Like Jessica Hagedorn, I was born in the Philippines. Unlike her, I don't remember much. What I remember are photographs: My small self considering a water buffalo; jaybird˝naked in an inflatable pool; "helping" the cook make lumpia. My dream jungle is a slide show. These images have been augmented with darker ones from the news, but it is doubtful whether the new images bring me any closer to the real Philippines. Are such picture shows all we ever know of another country? A more dizzying question: Are they all we know of our own?
This question haunts Dream Jungle, Hagedorn's third novel. Since her first, the National Book Award˝nominated Dogeaters, the author has routinely mixed fiction and reality: Nearly recognizable figures from history shake hands with, fuck, or torture fictional characters; real newspaper articles are cut in with fake ones. This admixture is not the exclusive province, of course, of literature, though when it occurs in the pages of our newspapers we might call it lying. Two extraordinary examples of fictionalized fact made news in the Philippines in the '70s: the "discovery" of a Stone Age tribe called the Tasaday (in the novel, the Taobo) and the filming of Apocalypse Now (dubbed Napalm Sunset).
Some background: The Tasaday were discovered in 1971, living in caves, wielding stone tools, wearing leafy G˝strings, and bestowing grateful hugs on the rich playboy and, subsequently, cabinet member Elizalde who introduced them to the world. The Tasaday famously had no word for war. After a few photographers and movie stars had paid their respects to the tribe, Marcos declared their domain off˝limits, a sort of human Jurassic Park. Fifteen years later, after Marcos's downfall, a Swiss reporter found the caves deserted. A Tasaday in jeans slouched up and griped that he never got his paycheck. The whole affair was widely declared a hoax, orchestrated by Marcos to gussy up the Philippines' image in the Westˇthough a rumor persists that the cry of hoax was itself a hoax, backed by developers who wanted access to the Tasaday's reserve.
The spectacle of members of an impoverished, colonized culture playing primitives for a Western media audience brings us to Apocalypse Now. Coppola famously declared at Cannes that the movie was not about Vietnam, it was Vietnam, and certainly the war's themes were bizarrely reiterated in the filming. The radical slippage between fiction and fact was demonstrated every time the American˝made military helicopters, playing themselves, were called away from suppressing "Vietnamese" guerrillas in the "Vietnamese" jungle to suppress Philippine guerrillas in the Philippine jungle.
This is juicy stuff. Too juicy, perhaps: The most compelling material in this book is borrowed from recent history. Now, we are all copycatsˇwhat is genetic evolution but creative plagiarism?ˇand Hagedorn's work makes no pretense of purity but affects a second˝marriage motley, the knowing display of lost innocence and acquired habits. Her attack dog is a mutt, and, as everyone knows, mongrels are healthier than pedigreed dogs. But the historical material keeps stealing the scene. For instance, the fictional diary of Janet Pierceˇthe wife of the director of Napalm Sunsetˇpales beside her real˝life counterpart Eleanor Coppola's film diary, excerpted in the fine documentary Hearts of Darkness.
Wisely, Hagedorn focuses most of her attention on one side of the action, on the lives illuminated by this historical son et lumiŔre. Four main characters and many minor ones twine through the book, which takes a roughly chronological course from 1971 to 2000. We meet Zamora, the fictional equivalent of Elizalde; the actor Vince Moody, who is rescued out of imminent washed˝upness by the autocratic, visionary director Pierce; Paz Marlowe, an American˝based journalist; and Rizalina (Lina for short), the book's strongest connecting thread. The daughter of one of Zamora's housekeepers, she becomes an exotic dancer, then Moody's girlfriend, then a food server for the Napalm Sunset crew, getting by in the margins of the main events. As a child, Lina watched, enthralled, as old Tagalog movies flickered on the schoolhouse wall. The film collector who screened them gave an impromptu lecture before the show, introducing an image of specifically female (and Filipino) power: "Trumpets blare, heralding the arrival of superwoman Darna. Darna soars in the sky! Tan˝tarantan! Her silk cape billows behind her. . . . Darna flies above erupting volcanoes and raging rivers, over steamy jungles and modern cities. She lands splat! somewhere in a clearing, right on her feet!"
Lina, too, is good at landing on her feet. She is neither victim nor victor, just her own person, canny and stubborn. As a girl, she was warned against Zamora, but Lina takes her own counsel. Late one night, she visits his room. The moment of mutual curiosity that ensues is delicate; blame more heavy˝handed writers for my surprise when no blow fell.
Hagedorn has no taste for obvious villains. Zamora loves his "lost tribe," real or not. He needs to believe that Bodabil, the Taobo boy he befriends, is a true child of nature, even if he has to feed him his lines. About his staging of the Taobo spectacle, he confesses: "Shall I try to tell you how much fun it was? Fun. A blunt word, perfect in its brevity, the exactness of one's upper teeth lightly touching down on the lower lip, resulting in a soft, hissing airy phffff. . . sound. Phfffun. I taught Bodabil that English word and how to say it." All showmen are also members of the audience. And vice versa: Here everyone is part of the show, from two children staging a listless sex scene by kerosene lamplight in the cornfield where a disgusted Moody is taken one night, to Marcos massaging the world media.
Hagedorn's fascination with fakeness is reminiscent of Baudrillard's (whose Simulacra and Simulation discusses both the Tasaday and Apocalypse Now). But Hagedorn does not mourn the paradise lost of authenticity. She never fails to note the price of colonized people's conspicuous consumption of the American dream, but there is no missing her affection for their jerry˝rigged knockoffs of that ideal. Or the extent to which their practises of creative reuse shaped her own aesthetic. Like her earlier work, this novel is a montage. Storytelling is less emphasized than the tarnished sequins and spoiled silks, the polyglot trash, the tricks and treats of a hybridized culture. Hagedorn's is a scavenger's aesthetic, choosy but eclectic. There is no one voice, there are voices; no main character, but many; no plot, only the passage of time and the changes it brings.
The problems and pleasures of this approach are all bound up together. There is a slackness to Hagedorn's work when it falters. The undeniable dazzle occasionally wants urgency. She is very good at painting scenery. But there is little narrative drive. This lack of momentum may have a point: Maybe the real Philippines is found precisely where narrative breaks down, in the chinks and contradictions. Not in front of the camera but in the food tent, dishing out pancit to the extras. Not the stars but their wives, girlfriends, drug dealers. Perhaps every well˝made story is a hoax of sorts.
The '70s, as they mulled over the souring legacy of the '60s, were auditioning new dreams. The Philippines provided two. As the Vietnam of Coppola's epic, the jungle was the violent unconscious of the West, where the veneer of civilization peels off to reveal the murderer within. As the cradle of the Tasaday, it offered proof of an original innocence.
The world concocts these contradictory dreams to serve its own purposes. I hear a distant echo of Calvino's invisible cities in Hagedorn's title: Like them, this jungle is protean, responsive to rumor and the eye of the beholder. The problem is, some dreams have price tags. If Marianne Moore sought to present for inspection "imaginary gardens with real toads in them," Hagedorn presents imaginary jungles with real helicopters in them. This is, perhaps, still poetry of a sort, but you can die of it.
Telling good stories, Hagedorn implies, is of mortal importance. But it's fun, too. ("Phfffun.") At the end of the book, the Filipino director Pepito Ponce de Lenˇ "he of the hissy fits, big hips, stinky French cigarettes, and bushy ponytail," is making a movie with the "bitch queens of the worldˇMiss Bolivia Newton˝John, Miss Coastal Rica, Miss Arriba Aruba, Miss Nicaraguagua, Miss Natahiti, Miss Sri Langka, Miss Walang Malaysia, Miss Japantasya, Miss Puerto Ricopuno, Miss Grease, Miss Roast Turkey, and Miss Hungry." There'll be a big shark, the top half of a naked beauty (the other half is inside the shark), and lots of sex. Just another movie, but this one is Filipino˝made.
Shelley Jackson's story collection The Melancholy of Anatomy (Anchor) was published last year.