While this is more of an interstitial post, we’ve rearranged the deck chairs of the Affinity and wanted to provide the briefest of briefings:
A notification from WordPress reminded me that this quixotic, Google-averse site turned 1 last month, with zero fanfare. The mission—which was cobbled together during last year’s Super Bowl between the Patriots and the Falcons—remains the same: to offer a forward operating base for supporters of Evan Dara, with an emphasis on collecting the articles, links, and resources which might slip through the digital cracks. And if, in the process, we can gently convince a few dozen/hundred/thousand/million readers to try The Lost Scrapbook, The Easy Chain, and/or Flee, all the better.
However, this blog has neither the reach nor the rep needed to move the literary needle more than a nanometer or nudge Dara’s name into the broader conversation. Frankly, it’s a testament to his work and the power of word-of-tweet that he’s earned and maintained his place along the periphery of the post-modern pantheon, recommended by/to fans of Gaddis, David Foster Wallace, and Richard Powers once their corpora is consumed. But his station is far from secure, and I fear that the inconsistent trickle of gleaming Goodreads reviews may not be enough to adequately broaden the audience so that he doesn’t fall into the land of the unread.
There are two major barriers that are hindering this enterprise. One, obviously, is his pseudonymity. As noted on his Wikipedia page, Dara puts other shadowy or reclusive authors to shame, since, unlike the most famous pseudonymous writer of our time, Elena Ferrante, Dara has never given an interview or broken his media silence, aside from brief responses to writers like Steven Moore and Tom LeClair. This heightens the mystery surrounding him, but, without the backstory of Salinger or Pynchon, or the fairly rich perspective of Ferrante (who is forthcoming in her interviews and her weekend columns for The Guardian), there’s nothing to sustain speculation aside from what he’s set down in print.
The second issue stems from the lack of a trusted advocate, whether a writer or reviewer, who can use their pulpit to propel new interest in his books. In the late 90s, for instance, every Charles Portis book not named True Grit was out of print, a state of affairs that Ron Rosenbaum rightfully found intolerable. Although he was unsuccessful in tracking down and interviewing the elusive master, Rosenbaum wound up writing an article for Esquire, “Our Least Known Great Novelist,” which introduced a new generation of readers (present company included) to the pleasures of Portis’s prose, and subsequently led the good folks of Overlook Press to rectify the situation.
There have been other stories over the years that followed Rosenbaum’s template—or, if nothing else, jacked the headline—but rescuing a writer from the insatiable jaws of obscurity requires timing and luck (or what Gaddis called “the unswerving punctuality of chance”).
Dwight Garner has made a practice of it with his American Beauties column in The New York Times, where he “writes about undersung American books of the past 75 years.” The gems he’s celebrated range from Stanley Elkin’s The Dick Gibson Show (“It’s among the most powerful and funny American novels I know”) to Chuck Berry: The Autobiography (“His sentences pop, as if he had a Coolerator crammed with them. He writes about the world like a man noticing everything for the first time”). But even from this elevated platform, Garner’s calls aren’t always answered, considering that titles like Berry’s remain out-of-print.
Nonetheless, our mission would clearly benefit from the likes of a Rosenbaum or a Garner or a Kakutani or a Dirda to help make the case that the novels of Evan Dara are ripe for discovery. Until then, we will continue our campaign from this committed corner. We are your pamphleteer.
Today’s quick Twitter thread on the publication of American Literature in Transition: 1990-2000, featuring Stephen Burn’s chapter on “Encyclopedic Fictions,” which offers a moderately deep dive into Evan Dara’s The Lost Scrapbook. The collection also includes contributions from Dara scholars Jeremy Green and Patrick O’Donnell, although they don’t cover him this time out.
— Evan Dara Affinity (@LincolnSelwyn) December 29, 2017
Out of the estimated 250,000 podcasts that make up the podsphere, and the over 8 million episodes they’ve collectively generated, I don’t believe any have placed The Lost Scrapbook under the spotlight. Until now.
There are the inevitable comparisons to Gaddis (by someone who has actually read Gaddis) and speculations about his anonymity, but that’s to be expected. There’s also some loose talk contrasting Dara and David Foster Wallace that might elicit an objection from fans of Infinite Jest (this reader included), though the topic of these two contemporary geniuses writing and releasing their masterpieces within three months of each other is one I periodically return to.
Regardless, this is a rare opportunity to hear an intelligent conversation about Dara, and might entice those who are on the fence to go ahead and take the plunge into Dara’s work.
WGLT reported that Charlie Harris passed away, which is hard news for anyone who gives a fig about good writing and provocative literature. While Charlie may be best known as the person with the good sense to hire David Foster Wallace at Illinois State University, he championed many other sages and stylists who were/are ahead of their time, ranging from Ron Sukenick to Carole Maso, and generously offered guidance and insight for those who were simply willing to inquire.
Charlie was also a fan of Evan Dara, and was one of the first to be spellbound by The Lost Scrapbook. When starting this site, I reached out to him for his thoughts on the genesis of TLS, and he responded in less than an hour:
“Like you, I’m a fan of Dara’s work. I remember when The Lost Scrapbook won the FC2 contest, and I also remember reading it in galleys.”
Although he wasn’t deeply involved in its publication, he graciously connected me with Curtis White and Ralph Berry, and sent me some articles he penned. After visiting Wallace’s house in May, I sent him a note about the trip, and he told me to make sure that I call him the next time I was in the area. It is with deep regret that I wasn’t able to take him up on this offer.
I highly recommend listening to his appearance on The Great Concavity, which was recorded during the DFW conference in Bloomington this summer. He told me, “This year’s conference was successful, I think, with folks coming from various countries. I hope we can keep it going.” Special thanks to Matt Bucher and Dave Laird for making this happen.
Our thoughts are with his wife, the entire Harris family, and all of those who were a part of his special universe.
While updating the resources for this site, I included an expanded entry for a series of posts from a pseudonymous blogger named Ba Jin. Back in the summer of 2015, he offered a memorable chronicle of his first reading of The Lost Scrapbook, which is laced with sharp insights and the inevitable questions that arise when trying to orient and re-orient yourself in a novel that is stingy when it comes to support. When paired with Steve Russillo’s Lost Scrapbook page, this can serve as an ad hoc reader’s guide for anyone preparing to take the leap.
In his closing entry, Jin offers up a pointed question that pokes at the root of Dara’s accomplishment:
But perhaps the biggest challenge arises from the question: “Who is the novel’s protagonist?” Even the wildest novels have an easily id’d main character: Joyce’s Leo Bloom, Pynchon’s Slothrop, Nabokov’s Hugh Person. Can we say that Evan Dara has really done it? That is, fashioned a novel in which the protagonist is a utopian collectivity of individuals across a vast space, moving towards a collective action of protest against an equally abstract antagonist of crony corporations and their destructive capitalist system?
This morning’s edition of the St. Louis Post-Dispatch carried a story which is all too familiar for fans of The Lost Scrapbook. Reporters unearthed documents showing that 13 million pounds of hazardous waste—”bead waste,” containing cadmium, chromium, lead and other heavy metals used in paint pigments—had been illegally stored in a weed-choked warehouse on a flood plain within eyeshot of the Missouri River.
This poisonous depot is located in Franklin County, in the small town of Berger, which sits adjacent to Crawford County, the home of Isaura and the Ozark Corporation in TLS. And as was the case with Mother Ozark, the provenance of these toxins is purposely difficult to trace. Nine million pounds of its insidious inventory was originally dumped in Mississippi, before it was dug up and shuttled to Missouri, in loads of roughly 300,000 pounds a day for 20 days back in 2013. It’s a massive feat of logistical coordination, but, of course, in 2017, nobody knows anything.
One could splice some of these quotes into Dara’s masterpiece without raising any suspicion that they weren’t original to the novel.
A lawyer for Penny Duncan, owner of Missouri Green Materials, said Duncan was unaware the material was hazardous. She was told by her husband, Daryl Duncan, that the material was recyclable and could be used as a concrete additive, attorney Paul D’Agrosa said.
U.S. Technology leased the blasting materials to clients and was supposed to dispose of the waste, the indictment says, adding that the waste is not “hazardous” if 75 percent of the blasting materials are recycled within one year.
The indictment claims that on 20 days in 2013, as much as 300,600 pounds of waste a day was shipped from Mississippi to the Missouri Green Materials warehouse in rural Franklin County, near the tiny town of Berger. The indictment says no permit was obtained to move the material to Missouri.
The potential health risk of the waste isn’t clear. An email message left with the Missouri Department of Natural Resources on Tuesday was not immediately returned.
A September 2016 consent agreement with the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency calls for U.S. Technology and Williams to come up with a plan to properly remove the waste from the Missouri facility and test for any soil contamination.
But federal prosecutors said in the April indictment that the waste was still there. D’Agrosa said he had not been informed of any leaks or contamination.
The lack of a period at the end of the novel just reminds us that this story doesn’t end. It just goes on and on and on…