogether, a legitimate theme of woke culture racializing and tribalizing everything. He later finds a healthier balance in values and more constructive politics but that are linked to personal victories rather than just a moral epiphany. What motivates him politically is finding an identity politics that suits his personal material interests and psychosocial needs, while maintaining certain valid leftist principles. He realizes that all existing paradigms are flawed and that there is a need for a Third Way that transcends beyond liberal and reactionary sensibilities, in order to find solutions as far as a better way to live.
This new political framework is presented via the presidential campaign of the Promethean “Chad Centrist” Roger Blackstone, who plays a much bigger role than in the first novel. When I first wrote the character in 2017, he appeared quasi Trumpian, as a real estate mogul, but perhaps he could also be compared to Elon Musk or an Andrew Yang who doesn’t “cuck”. While Blackstone is hard to pigeonhole ideologically, his policies may appear as a self-satire of my dissident center views. The debate scene demonstrates Blackstone’s views in contrast with the other two candidates, a woke neoliberal and a lackluster conservative.
Throughout the book, both Max’s and Blackstone’s perspectives evolve as Max embraces Blackstone’s campaign for both the aesthetics and urbanist visions, as well as policies that benefit his personal interests. Max is initially attracted to Blackstone’s politics of increasing access to beauty from an egalitarian standpoint. A belief that aesthetics are a human right for all rather than beauty as hierarchical or a luxury reserved for the rich. This is especially pertinent to California’s stark physical segregation, such as in exclusive gated communities, elite private high schools, and exclusive resorts and swim clubs. At first Max is uncomfortable with Blackstone’s unconventional and illiberal remedies for these inequalities that include looks-based eugenics. However, Blackstone is latter able to modify the more “fashy” aspects of his campaign by putting forth a more progressive and palatable message.
The essence of Blackstone’s campaign is the “true freedom” principle, that freedom is not simply freedom from government regulation but rather Blackstone’s message of “vote for me and I’ll make the kind of society you want to live in into a reality.” It is the politics of aesthetics of creating a clear vision of the kind of society that one wants to live but also that we can compromise without sacrifice via specialization based policy approaches. The question is whether “true freedom” can be implemented politically and at first Max has some skepticism that it is just another marketing scheme or a real estate gimmick for Blackstone to profit off of every potential market (eg. theme parks) or the illusion of freedom presented by consumerism. However, Max realizes that “True Freedom” is something to fight for, rather than accepting easy escapist substitutes such as porn, video games, and virtual reality.
On a similar note, incels are pandered to by Blackstone as a voting bloc, the subculture is co-opted by the popular crowd, and they also become a profitable Hollywood market to cater to with comparisons to Joker, and culminating with the sketch comedy TV show, “Max’s Aesthetic World,” which could be compared to Sam Hyde’s Million Dollar Extreme but much more sick and twisted, and linked to shady elite blackmail rings, deepfake technology, and perhaps nefarious political motives. Making a return appearance to direct the show is the sleazy, Harvey Weinsteinesque director, Ari Meschel, who is a cynical liberal, struggling to adapt to the new woke Hollywood and #MeToo.
The book is especially relevant to current social trends as far as being in an era of transition and that an uncertain future awaits. Max has anxieties about the future, both personal and societal, that are especially relevant to current events. For instance the neoliberal presidential candidate is proposing a draconian surveillance state to target dissidents and social outcasts, including a social credit system. There is also a release of a VR program, as an attempt to pacify the masses (eg. eating soylent and living in the pod meme), which I wrote before the release of the Metaverse. Other themes include transhumanism, surveillance technology such as biometric IDs, automation, and parapsychology, such as telepathy.
Another major theme is the lost dreams that one had in youth, that haunt many in their subconscious, which is encapsulated by the term "Saudade" in the Portuguese culture. It is not just longing for something or someone, but rather a longing for what could have been, in a near hypnagogic state. While the protagonist is a zoomer, I think this theme relates more to the midlife crisis of geriatric millennials: that sense that life passes one by the moment it hits; that moment when the dreams one had in youth are crushed, and they reflect upon what life could have been, the missed opportunities, and how it is too late to go back and fix them. Vaporfornia could even be interpreted as a fantasy of an alternative life path, a redo, from that moment in youth when one still had a chance to achieve their life dreams. The book deals with this theme in a very surreal and metaphysical manner.
There is this failure to meet Eric Erickson’s psychosocial stages of life, a sort of Peter Pan Syndrome , or arrested development, where one is trapped in a permanent adolescence well into adulthood, due to the impact of adolescent trauma on the psyche. This is encapsuled by what incels call the age pill and the infamous quote from the nightclub scene from Houellebecq’s Whatever, “forever orphaned by the young lovers you never had.” This applies to personal lost futures but also relates to society as well, the idea that lost futures exist on an alternative timeline, and nostalgia for past dreams rather than for the past itself, such as the meme of being nostalgic for a place that never existed. For instance the genres of hauntology and dead malls and Retrofuturism, such as the dissident right’s aspirational 80s inspired Fashwave. The presidential candidate Blackstone is selling the potential to reclaim these lost future both personally and politically.
Another allegory is the ethereal realm, “the Vapor” which is a reference to the vaporwave genre or vaporware, a marketing term for a product that is announced conceptually but never produced. The vapor is open to interpretation and could be a supernatural dimension, a celestial sphere, as far as a metaphysical entity where lost futures are trapped on a parallel plain. However, the Vapor could also symbolize being stuck in maladaptive daydreaming. The Vapor could be a realm where one can influence the world: a sort of gnostic ideal of communicating and influencing the subconscious and dreams of others, which could be a metaphorical allegory to understanding psychology to manipulate the media by changing others’ perception of reality, as explored by theorists such as Edward Bernays.
There are also comparisons to Aleister Crowley’s idea to perform certain occultist rituals, or tasks, in order to achieve certain objectives. However, it could be that each person has a built in code, an algorithm, that they need to hack into to do all the right things at the right stages, in order to assist the avatar on their journey through the labyrinth that is life, which is a more esoteric take on self-improvement but also comparisons to Timothy Leary’s take on using psychedelics to access the astral plane.
There are Kafkaesque allegories for gatekeeping mechanisms and algorithms that select for those who are chosen, granted that golden tickets to the good life, and those who are denied. Max has a paranoid sense of being targeted, and it is vague as to whether he is schizophrenic. He feels targeted, not just for not fitting in or being at odds with society but also because he has a sense that he has some great secret knowledge. Max’s visions and paranoid fears are vindicated as legitimate by shadowy powerful figures, selecting him, much like “this is the girl” in David Lynch’s Mulholland Drive.
One aspect of the book that some may find grotesque or off-putting, if they are prudish, is the urban legend about “The Seats,” which references a bdsm type fetish, but on an industrial scale, where the parties exploited are undesirables: nothing but cogs, and totally dehumanized and commodified. The initial concept was a parody of moral hysterias over urban legends, such as Oprah on rainbow parties in my adolescent years. However, they are also an analogy for the commodification and anonymous exploitation in capitalism, such as in third world sweatshop labor, and factory farming. It could also be an allegory for class oppression, hierarchies and systems of oppression that are masked, conspiratorial speculation about all the underbellies and hidden layers of society, and a metaphor of simping, as far as how people are willing to totally humiliate themselves, denigrate their own personhood and status to being a commodity, just for any sense of intimacy or for access to those of higher status, choosing degradation over total atomization. It works as social commentary on stark inequality precisely because it's so off-putingly illustrative of the indignities involved in neoliberalism.
Vaporfornia could be placed in the literary genre of alienated loners including Matt Pegas’ book Dragon Day, Andy Nowicki’s Columbine Pilgrim, the work of Michel Houellebecq, and even the cliché of Catcher in the Rye. Matt Pegas helped edit Vaporfornia, and we wrote our two books in collaboration as far as the themes overlapping. Clearly the protagonist is flawed and like with Dragon Day, it deals with a psychological study on the process of how a person becomes radicalized. In an interview Matt Pegas’ co-host Dan Baltic described Vaporfornia as part of the niche genre of the moving satire adventure story with comparisons to Voltaire’s Candide, Gulliver’s Travels, Confederacy of Dunces, William Burroughs’ Naked Lunch and Lucky Gim. Brandon Adamson described my first book as an adult oriented Never Ending Story, or Charlie and the Chocolate Factory. Besides the situational and dark humor, Dan Baltic described the humor as dramatic irony, even to the point of sometimes breaking the 4th wall.
I had some naysayers accusing my first book of being degenerate, mostly small minded Trad-right types on Twitter. It is not for the easily offended but I would be hesitant to put it in the genre of transgressive literature. It is not transgressive or shocking for the sake of shock value but transgressive as for far as ridiculing societal values and a lot of the bs. There is an element of being an equal opportunity offender as satire, a cliché in the vain of South Park, but there is also plenty of social commentary. A lot of political fiction is awful in that it relies upon a black and white moral world-view, which I was cautious to avoid when writing.
One does not have to agree with any particular politics to enjoy the book, I’d recommend the book for those interested in studying the psychological process of how someone gets taken in by online subcultures and cultural anthropologists interested in studying online culture with an open mind. My final pitch is that it serves as a travelogue to California, and that it is great for those who enjoy ironic humor and dark comedy. Author and literary critic, Ben Arzate, said that my first book was “one of the funniest books” he has ever read. Vaporfornia is a journey you have to go on where you can expect the unexpected.