Evan Dara, The Easy Chain, Aurora, 2008.
«Evan Dara's The Easy Chain is quite clearly a mess of a novel, but it's the kind of mess Jackson Pollock would have been proud to make. Beneath the glut of unattributed dialogue, stream-of-consciousness from non-sentient entities (the wind? rocks?), philosophical digressions dressed down in colloquial language, and a bracing, almost-empty abyss lasting forty pages lies a very intricately crafted and grandly conceived postmodern novel. The book concerns Lincoln Selwyn, a young man of British nationality and Dutch upbringing who comes to America in search of Enlightenment education, flunks out, and ends up being propelled to the top of Chicago's social and economic ladder. The narration, mostly from those around Selwyn, freely travels from character to character and scene to scene in a way reminiscent of Gaddis's JR, and like that book, The Easy Chain is obsessed with the logic of American capitalism. Dara cheerfully scatters dot-com excesses throughout a heap of digressions that all somehow tie back to our economic order: they range from riffs on Descartes's cogito and Derridean differance to a recipe for "perpetual economic motion,' an original critique of truth, and a slapstick bar brawl worthy of Pynchon. Throughout, Dara's fresh language continually turns up gems: in his all-too-accurate vision of America, art's "sovereign goal" is (to update Pound) "make it news," our "economonoculture" leaves us to open invasive forms of finance, "psychoacoustic maladies" are on the rise, and, indeed, the miracle of America's economy is based on our inbred capacity for "arriving at the most expedient error". Although we've had to wait a decade and a half for this follow-up to the equally inventive The Lost Scrapbook, it's good to know that writers like Dara exist, capable of bravely carrying the flame of American postmodernism bequeathed by Pynchon et al.» - Scott Esposito
«When Evan Dara’s first novel, The Lost Scrapbook, was chosen in a national fiction competition judged by William Vollmann, then published by Fiction Collective Two in 1995, the only review in the mainstream press compared the book to William Gaddis’s famously ambitious and demanding debut, The Recognitions. I wrote that review. Now Dara is back with his JR, a novel of fragmentary dialogue and compulsive monologue about a nonentity who mysteriously achieves sudden wealth and power. I’m not deterred from making this comparison by Dara’s e-mail denial to me that he has read Gaddis’s first two novels. No, The Easy Chain is so difficult to describe, I’ll stick with my analogy.
Right about now, you may be wondering why a reviewer has been corresponding with an author. Initially, it was to ascertain just what Aurora, the new novel’s publisher, is. According to Dara, he and at least one other person founded the press after Dara was strung along and then disappointed by a commercial publisher. Second, it was to find out just who “Evan Dara” is. The author would reveal nothing beyond the pseudonym except that he or she lives in Paris. Not even the media-shy Gaddis was that secretive, but in today’s fiction market he, too, might have needed to self-publish both The Recognitions and JR.
I know bakeries that will sell half a loaf, but until books are wholly electronic and readers can demand only those parts some trusted reviewer has recommended, we’re at the mercy of the binder. That’s unfortunate, because the first half of The Easy Chain is a pitch-perfect satire of what a character calls “promosexuals,” young moneyed urbanites who get an erotic charge from promoting themselves at the daily round of receptions promoting products and companies. The scene is Chicago during the very recent past. Dara’s method is “recording” the chatter of unnamed receptioneers, who are often interrupted mid-effusion when the author points his microphone at someone else.
Gossip centers around Lincoln Selwyn, a British citizen who grew up in Holland, came to the University of Chicago in his early twenties, left in his freshman year, got a job as a clothing salesman, and very rapidly ascended through real estate, banking, and lobbying to become an über-promosexual—with no apparent qualifications other than listening to acquaintances and wearing clothes well. In an early scene, Lincoln dons a mirrored disco-ball mask, a perfect representation of his seeming hollowness and of his ability to reflect others’ smug images of themselves.
Dara gives Lincoln no voice, but he has a heart (he’s searching for an aunt who immigrated to America and then disappeared) and he has a cough, which leads him to a series of physicians who diagnose his malady as a somatic response to “skonk,” defined as exposure to social deceptions. The doctors’ increasingly technical and nearly believable pseudoscience extends Dara’s relatively familiar social satire into original intellectual parody. As Lincoln’s wealth and influence grow, he attracts skonksters promoting their crazed moneymaking schemes, giving Dara further license for inventive mockery of entrepreneurial imagination and desperation. Lincoln also attracts a publicist, a woman named Auran, who manages his social appearances, tries to choose his girlfriend “brand,” and even drives him around while he has sex in the backseat with an admirer.
After Auran is either accidentally struck by a taxi or steps in front of one, Lincoln abruptly disappears from Chicago. Dara signifies his absence with forty blank or near-blank pages, and the witty talkathon of the first half becomes a highly literary mess. Through ever-denser prose, the hardworking reader can attempt to trace Lincoln’s movements: to Holland, where he locates his now-homeless mother but does nothing for her; back to the Midwest, where he buys a gun and prepares for an assault on the Mercantile Exchange; and finally to the office of his former private investigator, who delivers a forty-page closing monologue about his life as he tries to stop, or at least delay, Lincoln from shooting him.
In this half, Dara frequently occupies Lincoln’s mind, but as our protagonist plans his terrorism, Dara breaks into short-lined, singsongy, and largely empty passages such as:
'Ties that bind & ties in line &
Ties unwind & ties remind &
Repetition repetition repetition repetition'
While the style here may be intended to imitate an obsessive-compulsive consciousness, Dara imposes a very long stretch of this loosey-goosey stuff just when the reader most needs a tight chain of motivation for mass murder. Even the marginally relevant interruptions of Lincoln’s narrative—the vulgar voices of investigators, the e-mails of a journalist tracking him, a lecture on water privatization, extended passages told from the point of view of a shoe and, I think, the wind—would be tolerable if the emotions driving the narrative were plausible.
The first half of The Easy Chain is unspoiled by the slackness and missing links of the second, but clearly, Dara would have profited from an editor. She or he could have pointed out that Gaddis won a National Book Award for JR when he reined in the high-art impulses of The Recognitions. Dara frees those impulses in the second half, perhaps to imply “No easy book for you, reader.” A character says that “the principal product of the West is self-hate.” Dara seems immune, but publishing one’s own book can be an act of self-sabotage, even while it’s a gesture of self-assertion. Because of Aurora’s exceedingly low profile, Dara may garner few readers. That would be too bad, because The Easy Chain and Dara, whoever he or she is, merit at least half a loaf.» - Tom LeClair
«Evan Dara’s sophomore novel, The Easy Chain, published thirteen years after his outstanding The Lost Scrapbook, is likely among the most bizarre novels published in 2008; however, it also must be among the most compulsively readable (and re-readable) of them. The novel centers around the rarely-seen Lincoln Selwyn, a British citizen from the Netherlands who lived in a “top-floor former storeroom in a tiny squat on the Westerstraat until he crashed collidingly into all squats’ primordial problem, the bathroom.” Selwyn arrives in Chicago and quickly rises to the status of rich and famous socialite, seemingly for no other reason than his good looks and charm. Then he disappears. As one mourning his absence notes: “What can I say? He just appeared one day and then, wow, after doing like miracles, he was plucked away, he was suddenly taken from us. I don’t mean to stretch, but it was like Jesus, it felt like that.”
It’s a standard enough plot for a novel, except readers familiar with The Lost Scrapbook will know going in that almost nothing about a Dara novel is standard—or easy. The magic of his writing and what he accomplishes through it is, despite its difficulty, obscurity, density, and abstractness, manifested in how mesmerizing, hypnotizing, and just plain readable Evan Dara is.
The Easy Chain is written as a melange of voices, some in dialogue with one another and some first-person; in these passages the writing is so immediate that even the non-dialogue expository passages seem like they might be narrated via first person, too. There’s an omniscience to all the writing in the book that doesn’t typically go hand-in-hand with so much dialogue.
There are four or five basic styles that Dara uses throughout the novel, and a description of these will give a clearer picture of the novel and how it works.
One of these could be described as The Lost Scrapbook style—lengthy set pieces that sometimes have no endings and that create a sense of uneasiness, despite their often pedestrian subject matter. (They, for instance, recall The Lost Scrapbook’s lawn mowing/yardwork scene, although The Easy Chain doesn’t contain nearly as many instances of scene-jumping or shifts in first-person narration mid-sentence). One standout from The Easy Chain is the story of Lincoln’s transit from a Dutch company that dredges rivers and waterways for metal objects to the University of Chicago. First, Dara narrates Lincoln’s job at the company. This lengthy story then leads to Lincoln finding, in a purse that is pulled from the water, an IOU from an English-language bookstore; this leads to his enrolling in and attending the University of Chicago, which leads to him getting very sick, etc. Each segment can almost stand alone, and the way in which each is written would indicate a forthcoming climax or resolution, but the payoff for each piece is merely that it leads into the next segment of Lincoln’s life.
When he lands in the United States, we’re treated to this:
'Blinking dry under the seven hours of jetlag, waiting for the two knapsacks at the spinaround carrousel, he greeted all the skipdoodle of the airport with the grand gesture of a sneezing fit. Plus gurgly coughing. Huge outflushes of gases and sputa, tears leaping from every backwhip. Good four minutes, he said. First time in the U.S., he’s saluting it with mucus.'
A second style found in The Easy Chain would encompass sections written from the point of view of inanimate objects. This is a speck of dirt:
'Hup on an untied sneaker-lace on the unattached chin-strap of a bike helmet in a cig cough and then tumble-shoved by a snorting SUV contrail on an upstream of belched evaporating raspberry Fresca jolted by a home-returning marker-cap and'
The dirt (of course) ends up on the anus of a dog (a “roan-brown chow”), where it remains until the dog defecates.
In a third style, a restaurant is forced out of business when new landlords impose a quadrupled rent; this triggers the economic collapse of the city, which is finally taken back by nature:
'So applaud us, hail us, worship us for this, that the awnings are gone and the carpet cushions are gone, and the Portland cement and photovoltaic collectors and interdendritic spaces in the steel-substrate coatings, and the sheet carpet and the bintley lintels and the roller shutter frontages and the lead paint encapsulants and the piling, gone, they are gone, we are to be worshipped for this.'
But it’s dialogue—mostly centered around how much the speakers love Lincoln (and occasionally the speakers segue into set pieces about harebrained business ventures, like a health-food buffet where you pay based on how much weight you gained while you were there)—that makes up the bulk of the first half of the book. It is full of bits like: “Zenkofsky’s is a benign dysfunction of the semanto-neurological system, thought to be triggered by exquisite sensitivity to social nuance...” and, “Six people killed in a bus accident is a tragedy; in a plane crash it’s a miracle” and, “It’s only gotten to the point where it’s easier for us to imagine the destruction of the world than the changing of our economic system—” and, “The guys with the big eyes think it up, then the guys with the little eyes take it over.” This will inevitably bring about comparisons to William Gaddis, though I think Joseph McElroy would be more apt for Dara’s use of science, the denseness of the prose, and his refusal to give the reader any sort of a helping hand through the text.
But like Gaddis, Dara’s work is littered with dozens of things that get brief mentions: schemes and ideologies, ideas and jokes that populate the world of the novel and that would not at all be out of place in ours. Dara’s imagination is such that many of the items would make great pieces for further satire and examination, but they are simply steamrolled by the increasing weight of the text as more and more threads accumulate. Things like: “promosexuals” who have “an erotic accord with the advertisement”; “expectatory therapy”; “paleo-optometry”; a man who wants to sue his mirror for slander; forensic musicology (“he found Proof! that the Rosenbergs were Fall-guys for Stravinsky!—absolutely, that StraVinsky was the culprit, that he was encoding nuclear secrets in his tone rows!”); a scheme cooked up by the Catholic church to pay whores to mock and humiliate their customers, thus discouraging the solicitation of prostitution; “autaganda,” which is “the propaganda we feed ourselves, all the suggestions and exhortations and judgments and secular beliefs—you see what I’m getting at—that we accept as original and true, indeed as coming from our innermost essence—unmediated, as it were, arriving from eternity, and delivered with Godlike authority by our inner PA.” With so much accumulating everywhere, the only thing to do is keep pushing through to see where it’s going, though in the end all of these things do seem to work together, forming a sort of mosaic through which the action of the book takes place, as if the narration happens through the ideas of the novel rather than exposition.
But there is more! Anyone who flips through The Easy Chain will no doubt notice the forty-one-page textless gap, as well as the sixty-page section that is written in verse. (Upon closer examination it appears to be narrated by an autistic girl, although in one of many instances of unanswered questions, the clues could point to numerous other possible interpretations.)
The second half of the novel—post-lacuna—is comprised of the following: Lincoln’s search for an aunt who moved to America; a young journalist named Tracey Kassner, who is trying to sell the story of Lincoln and the mystery of his disappearance to magazines and agents (and whom we only see through her emails to those people); the team of investigators on Lincoln’s trail looking to nail him for various crimes, most of which seem to involve credit card scams (and who speak in hilarious, overblown language: “then the miserable fuck meets his inevitable destiny in some black-dark sweat-cell somewhere, living like the crawlspace-scum he really is, eating like a beggar in Bangladesh”). But Lincoln’s real crimes come later.
I could go on, but I doubt that these first 1,500 words, or even another 1,500 words, will give the experience of reading an Evan Dara novel. For those few who are familiar with The Lost Scrapbook, The Easy Chain is very different—but it’s clearly written by the same author, and, like The Lost Scrapbook, even when one is thoroughly lost and totally confused, there’s such a power and variety to the writing that it’s quite possible to read along until things begin to again make sense. In this way both books are also quite quick reads, surprising given their length and high degree of difficulty.
Elsewhere in The Quarterly Conversation I have referred to The Lost Scrapbook as one of the best novels of the 1990s; The Easy Chain should be remembered as one of the best novels of the 2000s.» - Scott Bryan Wilson
«when william gass was working on THE TUNNEL–which took him twenty-six years to finish–i remember some wag quipping in some interview : yeah, and wouldn’t it be great if, when it came out, it was like, 120 pages. (and i remember thinking, “shit yeah! that would be great!”)
and also carol maso making a joke about how these boys kept writing their “Thousand-page novels, tens and tens of vollmanns—I mean volumes.“
these big, ambitious doorstops, in and out of fashion–usually written (and i’m betting usually read) by men (though i noted with interest vanessa place’s 600+ page recent entry into the race)… a galaxy of books created eons ago by maybe an imploding melville somehow i think still revolving around a sun probably named bellow, though now with a newly identified farout planet named bolano.
generally i’m not so into them. they manage their arcana and pyrotechnics with either gimmicks or, worse, plotty plots–big canvass, ensemble pieces where we need either to keep flipping back to some family tree or hand-drawn map or to some cleverly necessary endnote page. and there’s also a suspicion of greediness, certainly self-aggrandizing is wondered about, in the so demonstrated over-sized ambition. maso may indeed be right that these vanities among vanities are particularly vain. and, loud as they try to be, just saber rattlings, whistlings in the dark…
still i admired the hell out of THE LOST SCRAPBOOK partly because it does manage to balance its length with extreme readability and a decent amount of narrative velocity. it also more importantly isn’t particularly plot driven, and it’s run less by a machinery of gimmick than by an original technique of narrative splicing–a kind of collage work done in series, rather than in space. or another way: dara works a parataxis of narratives rather than that of phrases or sentences.
THE EASY CHAIN operates in similar fashion and, like THE LOST SCRAPBOOK, is a political novel, one made of principally two things: ideas–witty analysis of our inept and corrupt culture–and yarns. dara’s specialty is in fact the yarn, the almost wholesome tale, ending with a zinger or even a moral. on their own they would be nice bits of entertainment, strung together in series they make something else, at best it makes a convincing group portraiture of our rattled time… it’s a strange accomplishment, and the only one i could think to relate it to was the reaction had after watching linklater’s WAKING LIFE, where a series of undergraduate-y philosophical discussions, in aggregate, has the larger wallop of showing that we are a species of similar concerns, with similar self-designed thought experiments, and indeed similar fantasies.
it is a slightly lopsided novel–though i don’t think it’s at all the half loaf that one review had it. the first half has a better-defined gambit, which then disintegrates it’s not quite clear how effectively… its lead is a character who happens to be extremely charismatic. that’s his super-power–given without an origin story. and in the first half of the book we get to watch him wield this power against wealthier chicago. Lincoln “vaulted to the top of the city’s social hierarchy, slept with the majority of its first daughters and racked up an unimaginable fortune.” the second half of the novel then significantly drops the story of Lincoln, concerning itself only obliquely with him and his unexplained reversal. this half has some admittedly outrageous and not-always-successful gambits, including odd punctuation to denote voice stresses, a poor attempt at some kind of echo-affected poetry, and what i think was a long narrative from the POV of a piece of dust. i’m not sure. it gets a little wacky.
but there are really fantastic parts throughout, setpieces, yarns mostly, unsmug moral tales that show us both the hypocrisies and possibilities for hope in our consumerist endtimes. a fantastic one near the end about how a hippie food joint gets taken over and saved by a “one man Information Counterrevolution,” that is: a man of silence (324). another hilarious story concerns a pair of unsavvy buddhists trying to go into business (to practice right livelihood) and getting all kinds of screwed.
other idea riffs are almost equally engaging as his stories. a few eloquent rants about our advertising-based culture where dara defines terms–the “skonk” and “conicons”–needed to make it run; one extremely prescient bit about how markets reward response, not value (187); and here is dara on how progress has us lose sight of fundamental values, the big picture, in our driven chase to get granular:
“In the libraries, he had also seen the affinity between progress and reduction. Day after day, in one library after another, he had noticed the cadenzas of rapt attention played to minutiae, as larger concerns grew foggy with neglect. Increasing acuity of perception driving wider blindness, evident & necessary visions falling on eyes without feeling. It was evolutionary: to continue, to flourish & prosper, whittle yourself to the barest functional minimum, then pass this on. Again, reason has produced its flipside, history has worked its dull revenge”.» - Eugene Lim
Steve Russillo's Easy Chain Page
Evan Dara, The Lost Scrapbook, Fiction Collective 2, 1995.
«It may be the defining irony of our time: just as we are coming to recognize our shared destiny and necessary interdependence, our culture seems to be fracturing along every fault line available to it. The Lost Scrapbook is a novel that passionately captures the contradictory richness of our historical slot, a time when feelings of belonging and exclusion can do bitter battle. Conjuring an unforgettable variety of voices, the book delves into lives touched by this tension, before it culminates in a confrontation between a trusting city and the local manufacturing company that both sustains and betrays it. Through the use of a prismatic storytelling form, The Lost Scrapbook finds a contemporary answer to the 19th century novel, evoking an entire world in all its richness and diversity. But by embodying the sense that we can best understand our world through witnessing the interworkings of whole communities, it is also something altogether new: The Lost Scrapbook may be the first "holistic" novel.»
«This artfully disarrayed first novel reads like literary channel-surfing over a multitude of characters' first-person monologues and casual conversations. Dara flings a cacophony of voices at his reader in a passionately nonlinear novel whose elements-be they characters, themes or dotted plot lines-come together only in the culminating narrative of a chemical company's accident and cover-up in a small town. When creating voices and characters, Dara displays extended range with a cast that includes a pirate radio deejay tracing his own signal, a schizoid eco-hermit on a rant and a tobacco-industry spokesman retorting to unspoken questions. For great sea-like expanses of the book, the only connecting links are thin leitmotifs-e.g., references to music theory or a running variation on a casual joke. Then the detached voices finally merge with the chemical-disaster plot; and this most conventional portion of this unconventional novel disappoints since the final environmental catastrophe, though intended to unite the voices in endangered and complicit community, does not so much integrate Dara's voices as overwhelm them. Dara is a talent with a clear gift for voice-throwing-some of his extended passages of dialogue approach the virtuosity of William Gaddis in their ability to implicitly advance action and character without benefit of narrative exposition. But he still needs a sturdier novelistic structure-even if unconventional-in order to redeem his obsessive themes and anxious variations from all that exhilarating white noise.» - Publishers Weekly
«Dara's first book, The Lost Scrapbook is one of the few American novels of the 1990s that I find myself returning to again and again, and his utterly distinctive voice is on show again here.» - Dan Visel
«The first thing the reader of Evan Dara's The Lost Scrapbook sees are two mottoes: from Kierkegaard, "To honor every man, absolutely every man, is the truth"; and from Blake, "O let me teach you how to knit again / This scattered corn into one mutual sheaf, / These broken limbs again into one body." We are tuned in, then, to the need to respect the individual and the need to "knit" the individuals together as a community. The first motto, we might suggest, underscores Dara's practice of letting his characters speak; the second the fact thatone character speaking is not sufficient. What the characters share is speech. And so, speaking is the first way in which Dara's people are "knit again": indeed, one voice morphs into another. And we cannot always be sure when the switch has occurred. Thus, the second way the people are "knit again" is through content (i.e., shared concerns).
The book begins in dialogue form, although it seems to be an imagined dialogue. A nineteen-year-old is faced with the question of what he wants to be. (The other side of this dialogue represents a high school guidance counselor guidance counselor Child psychology A school worker trained to screen, evaluate and advise students on career and academic matters .) The youth resists the straits of a career choice. He is interested in many things and abhors the narrowing of interest into an occupation. (In terms of the range of interests, I must say that Dara presents us with an impressive range--from composer Harry Partch Harry Partch (June 24, 1901 – September 3, 1974) was an American composer and instrument builder. He was one of the first twentieth-century composers to work extensively and systematically with microtonal scales, writing much of his music for custom-made instruments he built to linguist/political activist Noam Chomsky Noun 1. Noam Chomsky - United States linguist whose theory of generative grammar redefined the field of linguistics (born 1928)
A. Noam Chomsky, Chomsky , from archeologist Richard Leakey to photographer Eadweard Muybridge, among many others.) But community must be made. Witness how few eligible voters register to vote. And not even the young are immune: the difficulties faced by the first character have led him to run away from home. Unfortunately, what this action teaches him is unpalatable: "Now my sole function in this world is to serve as receptacle for the proof that I am inconsequential." Only an eviscerated community could come from such realizations.
He may feel inconsequential, but he is hardly alone. Indeed, this character soon becomes another character, late for an appointment. The appointment becomes an opportunity to catch fireflies to be filmed later for a commercial. Thence thence
1. From that place; from there: flew to Helsinki and thence to Moscow.
2. From that circumstance or source; therefrom.
3. Archaic From that time; thenceforth. a return to Dave's house (one of the firefly-catchers), where Dave talks about his son Michael and his interest in drumming. And so on. And so on.
Indeed, what is most striking about Dara's ambitious novel is that the narrative voice keeps changing. One narrator NARRATOR. A pleader who draws narrs serviens narrator, a sergeant at law. Fleta, 1. 2, c. 37. Obsolete. gives way to another with few rhetorical clues and no outward flourish. This can be a little off-putting--to find the situation one has been immersed in suddenly jettisoned for another. Moreover, not all situations are likely to strike a reader as equally interesting. Still, once the reader learns that the narrative voice is constantly morphing, the practice should not throw her. After all, the morphing of voices is a daring way for Dara to involve the reader with his concerns for differences and community. We might recall Bruno Latour's point in his recent We Have Never Been Modern: "Reason today has more in common with a cable television network than with Platonic ideas." Perhaps that is why the model of channel-surfing comes so readily to mind.
Yet, rather than dispersal, there is a strong impulse toward gathering in Data. In other words Adv. 1. in other words - otherwise stated; "in other words, we are broke"
put differently , the channels should add up to something. We might take a clue from Dara's words on Chomsky and suggest that what The Lost Scrapbook attempts is the "reconstruct[ion of] the crystal"; putting the shards of community back together. Thus, if so many voices--voices that register their gender differences, age differences, political differences, etc.--are transmitted through a common source, the materiality MATERIALITY. That which is important; that which is not merely of form but of substance. 2. When a bill for discovery has been filed, for example, the defendant must answer every material fact which is charged in the bill, and the test in these cases seems to of that source augurs sharing. Still, one voice may directly oppose the views of another. Yet they are transmitted (if we may put it that way) over a common source.
Though there are many incidents in the book, the last hundred-plus pages are concerned with one principal event: the dumping of pollutants into the environment by Ozark Corporation. This provides an occasion for the views to differ--principally, as to whether the danger of pollution is as great as some think, and whether Ozark has been aware of the dangers. It is hard not to read the pollution of the environment as referring to the pollution of the communication environment as well as pollution of the ground of the community. As such, this pollution comes down to a binarization that blocks both communication and community. (In this way, The Lost Scrapbook can be seen as one of our more timely books, considering the recent budget stalemate in Washington, D.C.) To speak out against the corporation is to risk one's livelihood. To remain silent is to risk one's health. Given the entrenched positions, where else can we go but silence? "Yes this definitive reclamation, this grand extreme regathering and reclamation into silence, for where else could this go but silence, yes silence: silence. Silence," as the book ends.
And yet the end is perhaps not as important as the journey. For it is a journey into the individuality and commonality of people living in contemporary America. As such, it is a book raising significant questions for our day--and, one suspects, beyond.» - Bruce Campbell
«So-called “experimental” fiction is often criticized for various reasons by both critics and readers: that it is somehow inhuman (i.e. unfeeling, cold) or too difficult or that only a realistic conventional plot structure can maintain a reader’s interest. Evan Dara’s first novel (and here’s hoping that there will be a second one, so far, 9 years later, there is no sign) can be considered an “experimental novel” and is called so by a number of the reviews I found. The experiment is in the form, the structure, the organizing principle of the work. Tom LeClair in his overwhelmingly positive review from the Washington Post (June 9 1996) (the review that got me really interested in the book) states “The Lost Scrapbook is not really a novel.” I’d have to disagree with his statement: a novel is more than just a story organized around a plot, but I’m not here to argue it. The Lost Scrapbook makes the point on its own.
The novel begins with a one-sided dialogue that turns into a monologue by a teenager who refuses to decide on a career path. He or she (I’m undecided in the end on the gender of the first narrator but will use she hear, as I hear the voice as female without any real evidence) half runs away from home — I say “half” because she stays in the same town and even returns home, leaving behind some indication to her mother that she is still there — and walks around town, sleeps in the park, and listens to a walkman (John Cage on Muybridge). Thirteen pages in, as we are becoming accustomed to this narrative monologue about the teenager’s drift into social invisibility and disconnection, the landscape shifts. A car? A late appointment? Subtly, at first unbeknownst to us, the narrator of the monologue has changed. The walking teenager becomes a man in a car on the highway. He meets with another man who is catching fireflies and filming them, planning to overlap the image of one over many others to create a swarm (of one). The man tells our new narrator about his son and the drum kit he bought for him. The son left to live with his mother, and the man leaves the drum kit in the middle of the room as a reminder of absence. It’s a monologue contained within the monologue. The second man is also a musicologist studying Beethoven’s variations:
“Beethoven’s late interest in variations had less to do with exfoliating development or controlled tonal fields, as is traditionally taught, than with procedures in problem-solving; in other words, for Beethoven variations were a way, musically, of thinking something through, a kind of ongoing, Popperian method for testing a Thematic conjecture’s aspects and implications and points of weakness from different angles; in other words, variations, much like my brooding, represent excursions towards some kind of higher understanding, repeated graspings-at and circlings-in towards some central truth; but variations also illustrate the cliché that the truth remains, ultimately, indeterminable; that’s why all the fancy footwork of variations is necessary: we never actually get to what we’re after, to where all the gropings, all the variation-searching, would no longer be necessary, to that point where there would be no longer be music–to which I say, All the better!; for the late Beethoven, then, better the beauty of struggle and futility than the illusion of accomplishment; for as we struggle, he would seem to say, so we are beautiful;”
I quote here at length for two reasons: one, because this passage illustrates a strong thematic relation to the structure of the novel itself and two, because it illustrates the way each section of the novel contains a microcosmic relation to the novel’s macrocosmic structure. The novel consists of monologue variations from many narrators, and each one seems to illustrate a smaller thematic relation to the work as a whole. It’s these relations that hold the work together, not any plot structure.
The monologues blend into each other, often in such a way that it is impossible to really say at what point one begins and the other ends, yet each remains it’s own story (which lack beginnings or endings). The stories often involve loss and a search, connections and disconnections between people, presence and absence. An animator discusses the way the separate images of a cartoon are made to look like they are a single movement. A man remembers the bond formed with a lost friend over old radio programs. A woman walks door to door trying to discuss with people why they don’t vote (in this case the setting is the first Bush’s election).
The monologues go on and on, and then, somewhere in the last 160 or so pages the change in voices become more frequent, every paragraph or every sentence (always denoted by a new dash at the beginning of a new line), and a story forms. In the Missouri town of Isaura, the Ozark Chemical company employs a large number of townspeople and holds a particular sway in the area. Through the numerous voices we learn about the chemical spill that is discovered and the subsequent events that stretch over a few years: the cover-ups, the attempts at political action, government investigation, flight, but mostly, the anxiety, anger, and confusion of the people. The story itself is nothing new, but the way it is told in a symphony of voices makes it new. The chemical spill and its effects on the environment and the people foregrounds the connection and disconnection of everything around us: hidden connections, unwanted connections, and unacknowledged connections but also individuality, isolation, and lack of communication. To return to my original paragraph, The Lost Scrapbook is a “human” work, filled with characters and emotions, overflows with them even, and it is through the form and style of the novel that this is successful. There is no conventional narrator (whether of the third or first person) to tell us the story, but rather a proliferation of narrators that show us dozens of variations on struggle and beauty.» - madinkbeard.com
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