“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

Wednesday, May 11, 2011

Book Review: The Easy Chain

The Easy Chain
By Evan Dara
Aurora Publishing, 2008

With recent publication of David Foster Wallace’s posthumous novel The Pale King, there’s been a lot written about Wallace’s legacy, and he’s usually portrayed as both a literary genius and a ‘strikingly original’ voice (to use the language of book review-ese). While I’d agree that Wallace was a phenomenal writer, I’m less convinced of his uniqueness, given the presence of many living U.S. authors who have written similarly experimental novels of exceptional merit that have remained lesser known for the simple reason that their work often just hasn’t gotten the same kind of press. Chief among this group of excellent but underrated U.S. writers is Evan Dara, whose first novel, The Lost Scrapbook, was published in 1996, the same year as Infinite Jest.
            To be fair there are legitimate reasons why Dara hasn’t become a household name. Number one on this list would be Dara’s own strictly enforced anonymity: Evan Dara is, in fact, a pseudonym, and no-one knows any biographical details about the writer behind Dara’s books, except for the fact that he lived in Paris at some point. Moreover, after the release of The Lost Scrapbook, nothing more was heard from Dara for twelve years, until his second book, The Easy Chain, appeared in 2008. Further adding to the enigma of Dara is the fact that his book was published by Aurora Publishers, a company that Dara appears to have set up himself, and which only publishes his books (So far anyway. Since 2009, the Aurora website has claimed it will publish translations of two Italian novels, but they have not appeared, and I can find no information about either the authors or their translators anywhere on the internet—although to be fair, there is still information that exceeds Google’s grasp).
            The plot of The Easy Chain is (relatively) easy to describe: Lincoln Selwyn, a young Englishman who’s been raised in Belgium, arrives in Chicago and quickly climbs the social ladder to become one of the most influential people in the city, but he just as suddenly disappears, leaving no trace of his whereabouts. If that synopsis sounds straightforward, the book is anything but. Its first 200 pages detail the rise of Selwyn, but this is all related through the gossip of those who knew him and rendered in unattributed dialogue; the speakers all note Lincoln’s incredible charisma, describing him as ‘superluminous in a way. He takes you in at a shake, and at the first trespassing of fingertips you’re instantaneous old friends’. At page 207, this stream of discourse suddenly stops and is followed by 42 nearly blank pages of text (I suspect it’s this gesture that would’ve sent most publishers running for the hills).
            The gap in the text replicates Lincoln’s disappearance; since he has gone the gossip about him also ceases, but it also reflects a larger formal strategy in the book. The Easy Chain makes several references to the notion of ‘negative space’—a concept from visual art that refers to the space around and between the subject of a drawing or painting. The novel reflects this technique—giving us not the ‘story’ of Lincoln but a series of details around it from which the narrative itself can be inferred. Indeed, we as readers never really get to know Lincoln, who, despite being the protagonist of the book, has all of the substance of a rumour even after 500 pages. That Dara is able to achieve this effect and still make the book compelling is a testament to his incredible skill.
            The rest of the book offers a set of intriguing and unexpected detours, from a seemingly factual essay on the corporate control of public water in Chicago to what appears to be the undertaking of a terrorist attack on a significant local landmark, as well as 60-odd pages of repetitive text that’s formatted like lines of poetry. But these twists and turns all pale in comparison to the final part of the book, which offers the monologue of a man being interrogated under (apparently) violent circumstances: this section is a mind-bending display of sheer linguistic virtuousity and also comprises some of the funniest writing I have ever read (if in a dark and twisted way). While this is a book whose narrative is intentionally never resolved (much like Infinite Jest), the last section does introduce a character—the daughter of the interrogated man—who suffers from autism and whose disconnection from the world serves as a foil to Lincoln’s uncanny ability to form an instantaneous emotional connection with every single person he meets.
            While The Easy Chain is not an easy book by any stretch of the imagination, it’s also a book whose strange detours are not arbitrary, but rather part and parcel of a carefully planned and executed formal principle. This is also true of Dara’s first novel, The Lost Scrapbook, which spends hundreds of pages seemingly meandering between unrelated narratives (with transitions that confusingly occur mid-sentence), before the reader realises that all of these stories are linked by one traumatic event that connects an entire community. And, moreover, for all of their formal innovation, Dara’s novels are both exceptionally funny and surprisingly warm and human; one never gets the sense that his experimentation is simply an exercise in technique for technique’s sake.
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 enjoys 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.

You can purchase The Easy Chain from the website of Aurora Publishers: www.aurora148.com.

This review initially aired on Triple R’s Breakfasters.

No comments:

Post a Comment