Review: Dogeaters by Jessica Hagedorn Print E-mail

dogeaters-cover-668x1024(Hungry Mind Review Number 14 May-June, 1990)

The Predestination of It All

In every society—ruled by tyrants or popularly elected leaders—there is often a corporate elite whose corruption and mean-spiritedness defy all justification for their influence, including the privilege of wealth. Such despotic rich people seem endemic to the Philippines, whether we recall the Marcos's recent reign or view the upper-class slime that oozes foully within Jessica Hagedorn's novel, Dogeaters. Here, the Filipino mafia is headed by the Gonzaga and Alacran families, who are "related by money," as the cynical Uncle Agustin Gonzaga says. At the top is Severo Alacran, owner of the conglomerate, "International Coconut Investments. Intercoco, for short." His brother and Freddie Gonzaga are titular Vice-Presidents, the best yes-men around, and everyone is friends with the President of the country and the First Lady. Since this is 1950s Philippines, we are a few years from Ferdinand and Imelda. But to make sure we know what's coming, the novel's First Lady, interviewed by a Western reporter, defends her extravagant shoe collection as okay on grounds that they're locally made.

"Our country belongs to women who easily shed tears and men who are ashamed to weep." To bedroll such a patriarchy, there are wives, girlfriends, not least of whom is the stunning, lint-headed actress, Lolita Luna, and two daughters: Pucha, the wild, social-climbing girl who eventually marries Boomboom Alacran for his name (and lives to regret it), and the sometimes narrator, Rio Gonzaga, who is remembering these people from her grown-up perspective, America in the 1980s.

The novel focuses on the social life that surrounds the growing military-corporate dictatorship in the Philippines. Such occupation is nothing new. The Philippines have been overrun by the Chinese, Japanese, Malayans, the Spanish, and, in 1896, the United States. Under the U.S. protectorate, the Philippines became independent in 1946. Yet colonialism lives on, we are to conclude from Hagedorn's work, in this junta of cutthroat males who live for weekend golf, fornicate with whomever they please, and, if not murder, then drive out the sensitive few to the West, Rio among them.

The story of the novel is less a story than a series of portraits of decadence, emphasizing how the corrupt train their progeny to follow them and demean others in the process. The novel focuses partly on how one character, Joey, is victimized by the ruling families. A homosexual hustler, a coke addict, a man very unaware of local politics, Joey works in the military bars of Manila and is himself the product of a hustle: his father was an African-American soldier and his mother, a whore. Joey is used by everyone as a contact to the underworld. Much trouble occurs because of his connections, especially after he witnesses the assassination of the liberal Senator Avila. His flight thru Manila forms one of the novel's more exciting episodes.

Hagedorn writes with a sardonic, hyper-critical tone, a masculinist, fevered voice. From Rio's point of view, here's a family snapshot of "the Gonzaga clan on a Saturday night. My bombastic Uncle Agustin goes on about the General, complaining endlessly about the day's golf game, the money he lost because Congressman Abad cheated and no one did anything about it. It's the same old story, every time Tito Agustin loses a game. He'd rather blame it on someone else than admit he's a shitty golfer. . . ."

Or, from Joey's point of view, an example of how he wants others to see him: "This old drunk fuck was telling me... 'HEY, little pretty black boy . . . ain't seen nothin' like you since I left Detroit....' He couldn't get over it, touched me when he got the chance. Did I have a daddy? Was my daddy an American? Shit, I laughed back at him, imitating his drawl: SHEE-IT, man, I said. Mocking him. You must be kidding! Man, I don't even have a mother. Laying it on real thick, so he'd feel sorry for me."

Although only two samples, they convey the self-loathing that permeates this novel, perhaps reflecting the poisoned dog meat these colonized Filipinos have had to swallow.

Hagedorn's polemical anti-novel novel is a tough, mean-tasting book that wants to be honest about political corruption but is so single-minded and narrow-voiced that it cannot. I want to say good things about such experimental fiction, its brashness, its descriptive energy, its deft portrait of Filipino life under Yankee cultural domination. But while I find much here craftily described (I sense more accuracy in the description than honesty) there is also much—too much—disengaging.

The novel begins with Rio recounting scenes from her chaperoned adolescence. She remembers the women around her aspiring only to swindle the powerful or marry them. Thru Rio's lens we see women under-valued and detested, by men and themselves. Rio too begins to fall into the same patterns of dreariness her female relatives endure, swooning over movie stars or their own husbands, symbiotic sources from whom these women refuel their neediness. Rio's cousin Pucha constantly practices her naivete as she sets out to marry wealth. After watching a Rock Hudson movie with Pucha, Rio says "A woman like Jane Wyman baffles Pucha. Why does she choose to drive her own car, when she can obviously afford a chauffeur? Pucha wants to know." A promising start: Rio is involved and questioning.

But then everything shifts away from Rio's curiosity. Episodes with limited action and bloated description start up, shut down; any momentum that gets moving is constantly arrested. We view Joey's sordid life, shifting irregularly between first and third person, past and present tense. Next we are shown a portrait of the waiter, duck-tailed Romeo Rosales, and his girlfriend, who wants marriage to liberate her from selling clothes in Alacran's department store, SPORTEX. Then we watch 18-year-old Baby Alacran elope with Pepe Carreon, who later becomes the chief torturer for the wicked General Ledesma. And, as we go, very little is connected, while other interruptions ensue. Quotes from the fictitious "Metro Manila Daily" appear about a fledgling political insurgency. A short speech by William McKinley on America's God-backed manifest destiny over Filipinos. A radio soap opera whose characters intermix with the novel's.

What began with concentration and purpose, now, like a motorized merry-go-round breaking apart at high speed, flings its horses to the wind, and nothing settles in to stabilize the story. I realize the writer is mirroring a fragmented society but what is the consciousness or conscience within the novel that judges it so? Don't these characters feel anything else than the need to bloody one another? What happened to Rio? Her growing sensitivity vanishes. Was she silenced by the decadence? Why? How? (Her tidy look-back from 1980s America hardly ties things together.) Even once the Right-hating, reform-minded Senator Avila is killed and his feisty daughter, Daisy, joins the guerrillas in the hills, we are offered only the simplest, most circular conclusion. The wicked will pay one day for their evil.

To Hagedorn's credit, the explosive shifts in point of view consistently dislocate any sense of individual responsibility. Corruption is always conspiratorial. But in a novel like Faulkner's As I Lay Dying, the multiple points of view follow one dominant action and reflect, in the I-centered needs of family members and neighbors, more psychological depth. Hagedorn's shifts neither lace the story together nor provide us with much else but impersonal, redundant sketches of decadence. Most everyone is a stock character. Easily recognizable props for a predictable plot. Nor is the sense of a purposely disjointed narrative rendered coherently. To experience time shifting from a past, that is present, to a future one, we need a unifying action--a context--to break away from and return to. Joyce organized Ulysses around Bloom's precise Dublin wanderings on one summer's day. Dogeaters needs a similar ground.

Some stability comes about in the political intrigue of the novel's second half. Here, though the collage style continues, the author wisely follows Joey—his affair with a German movie director and his half-crazed escape after witnessing Senator Avila's assassination. The narrative brings out his fear as he's living it, and we live it with him. But riddled with so many intrusions that tousle time and point of view, the overall sense of a consequent destiny limps along. With such authorial roadblocks Joey cannot find the center of doom in his life. And if he doesn't, we don't.

The novel is a sort of performance, which is what Hagedorn does besides writing. She is a performance artist in New York City, having presented her work at The Kitchen, among other places. Admirable, to try to make fiction performance-oriented. But here it seems to be fiction you sit in the presence of, as Virgil Thomson once said about minimalist music. Music like pictures. A gallery of autonomous portraits that show little causal significance or repercussions of choices made or left and develop only greater pictorial detail. Hagedorn pumps a lot of venom into these images of decay, and there's some remarkable diamond-in-the-ruff writing here. But alas, the predestination of it all, its agenda, draws out little concern for her characters' lives and, consequently, evokes little in me.