Dec/Jan 2009

MIXED RECEPTIONS

Tom Leclair


When Evan Dara’s first novel, The Lost Scrapbook, was chosen in a national fiction competition judged by William Vollmann, then published by Fiction Collective Two in 1995, the only review in the mainstream press compared the book to William Gaddis’s famously ambitious and demanding debut, The Recognitions. I wrote that review. Now Dara is back with his JR, a novel of fragmentary dialogue and compulsive monologue about a nonentity who mysteriously achieves sudden wealth and power. I’m not deterred from making this comparison by Dara’s e-mail denial to me that he has read Gaddis’s first two novels. No, The Easy Chain is so difficult to describe, I’ll stick with my analogy.

Right about now, you may be wondering why a reviewer has been corresponding with an author. Initially, it was to ascertain just what Aurora, the new novel’s publisher, is. According to Dara, he and at least one other person founded the press after Dara was strung along and then disappointed by a commercial publisher. Second, it was to find out just who “Evan Dara” is. The author would reveal nothing beyond the pseudonym except that he or she lives in Paris. Not even the media-shy Gaddis was that secretive, but in today’s fiction market he, too, might have needed to self-publish both The Recognitions and JR.

I know bakeries that will sell half a loaf, but until books are wholly electronic and readers can demand only those parts some trusted reviewer has recommended, we’re at the mercy of the binder. That’s unfortunate, because the first half of The Easy Chain is a pitch-perfect satire of what a character calls “promosexuals,” young moneyed urbanites who get an erotic charge from promoting themselves at the daily round of receptions promoting products and companies. The scene is Chicago during the very recent past. Dara’s method is “recording” the chatter of unnamed receptioneers, who are often interrupted mid-effusion when the author points his microphone at someone else.

Gossip centers around Lincoln Selwyn, a British citizen who grew up in Holland, came to the University of Chicago in his early twenties, left in his freshman year, got a job as a clothing salesman, and very rapidly ascended through real estate, banking, and lobbying to become an über-promosexual—with no apparent qualifications other than listening to acquaintances and wearing clothes well. In an early scene, Lincoln dons a mirrored disco-ball mask, a perfect representation of his seeming hollowness and of his ability to reflect others’ smug images of themselves.

Dara gives Lincoln no voice, but he has a heart (he’s searching for an aunt who immigrated to America and then disappeared) and he has a cough, which leads him to a series of physicians who diagnose his malady as a somatic response to “skonk,” defined as exposure to social deceptions. The doctors’ increasingly technical and nearly believable pseudoscience extends Dara’s relatively familiar social satire into original intellectual parody. As Lincoln’s wealth and influence grow, he attracts skonksters promoting their crazed moneymaking schemes, giving Dara further license for inventive mockery of entrepreneurial imagination and desperation. Lincoln also attracts a publicist, a woman named Auran, who manages his social appearances, tries to choose his girlfriend “brand,” and even drives him around while he has sex in the backseat with an admirer.

After Auran is either accidentally struck by a taxi or steps in front of one, Lincoln abruptly disappears from Chicago. Dara signifies his absence with forty blank or near-blank pages, and the witty talkathon of the first half becomes a highly literary mess. Through ever-denser prose, the hardworking reader can attempt to trace Lincoln’s movements: to Holland, where he locates his now-homeless mother but does nothing for her; back to the Midwest, where he buys a gun and prepares for an assault on the Mercantile Exchange; and finally to the office of his former private investigator, who delivers a forty-page closing monologue about his life as he tries to stop, or at least delay, Lincoln from shooting him.

In this half, Dara frequently occupies Lincoln’s mind, but as our protagonist plans his terrorism, Dara breaks into short-lined, singsongy, and largely empty passages such as:

Ties that bind & ties in line &
Ties unwind & ties remind &
Repetition repetition repetition repetition

While the style here may be intended to imitate an obsessive-compulsive consciousness, Dara imposes a very long stretch of this loosey-goosey stuff just when the reader most needs a tight chain of motivation for mass murder. Even the marginally relevant interruptions of Lincoln’s narrative—the vulgar voices of investigators, the e-mails of a journalist tracking him, a lecture on water privatization, extended passages told from the point of view of a shoe and, I think, the wind—would be tolerable if the emotions driving the narrative were plausible.

The first half of The Easy Chain is unspoiled by the slackness and missing links of the second, but clearly, Dara would have profited from an editor. She or he could have pointed out that Gaddis won a National Book Award for JR when he reined in the high-art impulses of The Recognitions. Dara frees those impulses in the second half, perhaps to imply “No easy book for you, reader.” A character says that “the principal product of the West is self-hate.” Dara seems immune, but publishing one’s own book can be an act of self-sabotage, even while it’s a gesture of self-assertion. Because of Aurora’s exceedingly low profile, Dara may garner few readers. That would be too bad, because The Easy Chain and Dara, whoever he or she is, merit at least half a loaf.

Tom LeClair’s fifth novel, Passing Through, was published last summer by Drinian Press.

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