“Such are the perfections of fiction...Everything it teaches is useless insofar as structuring your life: you can’t prop up anything with fiction. It, in fact, teaches you just that. That in order to attempt to employ its specific wisdom is a sign of madness...There is more profit in an hour’s talk with Billy Graham than in a reading of Joyce. Graham might conceivably make you sick, so that you might move, go somewhere to get well. But Joyce just sends you out into the street, where the world goes on, solid as a bus. If you met Joyce and said 'Help me,' he’d hand you a copy of Finnegans Wake. You could both cry.” – Gilbert Sorrentino, Imaginative Qualities of Actual Things

Tuesday, November 2, 2010

Book Review: The Lost Scrapbook

The Lost Scrapbook
By Evan Dara
Aurora Publishers (www.aurora148.com)

Evan Dara’s The Lost Scrapbook was originally published in 1996, after being selected as the winner of the Fiction Collective 2’s innovative fiction contest by William Vollmann. The book received little press coverage at the time, but over the intervening fourteen years, it has gradually built up a rabid cult-following—and with good reason.
            The book is anything but mass-market fiction; this innovative novel is organised by a set of wildly inventive formal principles, which the first scene announces: The Last Scrapbook opens with a young person speaking to a career counsellor and refusing to settle on one occupation, saying ‘I am interested, almost exclusively, in being interested.’ The novel follows this logic: instead of focusing on one straightforward narrative, it offers a multiplicity, constantly jumping between characters, locations and scenes; even more impressively, these switches often occur in midsentence. While these radical transitions can be disorienting at first, readers will quickly adjust to this unusual style.
            These individual vignettes, which range over such topics as Warner Bros. cartoons, Noam Chomsky’s language theory, the music of Phillip Glass, and a pirate radio station that beams directly into Sony Walkman cassette players, are all funny and completely engaging.
            But for those who like more traditional narratives, The Lost Scrapbook isn’t simply clever textual artifice. The links between the different narratives slowly build over several hundred pages; some characters recur, as do occasional references to a lost scrapbook that belonged to one character’s grandfather (although these references are so oblique that you could easily miss them if you aren’t paying attention).
Eventually, however, the narrative shifts again, focusing on a new set of voices in the small (imaginary) town of Isaura, Missouri, who begin to face an environmental disaster caused by a large, local corporation.
            For all of its erudition and formal experimentation, this is a book whose ending is moving and even sentimental (in a good way); even more impressively, the book’s many strands are ingeniously drawn together, as well. Dara’s project is effectively an attempt to imagine the social totality of a small community by representing all of the different voices in a locality—it is a genuine attempt to represent late capitalism in all of its networked complexity.
            I’ll be honest: I only found out about this book a few months ago, and upon reading it, I was blown away. It’s the best book I’ve read in years, and I liked it so much that I almost find it difficult to talk about clearly. Some readers have even called it the best American novel of the 1990s—whether or not this may be hyperbole, there’s certainly no doubt in my mind that it’s one of the best. This is a great book that deserves a wider readership and would certainly appeal to readers who like such authors as William Gaddis, Thomas Pynchon, Don Dellilo and David Foster Wallace—particularly his novel Infinite Jest (which, interestingly, came out in the same year).
            There is, of course, another possible reason for the book’s obscurity, too. Evan Dara is a pen name, and no-one knows who the real author behind this book is aside from the author’s claim to live in Paris (Paris, Texas?). Although he’s maintained his anonymity, Dara began to have very minor interactions with the public when he started his own publishing house in 2008 to produce his second novel, The Easy Chain (which infamously contains 40 blank pages in the middle of the book), and keep The Lost Scrapbook in print. There is also one possible clue about Dara’s identity here: his publishing house is called Aurora, and The Lost Scrapbook refers to Aurora, Nebraska (‘I found myself on I-80…somewhere between Lincoln and Aurora…’). Could there be a link?
But ultimately, anyone with even a passing interesting in the contemporary novel in English needs to read this book, which is truly a lost classic. Unfortunately, you won’t find The Lost Scrapbook in bookshops, but it can be purchased from Aurora publishers at their website: www.aurora148.com.

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Brandon Hobson said...
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