Postscript on Dara and Gaddis

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.

American Literature in Transition, 1990–2000

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.

 

The Embrace of Influence

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.'”

Manuel Puig
A photograph of Manuel Puig, taken in 1979. (Credit: Elisa Cabot – http://www.flickr.com/photos/76540627@N03/7454615382/)

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:

puig

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:

tls196

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:

puig2

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:

tls3

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.”
This certainly seems like a fertile field for some aspiring Evan Dara researcher to begin tilling, especially one with a deep background in Puig and the Latin Americans.  At the very least, perhaps we can begin to steer the conversation away from the shadow of Gaddis and navigate toward the stronger frequencies heard in his work.

 

One Mutual Sheaf

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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.

Titus Andronicus

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.

 

 

 

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.