Synthetic Bi Products
by Sparrow L. Patterson
Sparrow L. Patterson’s debut novel, Synthetic Bi Products is an engrossing and disturbingly familiar first effort, especially if you’re of a certain age — that being the age group that the marketing gurus refer to as Generation X. The book follows the life of Orleigh, an unapologetically bisexual girl just out of high school who’s an uneasy mixture of tough and self-doubting, confused and determined. Starting in the dull suburbs of Chicago, her life takes unexpected twists and turns as she gets wrapped up in a whirlwind downward spiral of easy, promiscuous sex, drugs, and petty theft. She’s often so uncomfortable in her own skin that she doesn’t know what she wants — even when she finds her true love, Mark, they often bicker and seem unsure of each other, and Orleigh gets an (at times deserved) reputation as a bitch, but she still remains likeable, even vulnerable, and easy to identify with. As she continues to travel further down the spiral her life becomes, things get more complicated, and sadder. The outcome isn’t necessarily happy, and not everyone makes it out alive, but you’re left with a sense of resolution, with a sense that Orleigh has matured from her experiences, and that’s almost as good as you can expect. While things don’t necessarily work out the way you’d hope, they do work out realistically, and the reader gets the feeling that, having learned these hard lessons, Orleigh will be a stronger person for it.
Those of us that are rapidly approaching (or even just over) 30 will find Synthetic Bi Products very easy to get into and to relate to, as they’ve likely had some of the same experiences, have known people that are similar to the characters, and shared the same worldview. Adding to this feeling is Patterson’s brilliant use of pop culture — especially music — both as a signpost and as a point of commonality with her audience; though the time period is never overtly stated, it’s obvious enough from the reference points (heavy references to The Cure and Depeche Mode and the fact that Jerry Garcia is still alive make it obvious that the book can take place no later than the early ’90s), and the characters’ obsessions with these elements of pop culture make them ver easy to relate to. It’s something many authors try, but few do seamlessly; Patterson makes it work in the same way that Sean Carswell did in his brilliant Drinks For the Little Guy — both books sucked me in and made me care about the characters almost in spite of myself, because it was all to easy to see parts of myself, or of people I’ve been close to, in their characters. In short, I relate, for better or worse, and while Orleigh’s trials, tribulations, and misadventures are certainly wilder and more exaggerated than my own, frankly, they’re not by much.
If I have one criticism about the book, it’s that things sometimes seem to happen too fast — even with the book’s non-linear structure (the entire mid-section is a flashback), things seem to happen to Orleigh faster than she can handle, or than you’d expect — even when she’s going through such mundane events as babysitting and watching Charlie’s Angels reruns, there’s always something happening (and it’s usually quite loud, to cop a phrase). The more I think about it, though, the more I believe this is a strength. The entirety of the book is told in past tense, but the short epilogue is told in present tense, as though the bulk of the book is Orleigh’s memories of• well, to use a cliché, of coming-of-age. The rapid-fire nature of the depiction owes to memory — really, when summing up our lives, how much do we really remember the mundane parts? In our personal autobiographies, isn’t it all a melange of rapid-fire events and emotions, with only a vague sense of the amount of time between the events? It’s from this point of view that I believe Patterson is writing, and it’s a subtle but clever device.
At the book’s epilogue, Orleigh switches to narrating in present tense, and it’s as if she’s learned the hard lessons that so many of us of her age have also had to learn the hard way. She’s grown up, and is somehow both stronger and sadder for the experiences. Her look back is not through rose-colored glasses, despite the fact that it’s often wistful (and even sexy). She remembers all the pain, too, with an almost mercurial array of emotion. It’s real life, and it’s so disturbingly true that I wonder if it’s not at least semi-autobiographical. Synthetic Bi Products is a wonderful first effort, and has me anxiously awaiting Ms. Patterson’s next effort.
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