This week, I’ve been consumed by the works of a pair of powerful storytellers, whose devotion to detail in chronicling their respective historical sagas is inspiring and daunting. The first is Lacy M. Johnson’s The Fallout, which covers the cover-up of the radioactive legacy of the Manhattan Project, much of which is sitting in the bottom of a poorly-controlled landfill near Earth City, Missouri, a corporate suburb on the shoulder of the Missouri River, along the western edge of St. Louis. What’s unique about this motley trove of nuclear waste is that it sits about a football field away from a separate landfill that is dealing with a subsurface smoldering event which continues to creep toward the radioactive refuse. The unanswerable question is what will happen when they collide.
However, Johnson doesn’t dwell on these hypotheticals, since the waste—a byproduct of the refinement process used by Mallinckodt back in the 1940s, when, at one point, it was churning out a ton (a literal ton) of uranium oxide every day—has gone on to poison communities wherever it has been stored. Starting with Lambert Airport in the 1940s and 50s, to a storage facility in North St. Louis County in the mid 60s, to the secretive transfer to this landfill in the early 70s, the slipshod way in which this material was stored, transferred, and buried is damnable. And at each stop, it has leaked out of barrel drums and leached its way into creeks and streams, blown onto ballfields, and mutated the chromosomes of the unfortunate and oblivious souls in its path.
The article patiently zooms in and out, so that you can meet some of the affected, some of whom are dealing with exceedingly rare diseases, while also trying to wrap your mind around the length of term surrounding our radioactive baggage:
Thorium and uranium in particular are among the radioactive primordial nuclides, radioactive elements that have existed in their current form since before Earth was formed, since before the formation of the solar system even, and will remain radioactive and toxic to life long after humans are gone. We’re sitting back in Kay’s dining room when she pulls out a tiny booklet labeled “Nuclear Wallet Cards.” What its intended purpose is, I don’t know, but Kay flips to the back to show me the half-life of Thorium 232: fourteen billion years, a half-life so long that by the time this element is safe for human exposure, the Appalachian Mountains will have eroded away, every ocean on Earth’s surface will have evaporated, Antarctica will be free of ice, and all the rings of Saturn will have decayed. Earth’s rotation will have slowed so much that days will have become twenty-five hours long, photosynthesis will have ceased, and multicellular life will have become a physical impossibility.
Reading this and seeing the cancer cluster it’s caused, my mind kept retreating back to The Lost Scrapbook, and the scenes in Isaura as the evidence mounts that its beloved hometown corporation, Ozark, has poisoned the groundwater with C56, which was one of the demonic toxins manufactured by Hooker Chemical for over twenty years. Readers of Evan Dara’s work tend to pull up the parallels to Love Canal, which was Hooker’s most notorious nightmare, but the C56 story played out in Montague, Michigan:
Warren Dobson, who had worked in the C56 operation, said Hooker employees had routinely dumped 55 gallon drums of C56 wastes on the ground, that some wastes had been poured from the drums directly onto the soil and killed the trees in an area called “Dead Lake,” that C56 vapors and liquids were routinely allowed to escape from the plant and employees were instructed to say it was “steam,” and that a supervisor once told him: “This isn’t a chocolate factory. We’ve got to make money.” Dobson said he had to tell the story because it was his “duty” as a Christian.
Incredibly, the state did not bother to check the barrels until six months later. When Department of Natural Resources agents found them in March, 1978, the company, according to one state official, “shrugged its shoulders. They said you people knew about this. It’s been here since the 1950s.”
It took several months for the full weight of the contamination to become clear. There was a 15 to 20 acre dumpsite filled with 15 years worth of drummed C56 waste. There was another 15-acre sludge lagoon where three million gallons of contaminated sediment had been dumped. More than 102 chemical compounds were eventually isolated in the waste-“a complete spectrum,” said the DNR’s Jim Truchan, “of all the worst chemicals we’ve got to deal with from the standpoint of environmental contamination.” The state tests showed that the entire plume of groundwater underneath the plant was severely contaminated and moving south, through the backyards of Blueberry Ridge, to White Lake.
Dara drew from dozens of similar examples, and knits Montague into the patchwork of afflicted communities listed on pages 474-475. The commonalities between these stories and the tale that Johnson tells are clear and frustratingly repetitive. The forces that spur cities and towns to court companies using tax breaks and regulatory relief are rooted in the now, yet they are sometimes left with problems that become too large to solve. In the case of St. Louis, the race for the atomic bomb during World War II placed blinders on the decision-makers, all of whom are now gone, immune from prosecution except by history for the disastrous decisions that will have to monitored and managed until the end of time.
Which brings me to Dan Carlin’s Hardcore History podcast, which found its way into my phone over the July 4th holiday. The current episode (he only releases a handful each year), entitled The Destroyer of Worlds, is a six-hour tour de force, offering a sweeping survey beginning with the early days of the atomic bomb and its use by “the haberdasher from Independence, Missouri,” up through the Cuban Missile Crisis and the standoff between Kennedy and Khrushchev. It serves as a baleful counterpoint to the long-term perspective of Johnson’s story, since you’re listening to men (almost entirely men) make decisions and operate under the condition that tomorrow may never come. Who cares if Thorium’s deadly half-life is 14 billion years if armageddon ends the human experiment next Thursday?
It is a heart-racing account which dwells on the stress that each president has had to deal with, laced with questions about whether we’re evolutionarily capable of adequately pondering the imponderable and consistently choosing to avoid annihilation. How can one make a decision about the fate of the world in 6 minutes?
As the brilliant songwriter Scott Miller once sang, “Decisions made too fast/Seem to be the ones that last.” While Carlin shows us how close we’ve come to not being here, Johnson lays out the price that people are paying for our collective refusal to come to terms with what’s been left behind in the process.
…I had Matthew tell the internist in his own words about the headaches he was having, how they seemed to float around the top of his head and also behind his forehead, and how they would get so bad that they made him nauseous, and about how his eyes sometimes felt like they were burning…and then, as Matthew was dressing, the Doctor asked me to come into his office; and there he told me that he couldn’t find any evident source for the disorders, so he was referring us to a specialist, a neurologist; and immediately, you know, immediately I said Well, you hear what they’re saying; I mean do you think this could have anything to do with the water?; and the Doctor, sitting in his own office, the Doctor said that he didn’t really know; so I said Well, don’t you have any opinion, any idea?; and the Doctor, sitting there in his own office, I mean a medical doctor in his own place, he said that he wasn’t terribly inclined to take risks with lawsuits, so he wouldn’t say so even if he knew—
The Lost Scrapbook, p. 423
Last month, I sketched out the case that Manuel Puig may have had more to do with the look and sound of Evan Dara’s novels than William Gaddis. But, while setting it up, I wrote that he had broken his silence on only one occasion, in swatting away Tom LeClair’s query about the influence of Gaddis, shortly after the publication of The Easy Chain. In fact, he responded to Steven Moore about this same topic in 2014, which Moore included in his expanded edition of William Gaddis. Here is the relevant excerpt from page 213:
“…Tom LeClair was right to bring up The Recognitions in his review of Evan Dara’s first novel, The Lost Scrapbook (1996), which, like his subsequent novels, has sheets of Gaddisian dialogue, though this is only coincidental.*
* “Asked about Gaddis’s possible influence, Dara told me that while working on The Lost Scrapbook he head that J R was a novel in dialogue and checked it out from The American Library in Paris: ‘Took the novel home, plunked it open, tapped it shut — didn’t want the influence’ (email January 19, 2014).”
Until Dara publishes his own Temple of Texts, we’re left to continue listening hard to trace the origins and chart the echoes of his voices, without the author’s hand on our shoulder.
After reading the accounts of the attendees of this year’s 4th annual David Foster Wallace Conference, held once again at Illinois State University, it’s clear that the state of the union of DFW studies is strong. The papers, presentations, and podcasts sowed more seeds for Wallace scholars to nurture, while the collision of conversations sparked and soldered bonds which provide sustenance for those lonely days and nights in the carrels.
The field of Evan Dara studies, on the other hand, doesn’t exactly qualify as a cottage industry yet. It has been twelve years since Jeremy Green published Late Postmodernism: American Fiction at the Millennium, which, up until now, has been the only text to offer an extensive analysis of The Lost Scrapbook. It’s a slim, decidedly non-encyclopedic volume, but it’s noteworthy that neither Wallace nor Pynchon appear, except in passing. Instead, Green offers readings of Philip Roth, John Barth, Franzen’s The Corrections, Carole Maso, Richard Powers (specifically Galatea 2.2), David Markson, Kathryn Davis’s Walking Tour, and Don DeLillo.
In the introduction, Green suggests a way of arranging the writers under consideration along a continuum of accessibility, breaking them into two camps of postmodernism:
Postmodern art, architecture, and literature can by analogy be described as “citra” and “ultra”: the citra-postmodern would be that artistic practice that returns from the radicalism of the high modernist moment to offer “the ornamental and more readily available”; the ultra-postmodern, on the other hand, would be a variety of practice that radicalizes modernism, often to the point of refusing “immediate intelligibility or sensuous gratification”….Late Postmodernism traces an arc from the citra-, particularly the fiction of Roth and Franzen, to the ultra-postmodern, best represented by Evan Dara’s challenging novel….It is a telling irony that Roth and Franzen, among the most pessimistic of the authors I address, have achieved recognition beyond the usual print-based venues of the literary public sphere….In contrast, Dara’s novel was published by a small press, and has received little recognition in any media, yet it remains an optimistic, even utopian work, because of its thoroughgoing commitment to critique and innovation.
Green picks up on numerous nuances of The Lost Scrapbook, which he covers in his final chapter, “Late Postmodernism and the Utopian Imagination.” He offers quite a bit to chew on, so I plan to revisit it here in the coming weeks. However, following its publication, few critics picked up the baton and carried it forward.
This is why it’s exciting to report that 2017—which has turned into a calamitous waking fever dream for those who are cursed by a thirst for news—brings us not one, but two significant titles that shine new light on Dara’s work. One is Emmett Stinson’s Satirizing Modernism: Aesthetic Autonomy, Romanticism, and the Avant-Garde (briefly previewed last month), which, for the first time, places The Easy Chain under the microscope.
The second is American Literature in Transition, 1990–2000, which is part of an ambitious series being rolled out in November by Cambridge University Press. They sagely tapped Stephen Burn to serve as editor for this pivotal decade:
Written in the shadow of the approaching millennium, American Literature in the 1990s was beset by bleak announcements of the end of books, the end of postmodernism, and even the end of literature. Yet as conservative critics marked the century’s twilight hours by launching elegies for the conventional canon, American writers proved the continuing vitality of their literature by reinvigorating inherited forms, by adopting and adapting emerging technologies to narrative ends, and by finding new voices that had remained outside that canon for too long. By reading nineties literature in a sequence of shifting contexts—from independent presses to the AIDs crisis; from angelology to virtual reality—American Literature in Transition, 1990-2000 provides the fullest map yet of the changing shape of a rich and diverse decade’s literary production. It offers new perspectives on the period’s well-known landmarks, Toni Morrison, Thomas Pynchon, David Foster Wallace, but also overdue recognition to writers such as Ana Castillo, Evan Dara, Steve Erickson, Carole Maso.
More details will be shared as they become available, but, according to Burn, he contributed a substantial piece on Dara.
While there are no Dara conferences on the horizon, I’m eager to see the ripple effect that these books have on current and future students, and the new readers they bring into the fold.
In the 22 years since Evan Dara published his first novel, he has granted no interviews nor provided any substantive insight regarding his background or his working methods. Except once (or twice). Following the release of The Easy Chain in 2008, the dean of postmodern literary critics, Tom LeClair, emailed him and asked about the influence of William Gaddis on his writing, specifically The Recognitions and JR. While LeClair wasn’t able to serve up a direct quote, he reports that Dara denied having read either book.
Without survey data to support this supposition, I don’t think current authors are as threatened by this question as Harold Bloom once theorized. When Lucas Thompson appeared on The Great Concavity, he derided the notion of the “anxiety of influence” as an outdated metaphor, a relic of a hyper-masculine framework which equated the acknowledgement of influence with a form of weakness. To admit that you were shaped by a contemporary was a sign that you were lacking in genius, which might invite the most dreaded of damning adjectives: derivative.
In his book Global Wallace, Thompson channeled his voluminous research on David Foster Wallace within the Harry Ransom Center into a compelling argument regarding the breadth of influences upon his writing, along with the notion that Wallace was both generous and candid when it came to crediting those who wormed their way into his consciousness.
Having spent weeks scouring the materials within the center’s inventory, Thompson was a natural person to ask whether there’s anything about Dara in the archive. However, he told me that he didn’t run across any mentions of Dara. “I could well have missed something, though, so it’s still a possibility, but I’m fairly sure there’s nothing (sadly) in the archive to corroborate the anecdotal evidence.”
But as he traced the evolution of Wallace’s style and his use of typographical tools such as dashes and ellipses—including the Q’s in Brief Interviews with Hideous Men and earlier incarnations in Infinite Jest and Girl with Curious Hair—he saw that Wallace had adopted some of these methods well before he encountered the work of Gaddis. He references the work of Wallace (and Dara) scholar Stephen Burn, who says the evidence suggests that “Wallace came to Gaddis’s fiction at a relatively late stage in his career, circa 1993.”
For those who believe that Gaddis has always exerted a strong gravitational pull since winning the National Book Award with JR, it’s worth noting that his rise to renewed relevance came in the summer of 1993, with Penguin’s reissue of The Recognitions (which features perhaps the most memorable of William Gass’s bar-setting introductions) and JR. Just looking at the tick-tock, we know that Wallace was already working on Infinite Jest, while Dara was surely hip deep into The Lost Scrapbook. It would have been difficult for either writer to ignore Gaddis’s presence after this point, especially following the release of A Frolic of His Own in 1994. But it’s quite plausible that he wasn’t even on their radar prior to this recrudescence.
So, if you were to rule out Gaddis as the most likely suspect in planting these dashes and ellipses in the heads of Dara and Wallace, who might we assign partial credit? In the case of Wallace, both Burn and Thompson point to the Argentine novelist, Manuel Puig, with Thompson concluding that he appropriated the stylistic device of including ellipses to indicate non-verbal reactions due to Puig, rather than Gaddis:
“Wallace used this particular form of punctuation to great effect in his first novel, The Broom of the System, though in later texts ellipses constitute one of his stylistic trademarks, appearing in almost all works from Infinite Jest through to The Pale King. And though the representation of such pauses resonates on some level with the way that Wittgenstein used ellipses—indeed, an early reviewer once scolded Wallace for relying on such ‘pseudo-Wittgensteinian’ techniques—it was clearly a homage to the Argentine author, with Wallace himself admitting in 1987 that ‘if the technique is a rip-off of anyone it’s of Manuel Puig.'”
Reading through Thompson’s work tracing the connections between Puig and Wallace, one could easily substitute Dara’s name. For example, Puig was a proponent of the dash to indicate speech or, in some cases, silence. Here’s a passage Thompson pulled from Puig’s Betrayed by Rita Hayworth, which was published in 1968:
Compare this with the section from The Lost Scrapbook where the tobacco industry spokesperson fields questions from a press gaggle, after reading a statement in response to a pair of significant courtroom wins in the summer of 1987:
Of course, Wallace pushed this device hardest in Brief Interviews with Hideous Men, where the questions of the therapist are represented simply by a Q. Dara has used this sparingly, and tends to allow the respondent within a conversation to vocalize their agreement or acknowledge the speaker. What’s interesting is that he and Puig use a similar tool to accomplish this, the “mmm.”
Here is a passage from Kiss of the Spider Woman:
Puig deploys mmm or mmm-hmm 36 times in the novel. Dara, on the other hand, clips one of the m’s in The Lost Scrapbook, inserting it 38 times. Here is a swatch from p. 303:
Wallace’s appreciation of Puig ran deep, and touched on attributes which are among Dara’s strengths (bolded for emphasis):
“But there were parts of it that were a rip-off of an Argentine writer named Manuel Puig, who is best known for the book that Kiss of the Spider Woman is based on. And most of his stuff is entirely in dialogue. One of my professors was also a playwright, and so that was a time when I was real excited by dialogue. I mean it’s straight dialogue without attribution, so the reader has to tell who is talking by difference cadences. That was fun.”
Following a recent episode of The Great Concavity, I was going to meditate upon some of the research that Lucas Thompson has offered in Global Wallace, which looks at the non-obvious influences upon David Foster Wallace, since there are clear connections with Evan Dara. But, to expand upon a particular point regarding Dara’s stylistic choices, I returned to page 1 (or p. 5) in The Lost Scrapbook, which contains the epigraphs. Here, in the first notes sounded in his debut, he includes a quote from Kierkegaard (“To honor every man, absolutely every man, is the truth.”) and a potentially misleading section of Marcus Andronicus’s speech near the end of Shakespeare’s pulp bloodbath, Titus Andronicus:
“O let me teach you how to knit again
This scattered corn into one mutual sheaf,
These broken limbs again into one body;”
Let’s start with Kierkegaard. On the surface, it is fairly anodyne, immune to controversy and resistant to meaningful reflection. You can almost hear the college sophomore slowly exhaling this after an inferior lobe tickling bong hit: “Yep, honoring every man, absolutely every man, mm-hmm, that is the truth.” It’s something suitable for stitching on an oversized pillow or engraving on a wall in a wayward boys academy, an oblique inspiration.
However, two things stand out here. The first is that the quote is but a fragment, from his autobiography The Point of View of My Work as an Author:
“To honor every man, absolutely every man, is the truth, and this is what it is to fear God and love one’s neighbor.”
We hear the echo of the Book of Matthew echoing the Book of Leviticus, and we’re left to wonder why Dara chopped it where he did, or if he considered using the book’s first ellipsis to surgically remove the religious signifier, which, even as I type it, is ridiculous to even suggest. But the idea of honoring every man being the way you love one’s neighbor is bubbling under the surface of the book, like the Hexa permeating Isaura’s water supply. There is a growing weight to this challenge, with populations bulging and communities falling asunder and/or fleeing.
Compounding the external conditions is the idea that the individual is falling inward, and slowly losing the skills to work within the framework of a community. To quote the old Ralph Chaplin union hymn, “Oh what force on earth could be weaker than the feeble strength of one.” For Kierkegaard, this is a fundamental tension, since part of achieving communion with God was through agonizing solitude.
For readers of The Lost Scrapbook, the undertones are probably obvious. But I’m not doctorally prepared to step much further into this philosophical minefield.
A second point about this quote is that it comes from a book that serves as an extended defense of Kierkegaard’s use of pseudonyms, which included Victor Eremita, Johannes Climacus, and Johannes de Silentio (recall that the final word in TLS is “Silence”). Here is part of his explanation:
“I will allow someone else to speak, my poet, who, when he comes, will usher me to the place among those who have suffered for an idea and say: ‘The martyrdom this author suffered can be described quite briefly in this way: He suffered being a genius in a market town….Yet also here in the world he found what he sought: ‘that single individual’; if no one else was that, he himself was and became that more and more.'”
Throughout his career, Kierkegaard drew names to carry particular points of view, especially those that were on opposite sides of various rhetorical divides, ranging from the Christian to the Hegelian. Perhaps Dara’s decision to operate under a pseudonym was inspired by this idea, assembling and cross-cutting all of these voices, letters, and inner monologues under an all-encompassing nom de plume (you could write a whole book on defining Dara). A natural hypothesis, lacking hard data.
In a play besotted with blood and buried in bodies, Dara rescues a hopeful phrase from a shellshocked oration, offered by Marcus Andronicus, one of two characters who somehow cross the finish line with life and limbs. For context, here are Marcus’s words, uttered moments after the murders of Titus and Saturninus, marking what looks to be a temporary ceasefire:
You sad-faced men, people and sons of Rome,
By uproar sever’d, like a flight of fowl
Scatter’d by winds and high tempestuous gusts,
O, let me teach you how to knit again
This scatter’d corn into one mutual sheaf,
These broken limbs again into one body;
Lest Rome herself be bane unto herself,
And she whom mighty kingdoms court’sy to,
Like a forlorn and desperate castaway,
Do shameful execution on herself.
The surrounding stanza casts the epigraph in an altered light, though it doesn’t pull the rug out from under it either. What’s interesting is that these words flow from a speaker who has neither the credibility nor the experience to convince anyone of his ability to foster renewal. Of course, coming at the end of this rollercoaster of necrophilia and violence, which might pair well with Pasolini’s Salo for a double feature of human desolation, this lovely metaphor in the service of propaganda might not even register with the punchdrunk audience.
In Croteau and Jean-Cooke’s Apocalyptic Shakespeare: essays on visions of chaos and revelation in recent film adaptations, the authors argue that:
“There is little in the play to suggest that Marcus, or anyone else, could do either the requisite knitting or teaching. For example, it is not clear at the end that Marcus has learned the play’s lessons: his images…presume that in the beginning was a primary unity that has been somehow ruptured. But Shakespeare takes great pains to suggest that such an originary unity was never really there and does nothing to suggest that Marcus possesses a vision of difference sufficiently comprehensive upon which to ground his instruction….Marcus’s offer of instruction seems more like a question: how can the numerous differences in the world of the play be resolved or reconciled? How can so many disparate things be unified, knit together in one “mutual sheaf”? Titus’s tragedy, and that of Rome, is that these questions were not responsibly dealt with from the outset.”
The adrenaline wave which carries the reader through the last hundred pages of The Lost Scrapbook deposits them on the shores of a multitude of toxic beaches (I was going to say Times Beach, which is an hour’s drive up I-44 from Crawford County (where Isaura is located), but that’s another story), where these same questions haunt us. The country’s originary unity is an illusion, and none of its questions have been responsibly dealt with.
Of course, this suggests another narrow view, the reading of a progressive who mainlined Chomsky in his day, seeking to align the idea of history’s arc bending toward justice within an equation where the timescale seems considerably wider:
“Where you will die I will die and Where are the new crusaders? but by then the signals were faint, the sounds and the signals were flickering and faint, yes, the signals were flickering out, flickering into the amassing regathering, into the conclusive regathering where physics becomes math become psychology becomes biology, yes flickering and lost to the definitive regathering, the comforting regathering into continuity, into continuousness, into abundance, into that abundance that is silently and invisibly working on every variation, into full and enfolding abundance, into the extreme abundance of silence, yes into its opulent abundance, its sweet unity and abundance…” (p.476)
Those epigraphs are neither ornamental nor simplistic. And they aren’t accidental. They could use further scrutiny. Many of the rewards of The Lost Scrapbook are found in the second, third, and fifteenth readings, sandwiched between Shakespeare and silence. It is certainly an opulent abundance.
Emmett Stinson’s new book, Satirizing Modernism: Aesthetic Autonomy, Romanticism, and the Avant-Garde, comes out in June, and appears to be the first major critical work to wrestle with Evan Dara’s The Easy Chain, along with Thomas Love Peacock’s Nightmare Abbey, Wyndham Lewis’s The Apes of God, William Gaddis’s The Recognitions, and Gilbert Sorrentino’s Imaginative Qualities of Actual Things.
In the concluding chapter, Stinson considers “how the notion of autonomy in avant-garde satires of the avant-garde is intimately linked to a set of political and social contexts that cannot be separated from the generic history of satire as a form.”
He argues that “this form of satire continues to exert a force on contemporary literature, through a reading of Evan Dara’s The Easy Chain, a novel that amplifies the apophatic tendencies of this satiric subgenre by making the avant-garde itself a palpable absence within the text. The negative presence of an autonomous avant-garde sharpens the book’s social critique, which has as one of its chief concerns the impossibility of asserting a modernist conception of autonomy under the material conditions of late capitalism.”
Stinson published one of the more perceptive reviews of the novel after it came out, so it will be interesting to see how his appreciation has deepened over time:
“Simply put, Evan Dara’s The Easy Chain is without a doubt, my favourite book that I’ve read in 2011, and in my (not very) humble opinion, Dara is the best-kept secret in all of contemporary American literature today. His highly conceptual but beautifully written novels compare favourably to the best work of William Gaddis (who also gets a passing mention in The Pale King), and I’d argue that readers who enjoy Wallace’s work would be doing themselves a disservice not to read Dara’s work. The only caution regarding The Easy Chain I might add is this: those who haven’t read Dara before might find that it’s best to start off by reading the slightly more accessible The Lost Scrapbook first to become accustomed to his style, but anyone who reads either book will discover perhaps the most interesting author writing in English today.”
Earlier this year, I happened upon the audiobook of William Gaddis’s JR, a 37-hour tour de force narrated by Nick Sullivan which is essential listening for anyone seeking a deeper appreciation of this prescient radio tower of Babel. While I don’t absorb enough audiobooks to provide a trustworthy opinion, it’s clear why this title is so highly regarded, even by those who had little or no prior exposure to Gaddis. Hearing the accents and tics of each character reduces a bit of the heavy cognitive load which the author places on the reader, allowing them to sit back and enjoy the music, and not simply stumble through the staves.
Inspired by this experience—and knowing that the prospects of any Evan Dara novel being transmuted into sound were currently infinitesimal at best—I decided to put my untrained larynx to the test and read a short excerpt from The Lost Scrapbook, pages 283-285, which I’ve titled “Counterevidence.” It is from the beginning of the letter from Robin, about her time with Noam Chomsky. The entire section, culminating in the trip to New York for a scheduled appearance on Face the Nation, is what sealed the deal for me regarding Dara, all those years ago. Here is a taste:
Within the first two pages of Evan Dara’s The Easy Chain, the reader is confronted by a pair of small errors which, in a subtle way, speak to the overall achievement of issuing a novel of this caliber outside of the ever-shifting boundaries of the traditional publishing ecosystem. Because, while there are surely scores of scribes out there with dreams of their bound visions sailing up the straits of various Best Seller lists, their commercially viable genius made manifest by the sales, marketing, and distribution arms of that imprint on the spine, it’s fair to fathom that others pine for an editor who will keep a steady hand on the wheel, listening, validating, and sharpening at each station of the criss-crossed path to print. How many MFA grads are out there tonight, awaiting the arrival of their Max Perkins, their Michael Pietsch, their Gordon Lish? Someone they can lean on, who isn’t afraid to rap their knuckles each time their manuscript goes astray, then sweetening each slap with a kiss.
Of course, these sainted prose whisperers are totems for a multi-layered operation, composed of developmental editors, copy editors, and proofreaders each taking their blades to the manuscript as it makes its way, slowly, to someone’s shelf. Those who go the self-publishing route realize the value of these roles, since, no matter how meticulous you are, you inevitably go snowblind within your wasteland of words, your brain unable to deftly switch from forest to trees and back again without dropping a comma or misnaming a cultural touchstone from time to time, mishaps that are only spotted when the book is hot off the press.
In the second sentence of The Easy Chain, it reads “Farewell is paradise is comparison.” Even now, typing that line in a word-processing program which people pay for, the error isn’t flagged. It flies beneath the grammatical radar, and eludes the casual reader, who may see the word they expect to find.
On page 2, we are invited to an orchestrated setpiece, where we begin to hear the stories surrounding this “superluminous” savant named Lincoln, who is at the center of a happening in Chicago amongst its twentysomething social elite. It’s a reception held by Hildy Waterson who asked that everyone dress up in a costume that alludes to the year of their birth. While others come in like Barry Lyndon, Squeaky Fromme, and Pol Pot, Lincoln commands the center of the dance floor wearing a disco ball on his head:
“Just a whole sparkly sphere brought down from ‘70s heaven and lodged atop his shoulders. And there it, or he, was, a glitterspray in night sky, descended among us.”
It’s a vivid and compelling image, this character who effortlessly glides and magnetically draws attention, wearing an enclosed mask of mirrors that hypnotically dazzles each onlooker with a reflection of their best selves, while withholding the man in the middle. We’ll learn more about Lincoln’s magic as we proceed, but in the next sentence, we are tripped by this:
“Granted, this was a rare surrender of Lincoln’s native subtlety, got up like The Replacements’ geodesic sibling…”
As you sort through the stacks at your local record store, there’s a chance you’ll see The Replacements sitting right in front of The Residents. But, aside from alphabetic proximity, there’s a yawning chasm between the ramshackle drunken mayhem generated by Paul Westerberg and the Stinson brothers, and the anonymous and prolific art collective functioning as The Residents.
Those who have been thinking about taking on Evan Dara and The Easy Chain should not see these two examples as persnickety words of warning, or an attempt to downplay the book’s brilliance in any way. Instead, these minor miscues serve as a testament to its pseudonymous author, who bravely bucked a flawed system to present a complicated and uncompromised vision of this year leading up to 9/11 (or, in this case, 9/10), without the kind of editorial support system that sustains the literary industrial complex.
“Lincoln was home to one of the five most important Jewish communities in England, well established before it was officially noted in 1154. In 1190, anti-Semitic riots that started in King’s Lynn, Norfolk, spread to Lincoln; the Jewish community took refuge with royal officials, but their habitations were plundered. The so-called House of Aaron has a two-storey street frontage that is essentially 12th century and a nearby Jew’s House likewise bears witness to the Jewish population. In 1255, the affair called ‘The Libel of Lincoln’ in which prominent Jews of Lincoln, accused of the ritual murder of a Christian boy (‘Little Saint Hugh of Lincoln‘ in medieval folklore) were sent to the Tower of London and 18 were executed. The Jews were expelled en masse in 1290.”
Last week, Ben Roth published an essay on The Millions entitled “Against Readability,” which was provocative in a fairly predictable way. But as he drew lines between the praiseworthy (e.g. Tom McCarthy’s Remainder) and the forgettable (Donna Tartt’s The Goldfinch), it pushed a button that prompted a version of this kneejerk comment:
As someone who has spent nearly 20 years recommending the work of Evan Dara to receptive readers–brimming with the conviction that The Lost Scrapbook is the best novel of the past 25 years–I, too, am not thrilled with the use of a readability quotient as a critical criterion in an age of bingeing. These days, talented writers and cagey editors are more attuned to the idea of flow, sculpting prose that provides a flattering level of challenge to their readers while reducing friction wherever possible, in an effort to keep the pages turning. This diagram lays out a version of the theory of flow, with the reader’s skill level sitting on the X axis and the challenge level of the book sprouting from the Y.
But, as I thought about this further, I realized that the works which Roth rips aren’t actually optimized for flow state, but sit within the control and/or relaxation quadrants, providing optimized consumption experiences, like watching Stranger Things or listening to Serial. The downside is that this kind of pleasurable immersion can slash the time a reader needs to pause and reflect. As Roth himself reports, he barreled through The Goldfinch and Jonathan Franzen’s most recent offerings in about two days, on average. When dealing with 500-page novels, this kind of breakneck pace forces the brain to purge much more than it can thoughtfully digest. But does the blame for this rest squarely on the shoulders of the author? Moreover, does hypnotic, mellifluous prose prevent a good book from entering the pantheon?
In “Mr. Difficult,” Franzen takes William Gaddis to task for making things too hard in JR, for asking too much from the reader, no matter how active or intelligent they are. Looking at the diagram again, I wonder if his/our skill level is equal to the task, or if he’s exhibiting the kind of anxiety that many of us faced when climbing its craggy conversational cliffs. Admitting failure, he goes on to derisively question the novel’s defenders for focusing on what he sees as its explicit flaws and turning this demanding lemon into elitist lemonade. Franzen brazenly legsweeps William Gass by taking one of his lines–“If the author works at his work, the reader may also have to, whereas when a writer whiles away both time and words, the reader may relax and gently peruse”–and concluding that with friends like these, who needs readers?
Franzen doesn’t make a very persuasive case, but it’s not entirely invalid either. I also agree with Roth’s original thesis, but I question his somewhat arbitrary placement of the border between the great and the mediocre. From my perspective, readers need to remain vigilant, and stay alert even as the writer seduces them to put down their pencil and post-it notes. Great books are neither defined by their readability nor their inherent difficulty. But they should ask you to put them down from time to time and entice you to take a long walk and think. Readers have a central responsibility for the experience, and need to be prepared to rise to the challenge of works of unconventional brilliance, like The Lost Scrapbook. Or The Easy Chain. Or Flee.
Then again, I always tend to agree with Gass.
Earlier this month, I reached out to José Luis Amores, who is the founder and chief translator for Pálido Fuego, a publishing house based in Malaga, Spain, which is the birthplace of Picasso and one of the oldest cities in the world, established by the Phoenicians in 770 BC. Pálido Fuego means Pale Fire, a tip of the hat to Nabokov (and Shakespeare) that also telegraphs Amores’s desire to tackle bold and audacious works. Four years and change after launching its first title, a translation of Conversations with David Foster Wallace, they’ve managed to make their mark with an impressive catalog of innovative fiction, including William Vollmann’s The Royal Family, Mark Danielewski’s The House of Leaves, Robert Coover’s The Public Burning, and Sergio De La Pava’s A Naked Singularity, among others.
In April of 2015, Pálido Fuego published the first translation of Evan Dara’s The Lost Scrapbook, called El cuaderno perdido, and its success has generated a fresh wave of interest in Dara’s work. I wanted to learn about the genesis of this project and hear how Amores approaches his craft as a translator and a publisher.
Editor’s note: Some passages were edited for clarity.
Q: What do you like about translating challenging works of literature?
José Luis Amores: I think it’s more about why I like reading challenging works of literature versus, let’s say, normal works of literature. I’m 48 right now, not a youngster at all, and I’ve read many normal books, and translated a ton of normal documents and works, operating as a business consultant for many years. I’ve also watched an enormous amount of bad TV and shitty movies and listened to loads of terrible music. And one day, you run into a book—or a movie, or a song— which is in some way different: not silly, or easy in a negative sense, but it’s beautiful. Probably for me it was something by David Foster Wallace or a story by William Vollmann, I can’t recall it well. After that, books I once considered pleasurable became insipid and boring; it was like when you taste a good foie after years of eating fast food: you’ll never want to go back to your previous diet.
So, translating them is all the same. I approach each book as a sort of rereading, so it’s a real pleasure to go and build sentences into my language from English, trying to retain their essence as much as possible. I see this job as a sort of restoration, you know, like those guys who work perched on a scaffold, applying layers of paint with a variety of brushes. This is the kind of care I take.
Q: Who are your favorite writers to translate? Who would you like to tackle in the future?
JLA: My favorite authors are Vollmann, Dara, Robert Coover, Wallace, Thomas Bernhard, Tom McCarthy, Lars Iyer, Stephen Dixon, Steve Erickson, Ryan Boudinot, Nabokov, and more. I’ve been lucky enough to translate works by a bunch of them, and I hope to continue translating them (at least those that aren’t already in Spanish). Some people think Spanish is a good language to translate works into, because its wide potential audience makes it easier to sell books, even those that are hard or challenging. However, since the different Spanish-speaking countries are very far from each other, and have their own particularities, it’s hard to disseminate something from, let’s say, their cradle in linguistic terms. There are a ton of countries which could be potential markets, but they are either small in terms of reading audience, or large but mostly uninterested in literature. And our books are, in general, challenging—literary foie—while most people are used to reading banal stuff. So, it’s hard and, at the same time, exciting to publish authors who somehow go against the dumb tide, those who struggle with the real and urgent questions with true art and without cheap tricks.
Q: What sparked your decision to translate The Lost Scrapbook?
JLA: Our first book was a collection of interviews with David Foster Wallace, edited by Stephen J. Burn. We became friends, and he told me about The Lost Scrapbook, in such terms that I had to contact Aurora—Evan Dara’s publisher—to get a copy. My decision to translate a book is based on a very personal feeling. Usually, I begin to read a lot of books but I give up after a few pages. It’s not necessarily because they are bad or something like that—many of them are considered to be masterpieces— but they just don’t come to feel alive to me, so I drop them. In a few cases, the book sparkles, and I keep on reading. The Lost Scrapbook was certainly one of them. If this spark doesn’t happen, I might continue reading it, but I won’t try to publish it.
Q: How many times do you generally read a book before you begin your work? Did it alter your appreciation of The Lost Scrapbook?
JLA: Well, usually, my second reading of a book is when I decide whether to translate and publish it, and of course this rereading is a very thorough one, with lots of second thoughts, deeper appreciations, and even new findings. And I’ll reread parts of it while I’m still translating it, like gloating in it, and thinking, “Wow, now I realize this little thing here, which I missed in my first reading and even after I translated it.” And then I’ll reread the full work over and over again. In some cases, I don’t know how many times I’ve read a book published by my press (Pálido Fuego), but there are some I’ve read six, seven, or even eight times. Even after publishing them, I’ll find myself pulling a book down and reading paragraphs, and then pages and full chapters. And enjoying them. So, actually, I don’t know how many times I’ve read each one of these great books.
Q: How long did it take to complete the draft and finalize your edits? Was Dara involved in the process, or were you left to your own devices? Did he offer suggestions along the way?
JLA: In this case, with The Lost Scrapbook, I think it was two months working hard, translating and editing it. Then I put it to rest a few weeks, before rereading it to proofread it. By the way, the last proofreading was done by my partner, who reads very carefully, with two glasses and a load of pencils, markers and stuff like that. And at one point I had to go to Dara, with a few questions and suggestions about punctuation, which he solved nicely. Except for the translating phase, which I handle on my own, Dara was a great example of a helpful author, offering precious insights and making smart remarks.
Q: What parts of the novel did you find to be the most challenging to translate into Spanish? Which portions of the book left you scratching your head the most?
JLA: The Lost Scrapbook, as I see it, is not a very hard book, except for the changes of narrator. A funny detail: Dara sent me a copy of the book, which I started to read immediately. As I began to read it, I noticed this aspect of the changing narrator, the change of character and situation. And I enjoyed it a lot, because as someone said in a review of El cuaderno perdido, “Dara has an incredibly powerful ability to tell stories.” But at some point, a guy is speaking about his teenage son and the conflict they’re having over a set of drums that the boy has his heart set on, and just then someone is struggling with some sprinkler, and it was like “What?”
I wrote to Dara, asking him whether maybe my copy was incomplete. He was very understanding with me, and explained the situation, but probably became a bit nervous. But because I hadn’t read any reviews of the book, and neither Stephen nor Dara had warned me about the nature of the thing, I had started to read happily, was completely caught off-guard, and boom! The first blow, right on the chin, ha ha! So, except for this initial misunderstanding, I think the book reads like silk. It’s like watching TV, channel-surfing, but every station you find is interesting, all of them, and it’s the remote control that decides when it’s time to change channels. In the end, you have a beautiful and terribly smart mosaic of stories and characters and feelings, like an Indra’s net, tens of interconnections that form a kind of powerful narrative that takes you back to the epigraphs of the very first page. And then you think that there will never be another book which can achieve that.
Q: Dara uses some narrative techniques in which he threads multiple, unattributed voices for long stretches. Did you need to make any accommodations for El cuaderno perdido? What are the problems you faced when translating the dialogue?
JLA: Obviously, the main problem was figuring out the narrator’s gender in each case, because in Spanish you need to accommodate the adjectives for female and male persons. But, as you keep reading, it becomes clear who is who, and who is a she or a he. And the same applies to dialogue, where Dara is careful to give clues and to repeat linguistic tics that allow you to know key details about who is speaking. As I said before, when I’m translating, I don’t read quickly, and it’s not only because I want to do it right; it’s also because I work for myself, and I don’t have any clients or chiefs breathing down my neck. The same applies when I’m reading for pleasure, too, because reading books as if something were burning, or you were in a contest with someone, doesn’t make sense. That would be like swigging a glass of expensive and fine wine, instead of tasting it and rejoicing in it. For me, reading has all kinds of culinary and sensual connotations, and I feel sad when I see people who read like gluttons, guzzler readers who are vainglorious about their numbers, and quickly forget their feelings, if they have any at all. Anyway, to answer your question, I didn’t have many problems with unattributed voices, and I didn’t need to change or accommodate anything in the translation.
Q: How did you handle the unique punctuation and typographical patterns in The Lost Scrapbook?
JLA: Dara uses punctuation in a manner much like the Spanish do, perhaps due to some European influence in his readings. So, except for his semicolons instead of periods (which I kept as in the original), almost everything was similar to Spanish.
Q: I believe that you are working on translations of The Easy Chain and Flee. Are readers of El cuaderno perdido excited about digging deeper into Dara’s catalog?
JLA: We want to translate The Easy Chain and Flee. In fact, I want to publish The Easy Chain as soon as possible, maybe this fall. I keep a lot of notes and comments about it, made while I was reading it, and I think the process will be very similar to El cuaderno perdido. But, sincerely, I don’t know about excitement from our readers. We do have some very faithful readers, who get everything published by our press, and they are precisely the people who keep this working. I truly hope that The Easy Chain will achieve relative success in this time of skonky politicians.
Q: Where do you feel El cuaderno perdido sits within the ranks of American literature over the past 25 years?
JLA: In terms of ranking, I put El cuaderno perdido very high on my mental list, within the first few positions. When I started Pálido Fuego (my press, named after Pale Fire, by Nabokov), I wanted to publish a lot of books, but above all The Royal Family, and Pinocchio in Venice. Then I learned about The Lost Scrapbook, and a novel by Ryan Boudinot (Blueprints of the Afterlife) which, for me, is the epitome of contemporary sci-fi. So, after publishing these four, I feel like my job is done: it will be difficult to find books that reach the same heights.
I’m in the midst of a re-read of Dara’s The Easy Chain, which has been slowed by the furious underlining and marginalianizing that the story demands. There are threads that I plan to pursue in future posts (e.g. Has there been a better novel involving Chicago in the last 20 years? The parallels between the rise of Lincoln Selwyn and a particularly problematic politician who has recently occupied the West Wing; The pestilent proliferation of skonk, etc.), but I’m still struck by how untilled this field seems to be.
Stephen Burn, who pointed me toward a number of the publications populating the Resources page, is currently editing a new collection called American Literature in Transition: 1990-2000, which he says will contain a longer piece on Dara (the projected pub date is 10/31/17). Based on the time parameters, it’s safe to presume that the focus will stay on The Lost Scrapbook. With Scott Pruitt’s recent appointment to the head of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, odds are improving that TLS will again prove infuriatingly prophetic, so it will be good to attract fresh attention and analysis to the novel’s manifold blessings.
However, it would great to see some enterprising and scrappy scholar take a shine to The Easy Chain and expend some ink unpacking its Second City mystery. I’ll be sharing some thoughts over the coming weeks, but I encourage you, gentle reader, to point me in the direction of any articles or essays I may have missed along the way. This is a bewitching book that tickles the same nerve endings that lean toward the light of Gaddis, Wallace, and Gass. Attention should be paid:
“…Trams crash down Rozengracht. Treeleaves curtsy and flipper, go butter-yellow while palming the July North Sea sunbreeze. Scooters buzz through clouds of midges rabbling at canalside. Tides of tourists, fat German, fat American, sandaled Italian, twist creased subsections of maps, spiderwebs in which they’re caught, down to canal-curves, up to facade-splays, seeking orientation. The narrow, brick-herringboned streets, upbuckled by lusty treeroots, sinkholed by time and rainwater. Backpack-size, forever-overflowing trash bins, hip high on twin metal legs. Housestone restored, stucco restored white, stucco rotting smudge to dark. Lincoln sees all these. Lincoln moves on…”