We first meet nerdy Jewish kid, Noam Metzenbaum, at a heavily multiracial urban high school where he takes solace in his books as star Black athletes monopolize the few pretty blond girls. While everyone else goes along to get along, Noam intensely resents the perverse social order he’s forced to live in. He dreams every day of a society that actually rewards people of culture and intellect with aristocratic status, money, and beautiful women. The people he sees receiving society’s best gifts in the real world are almost always the lowest IQ, the most brutish, the most crass and lewd.
Above the plebeian press of sweaty bodies, there’s just one towering modern figure Noam admires, a dissident version of Trump named Blackstone. Like Trump, normal people both high and low in society who benefit from the status quo instinctively loathe him.
After every humiliating day in his grinding reality of crushingly low incel status, Noam confides in his diary how even though he is an outcast, he knows he has a sort of greater vision that people who just want to be popular at school can never understand. This made me both laugh and reminisce. I can remember thinking a lot like Noam at his age. Adults would praise my bookish abilities yet their approval never turned into real advantages in life. To the contrary, anything the older generations encouraged was counterproductive to any sort of real-life success. So as with Noam, I experienced an extreme dissonance as I was despised for trying to develop my gifts and to be the best I could.
As it turned out, everything I had ever been taught was a lie and Noam finds himself trapped as I was, forced into visions of desperate grandiosity to shield himself from truths that are too harsh for sanity to bear.
Noam forms a crush on a blonde Jewish girl he once met who goes to another school. To his delight, he discovers he is transferring to Chadsworth Academy, the preppy private school she attends. Suddenly he has the chance to escape his daily grind, unite with his crush, and finally vindicate himself as a true Platonic aristocrat ubermensch(as anyone in the dissident sphere has probably dreamed of.)
Chadsworth, though, is full of Chads. They are handsome, athletic, with Dads who are big bankers and hedge fund managers. Yet in spite of these noble qualities they are as debased and lewd as the minority athletes Noam despised at his old school. Noam’s sense of betrayal reaches a new level. Before, he could tell himself he only had to escape the bottom of society. Now, he faces the fact that social order is in its sorry state because the whole hierarchy is rotten from top to bottom. If there had been a true nobility steering the ship, things would never have gotten so bad to begin with. Instead, the aristocracy snorts coke, listens to vulgar rappers, and finds time to virtue signal as society continues to fall apart.
Noam’s transition here again resonates with my own experience. As an incel bookworm myself in high school, I could still hope that maybe society as a whole was headed in the right overall direction. As George W. Bush came to power with his contrived Texan accent and thrust the nation into one pointless war after another on behalf of Lockheed Martin and Halliburton, my faith in the entire system went into freefall. The perversion I had experienced was no accident. Even the very highest and most powerful people in the world were insipid, mediocre tools and from them, waterfalls of venom rushed downward. When one is forced to conclude that they’re a majority of one against a fallen world, the dissident path can no longer be avoided. Though Noam’s pretensions to aristocratic ubermensch status are an obvious desperate coping mechanism that is often darkly humorous, it is difficult for the reader to avoid thinking “he’s not wrong.”
Noam is frustrated by the failure of the elite to show elite leadership. He is blocked from being with his one true crush just as surely as before. His disenchantment grows and he must find a way to solve his problems decisively. You’ll have to read the book to find out how.
As the story progresses, there are whole segments of it that I could only describe as pornographic with enormous amounts of all kinds of bodily fluids and bizarrely kinky behavior. Not my thing, but I saw the emphasis on non-penetrative sexual fetishes as a metaphor for our debauched sexual culture that somehow produces practically no offspring or families.
Moreover, Noam’s never-ending longing for his one true crush that he missed in high school despite the unlimited sexuality that surrounds him contains a poignant message about our culture.
We spend decades “dating” around, always wondering what it might have been like to be with that one high school crush and have a family. But the whole mendacious society rotten from top to bottom relentlessly pushed our young and idealistic selves away from the one thing that might have fulfilled us, continued the cycle of life, and sustained the ruling order’s and the culture’s mandate of heaven over us.
Rob Stark’s story makes good use of dissident symbols such as the various colored pills and the religion of Kek.
In one of my favorite scenes, students at Chadsworth Academy have a debate where they form into groups and represent political parties. The smarmy son of a Jewish millionaire and his JAP hangers on get assigned to the Dem establishment faction. The Chads have fun affecting fake southern accents as the establishment conservatives. The nerdy kid who’s just cool enough to be socially accepted speaks for the libertarian candidate no one cares about. Our protagonist, Noam, is the only one who stands up to speak for Blackstone, the Nietzschean dissident Trump figure. The exchange that follows is hilarious. What’s more, the Blackstone platform includes “smart socialism,” a phrase that may well be borrowed from my own blog. I find this sort of cross-pollination of ideas encouraging.
Another thing I would note, is the trend of almost everyone in the story calling out Noam as a virgin, with his Mom as almost the only exception. It’s so exaggerated that it started to remind me of the kid from a Christmas Story getting told “You’ll shoot your eye out!” every time he brings up his desire for a BB gun for Christmas. Almost all the Chad antagonists act like they could have walked right out of Back to the Future. This emphasizes where Noam is at in life as a vulnerable teenager approaching peak sexual frustration. I came to read Noam’s narration as semi-unreliable and it was amusing to try to filter the real world from his perception of it.
As the story reaches its later stages, this unreliability seems to be confirmed. But what should we expect from a story called “Vapor Island?”
Overall, this is perhaps the first novel I’ve read that I would place squarely within the dissident sphere and totally independent of the philosophy and tropes of the neo-liberal order. Despite the strange fetishes that take up quite a bit of this story, I found it to be a poignant parable of growing up as a majority of one in a deranged society where all anyone cares about is popularity, “networking,” and the top 25 pop songs.