Chris Eaton has created a novel based on his namesakes (and himself) found on the Internet

Chris Eaton, Chris Eaton, a Biography, Book Thug, 2013.

CHRIS EATON, A BIOGRAPHY is a novel that arises from the idea that we have all been driven, at some point, to Google ourselves. And if you did, what did you find? That there are people out there who seem to have something in common with you? Dates, places, interests? How coincidental are these connections? And what are the factors that define a human life? We are the sum of our stories: Anecdotal constructs. We remember moments in our pasts the way we remember television episodes. In pieces. And we realize that our own memories are no more valid in the construction of our identities than stories we've heard from others. CHRIS EATON, A BIOGRAPHY constructs a life by using, as building blocks, the lives of dozens of other people who share nothing more than a name, identities that blur into each other with the idea that, in the end, we all live the same life, deal with the same hopes and fears, experience the same joys and tragedies. Only the specifics are different. From birth to death and everything in between, the narratives we share bring us closer to a truth about what it means to be alive. To be you.

Everyone ego surfs. The act of putting one’s name into a search engine is a measure of self-worth—proof you are important enough to be carved out of the Internet’s chaos by way of a Google algorithm. Blessed with a common name, Chris Eaton (the New Brunswick-born author and musician who does a pretty trippy version of Justin Timberlake’s SexyBack) uses the lives of other very real Chris Eatons as narrative fodder for a novel about his many namesakes.
There’s Chris Eaton the politician, the maker of Star Wars figurines, the tortured experimental musician, the Cure-obsessed weird kid, the 18th-century orphan, the wrestler. Chris Eaton is gay, straight, male, female, dead, alive, an enduring success at life, an abject failure. They are tied together only by name and by Chris Eaton’s beautifully overstuffed prose.
Nabokov could write about his back porch and make it interesting; Chris Eaton does much the same with his fellow Chris Eatons. On Chris Eaton, the portrait artist: “He could not picture being the only one wearing a seat belt and Tony being tossed neatly out the window as the van did its first flip, as if God had just reached in and yanked him out like a tissue, couldn’t recall Conrad’s head striking the passenger headrest, his nose driven sideways across his face, snapping like one of those plastic cases that kept cassette tapes high enough to see in the stacks previously made for LPs, couldn’t even fathom the steering wheel meeting Phil’s ribs, driving them into his bladder and eventually causing an infection that would prevent him from having kids and ruin his first marriage.”

Nestled in these marvelous, car-crash-worthy run-ons are dead-stop morsels of succinctness: “Sports, especially televised sports, were the lotteries of the chronically poor, on that level of social strata that exists beneath hope.” Ahh. You don’t read Chris Eaton: A Biography so much as surrender yourself to Chris Eaton’s barrage of effortless digression. -

The Internet didn’t invent narcissism, but it has had the effect of amplifying already powerful cultural trends taking us in that direction. Social networking, after all, has nothing social about it, but just provides a way for us to spend more time alone. The Internet is a mirror in which we endlessly examine ourselves, analyzing not just our own identities but the way others see (and evaluate) us. Or, taking the metaphor of the network, the Internet is a web that always has us at the centre.
Who, for example, hasn’t Googled him or herself? And when we find all of our name’s secret sharers, haven’t we wondered if there might be some mystical connection between us and that legion of virtual avatars and digital selves peeking out from behind the Cloud?
Such a sense of connection is the inspiration for Chris Eaton’s Chris Eaton: A Biography. Notably, it is not an autobiography. Chris Eaton has little to do with the Chris Eaton who is a Canadian musician (recording as Rock Plaza Central), and currently one of this country’s best under-the-radar writers. Instead what we have here is a composite portrait of a number of Chris Eatons: men and women, gay and straight, young and old. After a while it becomes hard to tell some of them apart, but that’s the point. The life you’re reading about might be your own.
The book’s loosely biographical structure follows Chris Eaton (all of them) from cradle to grave. But Eaton (the author) isn’t interested in telling a story in the traditional way, unless the tradition you’re referring to is that of the experimental “new novel” or magic realism. Within those terms of reference one can recognize a number of familiar elements, as we are constantly being sidetracked into rambling lists, historical background, flashy displays of esoteric research, and complex digressions dealing with obscure (and often imaginary) subcultures and secret societies.
It’s information overload, and it poses the question of just how all of this information — and we are all bits of information now — adds up to a life: that is, something coherent and meaningful with a beginning, middle and end. Your Facebook and MySpace pages, your LinkedIn profile and Twitter account, your personal homepage and network of friends, your genealogy, cache of Google searches and other digital spoor . . . you can package all of this together into an identity that can be sold to advertisers, but the whole will be less than the sum of the parts, and has little relation to your life as you experience it.
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What is it about us that is un-Googleable and most real? Nothing that can be captured between the covers of a standard biography, but rather those spots of time and flights of the imagination that defy the dry realism of data. In rendering these, the author Chris Eaton, like the painter Chris Eaton (one of his subjects), has as his goal “not to depict just one moment in the life of a person, nor even the complete biography . . . but to capture life itself in its entirety.”
All of this may make Chris Eaton (the book) sound a bit high-minded and programmatic, but that’s not how it plays. In the first place, the writing is alive with an energetic use of language and wit. Eaton’s similes are a particular delight. Take, for example, this description of a young Chris Eaton learning to swim:
“He was just a child, a spastic three-year-old with wet towels for feet, head like an overgrown ape’s paw, his legs like welded bows, too fast for his body, so they just bounced up and down like the limbs of some delicate, drunken ostrich.”
That’s perfect, both at capturing in a jumble of discordant analogies how an awkward three-year-old moves, and how those movements feel.
What’s even more impressive, however, is the way Eaton puts heart into his personal brand of magic realism, a self-consciously literary genre all too often taken over by intellectual gamesmanship and superficial cleverness. One of the Chris Eatons we meet is an experimental musician who finds his work falling in-between the derivative pop platitudes that provide ear candy for the masses (“music for people who hated music”) and the “equally frustrating” efforts of the avant-garde “who seemed to praise so-called ingenuity, but at the expense of true beauty or feeling.”
This is the same, frankly non-commercial middle-ground Eaton’s fiction occupies: exciting and experimental writing with intelligence and soul. - Alex Good