Stranger in a Strange Land

Kemble Scott's debut novel, SoMa, chronicles the city's seedier side

I'm sitting in the back car of BART on a Sunday night with debut novelist Kemble Scott, and we're looking for gay wankers. Also, we're here on BART to discuss Scott's sex-soaked new novel, SoMa. The final BART car plays a prominent role in part of the book as a place where certain guys meet to get off in the company of fellow public-transpo enthusiasts in the darkened Transbay Tube. So, it seemed appropriate to chat with Scott in BART's caboose.

The eye-opening chapter began as one of Scott's short stories, something he wrote after he'd heard anecdotal evidence about the practice. He was nearly laughed out of his workshop group, he told me, since he'd written the piece without ever once having set foot on BART. "I had all the details wrong," he admits. "The seats, the layout, the carpet." So for his next draft he had to bite the bullet and take an exploratory BART ride similar to ours, which actually did expose him to some transbay action. (We weren't, however, exposed to anything untoward during our interview.)

Like his main character Raphe, Kemble Scott (born Scott James) was once a wide-eyed newcomer to SOMA. He came here in the late '90s after working for years as a television news producer on the East Coast. After settling in, he eventually founded an online lit magazine. When he started the SoMa Literary Review, he didn't have any other contributors, so he wrote the entire first issue himself, using dozens of pseudonyms to make the mag look legit enough to attract other writers. In the meantime, the Kemble pen name stuck. I asked him, if as a journalist, he didn't think this was a bit dishonest. "Well, yes," he said, "but then the submissions started coming in." His publisher had him keep the Kemble pseudonym for the book since it had become more recognizable than his real name.

SoMa has popped up on the Chron's local best-sellers list and, somehow, the trashy tome (which features unwholesome activities like sex with catheters) has even been seen prominently displayed at our neighborhood Costco. Don't ask Scott's marketing people how it got in those bulk-goods stores, though. They don't know. "After I saw it in Costco, in these giant stacks next to Sidney Poitier and whatever other Oprah books, I called my sales rep and asked how it got there. She said they had no idea," Scott told me.

SoMais about, uh, SOMA, South of Market, skuzzy concrete paradise of junkies and techies. The immediately post-boom SOMA of SoMa's conjuring is a demimonde peopled by two-dimensional stereotypes. The main character, Raphe, is an impossibly naïve dot-com refugee at work on the Great American Novel, which (spoiler!) turns out to be a narrative of SOMA, a demimonde peopled by two-dimensional stereotypes. Raphe is unemployed, which affords him the time to procrastinate on his novel, ponder great books, and step guilelessly into the seedy underbelly of the neighborhood. Eventually, he indulges in cynical activities like drinking his own pee as a party trick.

I mentioned to Scott that I found Raphe's unshakable naïvete kind of unbelievable — can a person really live here for years and still be continually shocked by the weird shit their neighbors get up to? Apparently, they can — Scott, a Rhode Island native, says he himself is continually surprised by San Francisco and its many freaky denizens. "I think there's a lot of myself in Raphe," he replied.

For the first 70 pages the book is actually pretty entertaining, approximating the cringe-inducing appeal of the movie Showgirls. Like that film, SoMa desperately wants to scandalize us with graphic scenes of human depravity, but its neediness and failure to capture actual humanity end up taking center-stage, to comic effect. ("Tit pain lasts for months" is my new "I've had dog food.")

What tips the book from amusing to awful is that Scott's based-on-real-events underworld is hollowly reported and filled with implausibly shallow figures. It's very difficult to care about any of these characters as they churn through their various edgy pursuits — carjacking, high colonics, e-stim, novel writing— because they are ultimately just empty vehicles for Scott's dutiful catalogue of fucked-up modern activities.

Lauren and Jessica, for example, are two chicks from Concord (and graduates of Mills College, famous as a lesbian training ground, who improbably retain the air of total hayseeds) trolling SOMA's nighttime venues for meaningless sex with guys. They say dull things like, "Let's get out of this goddamn dump!" and "They only run this club one night a week. It's supposed to be the most bizarre in Frisco." Furthermore, "Who are you kidding, Aurora? You've had more ass than a public toilet seat!" is Scott's idea of snappy drag-queen banter.

Scott wants to be an authoritative, sensitive tour guide to the South of Market inferno, but he's clearly a tourist at his own landmarks — the Power Exchange, the back car of BART, HIV roulette parties, and virtual-reality sex. During our uneventful BART ride from 16th Street to Lake Merritt and back, Scott repeated several times that as a journalist and novelist, he's "interested in telling the stories we're not supposed to tell."

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