Review by Curtis Cole
Stoners, pot heads, weed enthusiasts… whatever you want to call them, the point is clear: there is a branch of society which enjoys cannabis. Indeed, they enjoy it so much that it becomes part of their identity. Enter, the Bob Marley super-fans, the Cheech and Chong groupies, and slightly spaced out college children who seem to forget that there is more to each than THC. But among the ‘legalize’ T-shirts and comedy films, there is the literature, and it is an odd-duck stew which can only be described as a variety hour of 80s inspired science-fiction and Left-centrist activism.
Or, at least it is in the pages of Travis Hill’s The Big Bhang.
The plot is easy to follow. Superstar weed grower Jeremy Jefferson Jacobs Jackson, but Forjay for short, is the undisputed champion of everything marijuana. Winning the international competition several decades in a row, he eventually retires only to be dragged into the limelight as an impromptu ambassador to the intergalactic community after Earth is placed on species probation for their violent, militaristic acts. His role? Convince the alien council to spare humanity from extinction at the hands of the Lill, super-powered alien beings who watch over the galaxy and will carry out the execution order should the galaxy-wide community deem humanity a threat to existence. Now, using the mellowing powers of his stellar ‘dope,’ he must convince the hostile races to look the other way and vote for the future excluding genocide.
Narrative wise, the tale takes some interesting, and unexpected, twists and turns. But, the above summary is the essential essence of the novel—Forjay competes in intergalactic competitions to rescue humanity’s warmongering hide from the slaughterhouse. Beyond as much, there is little to comment on other for the subtle dialectic between content and form.
What I mean by this is that, at brass tacks, The Big Bhang is an activist novel; in both its message (content) and its narratological and linguistic construction (form), it indulges in any literary device in order to reach its target audience. Each meld one another and shape the end product.
Throughout the course of the story, the reader notices a relaxed authorial tone. Full of colloquialisms and informal dialogue, the poetically minded will find little here to love. But this is not a bad thing. Such language connects to its audience; teenagers and young adults; the anti-corporate corporate drone, politically frustrated reformists (etc.). Positing alien beings as ‘stoners’ may appear an odd selection on the part of the author, but it enables a transcendental usurpation of semiotic and linguistic division and so fits in with the idea of the novel—that of weed providing a common space for the brainstorming of conflict resolution. Loosely governed grammar, punctuation, and logocentric conventions are, in this case, an instance of style, of form, conveying the underlying thinking (content) of the text.
Why is this so, you may ask? Simple: because society in the late capitalist age has made Populist connections impossible any other way. Mass media, social networking, propaganda and militarist ideology, poverty and the re-direction of class conflict into xenophobic manifestations… everything is dialed back several notches. Truth becomes an ill-conceived fantasy lost somewhere in the conspiracy theorists untruths which have, through a monstrous upswing in the antagonistic side of a contradiction, become the dominant truth. How are you to compete if not by your own sort of inclusion within this mass herd age? Of course, you cannot compete with the ruling class on their own ideological terms, they are too skilled, you have to use more nuanced measures; hence, the necessity of irony—you take the communicative cues of the intellectual strata of the comprador bourgeoisie (their rhetoric, talking points, and so on), and empower them with a playful ruin that stripes the elites of their respective mythos.
Hill’s text does this by that exchange between content and form. Whether it is the depiction of generals as blubberingly ignorant apes who only know the way of the bullet, or corporate leaders so incompetent in their jobs that any moment of actual labor results in more harm than good (to such an extent that video games were specifically designed to prevent them from ever actually interfering in the daily efforts of their underlings; a, perhaps, deflected form of so-called “Yellow Socialism”), what is seen is a constructed, stylized commentary honing-in on the absurdities of capitalist activity; the contents of the novel is but its form as inspired by contemporarily.
To take a different conceptualization of it, it is almost as though Oliver Stone’s cult favorite Natural Born Killers and the classic Cheech and Chong film Up in Smoke had a literary baby. The Big Bhang is that baby. Whether you see that as blasphemous, wonderful, or absurd; whether you can look past all the instance of ‘human nature’ and moralist undertones; whether you can overlook the equal parts idealistic and pessimistic sub-text, however, I will leave to you. But I will say this—it was a solid and a different read.
I enjoyed The Big Bhang more than the previous Hill text I reviewed, It’s Better this Way. Though not without its problems, what one gleans in this read is the enthusiasm of seeing the nation and its attitudes change vis-a-vis marijuana legalization. It is an upbeat, comedic, and often sassily intelligent narrative of the difficulty of change in an ultra-hostile and competitive universe. It is not likely to win any Nobel Peace Prizes or National Book awards, but, in its own way, plays its role just the same: it speaks. And at the end of the day, in an age where very little is spoke, that is enough.
The Big Bhang
358 pages. Published by Travis Hill. $2.99 (Kindle), $12.99 (Paperback). 2016.