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…
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.