The Oregon Experiment by Keith Scribner features a professor of anarchy newly arrived in a small town in Oregon’s Willamette Valley, his wife the perfumer, a “sensuous free spirit called Sequoia” and a complicated anarchist. The review copy came with a sample of perfume called “The Oregon Experiment” by Yosh Han.
Could there be a better book for me to review? I like to read and I like perfume. Also, I’m a Portlander and live in a neighborhood so liberal that my Gore-Lieberman lawn sign was vandalized for not touting Nader. Sequoia is one of the more subtle hippie-girl names within a five-block radius of my house, which includes the fabled Peoples Co-op. Scribner, I’ll see your anarchist and raise you a freegan.
So, I opened The Oregon Experiment with relish. The novel is beautifully written — polished to a high shine, and full of lush turns of phrase. But in the end, it’s like an intricately carved chair of satiny wood that is too high to sit in, or only has three legs. It doesn’t fulfill its function. No matter how keen the description, the story and three of its four main characters failed to engage me.
In The Oregon Experiment, Scanlon Pratt, a professor teaching mass movement and domestic radicalism, gets a job in Douglas, a small Oregon town. He’s brought along his pregnant wife, Naomi, who quit her job in the fragrance industry because she lost her sense of smell after a car accident. Lucky for Pratt, Douglas has an active secessionist movement, although they’re not making much progress other than regular meetings and a potential home in an abandoned church building. When not crafting new scone recipes and running around the house barefoot, Sequoia is in charge of the movement. A few other people with more violent notions of anarchy hang at its fringe, throwing bricks through bank windows and torching SUVs. This is ripe ground for Pratt, who is pressured to publish something to save his academic career. At the same time, Naomi's ability to smell has returned and now she can begin to regain her independence and sense of self.
Scribner describes a small college town in western Oregon perfectly, from the cowboy-hatted, truck driving gentlemen with dogs in the passenger seat, to dread-locked white boys who brew their own kombucha. He paints a jam-packed setting, with strip malls, logging contests, crafts fairs, tract homes, unwashed bodies, and weather you can practically taste. He’s funny, too, especially when describing secondary characters, such as Pratt’s parents.
But I just couldn’t care about the story. Nothing compelling was at stake, so I didn’t care what the characters did. Pratt might lose his job if he doesn’t turn out a couple of good articles on anarchy. Big deal. The book makes it clear neither Pratt nor his wife wants to be in Douglas, anyway, and they plan to move as soon as they can. Pratt and Naomi’s marriage is threatened. Who cares? The reader never gets to see their real bond, their real happiness, so there's really nothing to lose. Some anarchist is planning to blow something up. I’m not attached enough to anything in the book — except maybe Pratt’s nudist, rum-and-coke drinking, RV-living dad — for the prospect to raise my pulse a heartbeat.
I might have cared more had I developed more sympathy for the main characters. It’s not clear why Pratt chose mass movements as his field of study. He only shows occasional sparks of real interest in it. He’s kind of a bumbler, too, getting stoned, unable to communicate with his wife, and at 39 still relying on infusions of cash from Naomi’s parents. Naomi is a definite cold fish. It’s rare she even smiles, and it’s not until deep into the book that she shows the type of unexpected kindness and understanding that helps a reader become attached to her. As for Sequoia, I don’t even need to describe her — you already know the type.
Clay, the anarchist, is the character that had resonance for me. He’s unexpected, caring and kind, yet cruel, and Scribner portrays him in a way that has kept him living for me beyond the novel’s last page.
One more note before we go on to perfume: The Oregon Experiment is heavily boob-focused. Breasts and breast feeding dominate the novel’s final two-thirds. The symbolism is not subtle. (Thinking about it now, I wonder why Knopf’s PR people didn’t send it to La Leche League instead of to us.)
Naomi is described as a Givaudon-Roure-trained nose with experience at Dior, Shiseido, Calvin Klein, and Manhattan Scents and who loves the fragrances of the 1920s, including Lanvin My Sin. Except for brief mentions of My Sin and Calvin Klein Obsession, there’s no perfume name dropping. That’s o.k. with me. Instead, we get lists of things Naomi likes to smell: apple mint, baked goods, ocean air, scalps like dandelions, hot tubs, the components of herbal tea. The reader quickly determines she has an acute sense of smell, but we get very little insight into fragrance composition or her ability to create. Except for one short bit where she’s working on her “Oregon” fragrance, we only know she can sniff like a bloodhound and identify what she smells. That’s like a painter being good at noticing and identifying colors. We have no sense of her artistry. In another minor, but telling, false step, on page one Naomi reflects on losing her sense of smell, “anosmia, the doctors called it.” She wouldn’t have needed anyone to tell her what anosmia is. She would have been using that word and identifying her own olfactory blind spots since week one of perfume school.
Which brings us to The Oregon Experiment, the fragrance. It smells nothing like the narcotic sophistication of My Sin. It’s a leafy, grassy green scent quickly enveloped by resinous pine, lavender, and cedar, and warmed by amber. In short, it smells like something Sequoia might have made at the aromatherapy shop.
I wish Scribner’s luxuriant and skillful writing hung on more compelling plot and characters. Maybe the next book. I’ll be waiting for it.