Journey to Vapor Island
Having known artist Robert Stark for about two years (he is still the only person from the political edge-o-sphere that I have met in real life,) I was anxious to finally read his long awaited novel, Journey to Vapor Island. I was of course interested to see how he might creatively incorporate his many personal obsessions, social observations and utopian visions into the storyline. On these grounds, he certainly did not disappoint:
As they approach the Galleria, they drive under a giant pink neon archway which leads to a corridor lined with Roman columns and statues. Noam wonders what the location looks like at night and wants to further explore the architecture of the Galleria, but Harry explains that the entrance to the Erotic Emporium is VIP only.
Carlos jokes, “Noam, you’re still such a nerd. The only architecture I’ll be exploring is that of the male anatomy.”
Frequent listeners to his long running podcast will instantly recognize his favorite topics when they make cameo appearances in the book or manifest themselves as part of the underlying themes: architecture, city planning, neon, Alicia Silverstone, Pepe the frog, “Israeli-Aryanism,” blonde Jewish girls, aristocratic individualism, Leisure Suit Larry (I’m proud to say introduced him to this game,) Roger Blackstone, futurism, vaporwave, Sarah Michelle Gellar, new urbanism, etc.
Before I start this review, I just want to say that this book is not for anyone that is squeamish about sex, and that includes probably most people that make up the current crop of the “AltRight” (aka the SquareRight.) If you’re an uptight prude, NoFap weirdo, LARPy tradfag or just use the term “degeneracy” unironically, you will probably not enjoy this book. Then again, maybe you will pull a dark sense of humor out of your ass for a hot minute and enjoy it…but if you decide to read “Journey to Vapor Island” don’t say I didn’t warn you.
The sexual scenes in the book strike me as being akin to the “random battles” in old school Super Nintendo RPGs like Final Fantasy IV. It’s like when you’re walking across the overworld toward the next town, eager to see advance the story, and every few steps you take on the map, there is one of those annoying random battles. “Ugh, not another of these stupid Were-rats.” Even though the battles feel like tedious chores, they still serve a purpose as part of the journey, in terms of leveling up the characters and making you feel that much more accomplished when you finally reach the end of the game. So, though the sex scenes are sometimes graphic and painful to read through (they definitely don’t seem intended to be arousing,) at a certain point in the story you realize their significance as part of an overarching, satirical social commentary on contemporary society’s obsession with sex. Their presence is a reminder of how central sex is to people’s motivations, and the overall perception of status in society. Now, on to the review.
BIG SECRETS, HUGE SPOILERS AHEAD!
The story itself could probably best be described as a “not quite AltRight,” hypersexed and homoerotic (to put it mildly) adult variant of The Neverending Story. Journey to Vapor Island chronicles the misadventures of “Noam Metzembaum,” a precocious young Jewish man with a dirty mind and delusions of grandeur. Another central figure in the book (but one who never actually appears) is Roger Blackstone, a wealthy and controversial outsider political figure whose bold ideas and futuristic visions align with Noam’s. It would be easy to say that Blackstone represents a Trump-like figure, but it could just as easily be a Ross Perot or even Willy Wonka. Roger Blackstone is in the same vein as these types, but really his political theories and ideas bear very little to resemblance to Trump’s aside from the public’s hysterical perception of them being “fascist” and all the rest.
The “journey” begins with Noam as a socially inept yet intelligent student at a ghetto public school, where he is bullied and tormented by brutish minority students. He thinks so little of them, that he often refers to them in animalistic terms like “beasts.” When these minority thugs see Noam striking up a friendship with a nice black girl named Vanessa, they promptly beat him up.
Noam develops a crush on a wealthy blonde Jewish girl named Natalie Bloom while attending a bat mitzvah and convinces his mother to let him switch schools to attend the prestigious “Chadsworth Academy” (the book is peppered with these kinds of meme references) where Natalie is going to school. Noam’s mother is too poor to afford the tuition, but luckily he is able to obtain an academic scholarship. While at Chadsworth, Noam finds that the girls have no interest in him, and he once again finds himself being relentlessly humiliated and bullied, this time by the “Chads,” a group of handsome and stereotypical 80’s-style, Aryan looking jock assholes (although their dialogue often more closely resembles that of 90s wiggers). Stark seems unaware (or doesn’t care) that this archetype is itself a bit of a Jewish film invention…stemming from ethnic insecurity and resentment. Revenge of the Nerds (by Jeff ((Buhai)), The Legend of Billie Jean (produced by ((Rob Cohen)), written by Mark ((Rosenthal)) and Lawrence ((Konner)), Fast Times at Ridgemont High and Clueless (both directed by Amy ((Heckerling)), Just One of the Guys (written by Dennis Feldman and directed by Lisa Gottlieb), and The Karate Kid (written by Robert Mark ((Kamen)) are all quintessential examples of this. I still maintain a nostalgic fondness for these films, but understanding writers’ and artists’ subconscious motivations and insecurities allows one to view their work with a cold eye and limits their capacity for emotional manipulation.
Noam’s humiliation by the Chads seems limitless, and he comes off as such a pathetic figure he seems irredeemable. While reading the first third of the book I often just wished Noam would just put himself out of his misery and off himself. One of the highlights of the Chadsworth portion though is the scene where they conduct a mock debate in class. Several students roleplay as candidates from various political parties, with Noam assuming the role of Roger Blackstone. What’s remarkable about this scene is the way the characters authentically argue each side. There is no straw-manning here. The participants state their case almost exactly the way they would in real life. It is impressive the way Stark manages this level of objectivity in crafting this scene.
Noam’s conflict with the Chads comes to a head (literally) when they defile the girl he is in love with at a party. Enraged, Noam actually murders and beheads several of the Chads. He then burns down the entire house. For me, this is where the book begins to get more interesting.
After a bizarre trial and a sympathetic judge (Noam had noticed a Blackstone bumper sticker on the judge’s car,) Noam only ends up being sentenced to about 15 years. The book devotes very little to the time Noam actually spends locked up. It is treated as a dreamlike, abstract blur (this time utilizing the familiar “pill” memes.)
After Noam is released, he discovers the world has changed dramatically. Roger Blackstone is now in charge and has since implemented many of his visions for society. I won’t go into detail, but let’s just say the US has become a lot more retro-futuristic and sexually open minded. Much to Noam’s surprise, Noam also discovers that he himself has become viewed as a folk hero, with many people having been inspired by his manifesto. This is another part of the social commentary. Ahead of his time, Andy Warhol once remarked that even people like Charles Manson were considered “up there” in terms of celebrity status and stardom despite their fame arising from the perpetration of gruesome and heinous crimes. We now live in a world where spree shooters like Elliot Rodger have a substantial posthumous following and live on in memes. Twenty years after Columbine, Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold have their fans. Some of the fandom phenomenon is just teenagers being edgy, but the darker part is that on some level there are a great deal of people that sympathize and identify with their struggles (even if most people wouldn’t go as far as to throw a violent public temper tantrum and murder people.)
In Noam’s case, he had unquestionably genuine grievances, as he was the victim of not just basic bullying but sexual assaults and torture. Whether or not his level of retaliation was justified though is up for debate. Of course, it doesn’t take long for Noam to continue his violent acts once released. He brutally attacks an old bully he recognizes from his ghetto high school and castrates a well-known Israeli pick up artist that goes by the name of “Moosh” (hmmm I wonder who could have been the inspiration for that character.)
In any case, the story continues with Noam traveling to “Vapor Island,” where a movie is being made about his manifesto and life. Constructed by Blackstone’s company, Vapor Inc, the island is a futuristic, fantasy city with an eclectic mix of architectural styles, from Greco-Roman to Art Deco to 80’s neon. The movie about Noam’s life is being directed by Ari Meschel, a greedy and sleazy director/producer cast from the same mold of Harvey Weinstein (Stark also claims he actually did have Weinstein in mind while writing this, even before the allegations recently came out.)
As Noam explores, Noam begins to notice that everything on the island isn’t quite what it appears to be. It was at this point in the book that I began to appreciate what a work of genius “Journey to Vapor Island” is. A cohesive, overarching narrative begins to emerge in what I had initially written off as a chaotic product of Stark’s often juvenile and depraved imagination. Many of the attractions and destinations on the island turn out to be large scale business ventures, which are based upon the tragic events in Noam’s life and ideas from his journal. The shameless, opportunistic, economic exploitation and commodification of horrific crimes and personal tragedies may seem absurd in this context, but they are all too familiar. How
many films have been made and books been written about The Manson Family or the Zodiac Killer? You can buy Charles Manson coffee mugs and Elliot Rodger t-shirts. Journey to Vapor Island is stacked with plot developments that at first glance seem totally unrealistic and off the wall, yet upon closer inspection are just slightly exaggerated caricatures of genuine phenomena that can be observed all around us, in the world we live in today. This is what the book gets at, the commercialization of everything pure (or impure for that matter.) Noam is disgusted by the commercial exploitation of his journal entries and actions as a young man, which he felt came from a private and genuine place in his heart.
In a bizarre turn of events at The Erotic Emporium (my favorite scene) Noam receives a map, which he follows and eventually finds his way to meet a bizarre ancient civilization of frogmen that are secretly living beneath the island. Weird, huh?
Noam gets wind of the fact that Meschel’s plans to twist the meaning of Noam’s manifesto and completely misrepresent Noam’s actions in order to substitute Meschel’s own narrative. Noam determines that he must prevent Meschel from making the movie. After one lengthy final humiliating femdom ordeal at the hands of Meschel’s sadistic teenage daughter, everything culminates in a climactic (albeit brief) battle between the frogmen and Meschel’s security forces. The island is essentially destroyed.
I won’t give away the ending, but ultimately Noam has to decide whether to stay in a state of fantasy or return to the “real” world. Noam is told that the longer he stays in “Vapor” the more difficult it will be for him to return and function in the world. He has no idea whether his life will be as pathetic and humiliating as it was before if he returns, or whether his experiences will have improved/altered it in some way. He decides to return, and we can only speculate as to what is in store for him.
I did not expect much from Journey to Vapor Island when I began reading it, but I will say this, it is not a misleading title. I definitely felt like I had completed a journey when reading this thing, and like a classic SNES rpg game, when I finally got through it, I didn’t want the adventure to end. Journey to Vapor Island is one of the most creative, imaginative, and depraved books I’ve ever read. It is a true contemporary classic that is plugged in to all the ills and frills which make up the surreal world young people are trying (and usually failing) to navigate their way around.
Journey to Vapor Island
By Robert Stark