Satirizing Modernism

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.

Cover of Satirizing Modernism

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.”

Counterevidence

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:

 

Author/Editor

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.

Preparing for The Easy Chain

Without knowing exactly where to start, I’ll begin at the beginning and wend my way through this marvelous and baffling book, which contains some of the best prose of this millennium, along with savage stretches that test and exasperate even the most faithful readers.  Like its perorative predecessor The Lost Scrapbook, The Easy Chain reveals new facets with each reading, while blurring or obfuscating some of the elements that you picked up in the past, forcing you to reexamine the evidence and reorient yourself as you go.  Some sentences sew two voices together without a stitch, or with a splash of typographical shrapnel, while descriptions of characters and events are often narrated by multiple members of a breathless chorus, unnamed and largely unreliable.  I should say that we don’t necessarily question their version of the events, but the voices rarely provide us with much insight beyond the facts on the ground.
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I don’t think many readers come to The Easy Chain without having already fallen deeply for Evan Dara through The Lost Scrapbook, but it would be interesting to know what that experience is like, and whether those who are unfamiliar with Dara’s jazz-inflected rhythms and cadences can embrace the unadulterated weirdness, or be patient enough to let the book come to them. Regardless, I begin this deep dive with a crown of caveats here at the top, driven by a desire to answer some questions and crack parts of the code. Any book that can keep you asking these questions, after 9 years, deserves a pot of fresh pixels and some foolhardy attempts at explanation.
Lincoln Selwyn: There is so much to unpack in this name.  The character, Lincoln, is a Brit raised in the Netherlands who makes his name in the Land of Lincoln.  There is also the link in the easy chain, and perhaps a con connected.  The name traces back to the city in England, which connected the Brythonic term lindo (meaning lake or pool) with the Latin word colonia, owing to its location next to the Brayford Pool, which is part of the River Witham that rolls through Lincolnshire.  It seems that more than one bystander in the book falls into the pools of his eyes.
There is so much obvious weight in the name of Lincoln, especially for U.S. readers, that it resists closer inspection.  However, since Dara provides us with Lincoln’s British background—and since one of the defining adolescent moments for the character is related early on (p. 11), at an Ajax football match, where he’s exposed to the collective anti-Semitic hiss which flips a switch in him—we may be advised to dig deeper into the history of the town:
“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.[18][19][20] 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.[20][21] The Jews were expelled en masse in 1290.[20]
This may be a coincidence, but he is from a British family which remains steadfast in its British identity after emigrating to The Netherlands, as we’ll see in the pages ahead. The layering seems intentional.
Selwyn seems almost Dickensian in its obviousness, the speculator who knows when to sell, and sells to win.  Sel is a Scottish word for self while Wyn is a Welsh derivation, meaning “blessed, white, fair,” which hits the trifecta here.  At one point in the novel (p. 306), the enterprising young journalist Tracy Kessler pitches the mystery of Lincoln Selwyn to the literary agent Andrew Wylie, and asks him to picture “this charismatic blonde with the irresistible accent” as Matt Damon. It’s difficult to unsee this, or unring this bell.
In the next post, we’ll begin the beginning again, and listen to the opening chords of this polyphonic portrait.

Against Readability?

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.

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Mental state in terms of challenge level and skill level, according to Csikszentmihalyi’s flow model.

 

 

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.

El Cuaderno Perdido: An Interview with José Luis Amores

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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.

The Easy Chain

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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…”