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  When Lucas Thompson appeared on The Great Concavity, he derided the notion of the “anxiety of influence” as an outdated metaphor, a relic of a hyper-masculine framework which equated the acknowledgement of influence with a form of weakness.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:

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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:

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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:

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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:

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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.

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.