Monday, September 21, 2015

Evan Dara, The Easy Chain (2008)

After an interval of thirteen years: Evan Dara's second novel, and an interesting case it is. It would be easy to say that The Easy Chain is a marginally more conventional novel than The Lost Scrapbook, inasmuch as it has characters an' a (loose) plot an' everything. On the other hand, in the latter half, the narrative unravels in a way that I don't think I've ever quite seen in a novel, and becomes as avant-garde-ish as anything I've read. So, six of one half dozen of the other.

The plot of The Easy Chain, such as it is: there's a young man, Lincoln Selwyn, a Dutch-raised Briton, who comes to American to study at the University of Chicago and ends up making a huge hit with the city's movers and shakers. Then, he disappears and no one knows what's going on. He later makes a reappearance under radically different circumstances. And that's about it.

So the first half is relatively straightforward, even if it's written in a polyphony of different voices in the same way The Lost Scrapbook was. The focus here is what Dara terms “skonk,” and the effects thereof. What is skonk? Well, I'm glad you asked. It's “kind of the slipperiness inherent in human relations, the non-stop individual grifting that's so inbred and ever-present that it doesn't even register as horseshit any more, weighing in at maybe 2.7, 2.9 on the ethical Richter scale. Essentially, it's become automatic.” I don't know about you, but this seems like kind of a perfect way to characterize modern life. At any rate, Lincoln is immersed in it, and once this happens, he ceases to be a character, really. We only see him through the admiring gazes of other people, and this admiration is, it's clear, purely skonk-related. We don't get any sense of anything in particular that he actually does to become so important, nor the specifics of what this moving and shaking entails. He just is. Interspersed with second-hand tales of his exploits, various people tell him their stories, which tend to be significantly more zany than in Dara's first novel—there's a decided Pynchonian feel here that there wasn't in The Lost Scrapbook—and which are just full of skonk.

All of this is pretty straightforward (but still thought-provoking and wildly entertaining!) as far as it goes, but there is a major break midway through the book. First, Lincoln disappears, and to signify this, we get forty blank or almost blank pages (the page numbers remain, and a few have a dash or one word, but aside from that, nothin'. When the text resumes, we get quite a mixture of things: there's an abstract narration of Lincoln looking for his missing mother in the Netherlands; there are letters from a journalist trying to write a creative-nonfiction-type piece about him; there's hyperbolically condemnatory dialogue about him from a collection agency, which is trying and failing to track him down; there are narratives from the perspective of shirts (not a specific shirt; shirts in general) and a speck of dirt; there's an apocalyptic phantasia about a restaurant which goes out of business due to price increases, and which infects and destroys everything else in town and beyond (with an excursus on the biology of decay); there's a journalistic piece about an activist involved with water management issues—this is all crazy and abstruse enough, but it's not even to mention the most polarizing segment in the book (or what would be, if there were enough readers to be polarized).

That is a sixty-page interlude of...poetry, or something like it. To give you an idea, it starts like this:

Swoops the Distance swoops the distance swoops the
Distance swoops the distance swoops the
Distance swoops the distance swoops the
Distance swoops the distance barren
Distance barren distance barren distance barren distance barren
Distance barren distance barren distance barren distance up to
Roadways up to cornfields up to roadways up to cornfields up to
Roadways up to cornfields up to roadways up to cornfields up to
Growing things & growing things are growing thing & growing unto
Townships unto carparks unto streetlamps unto showglass unto
Townships unto carparks unto streetlamps unto showglass unto
Moving things are moving things are
Moving things are moving things are
Gliding stepping toting hauling
Gliding stepping toting hauling
Hubcaps fan & tote-a-way &
Ties & ties & ties & ties &
Ties to bind to Ties in line to
Parallel & parallel & parallel & parallel &
Parallels & parallels & parallels in parallels &

...and on like that, never becoming much more comprehensible. There are bits and pieces where you can decipher concrete action, but after reading through the whole thing twice, it never becomes especially clear what's going on. And it's not just me; positive reviews of the novel I've read don't seem to get it any better than I do—not that I'm implying that this here is not a positive review; IT IS.

I'm of two minds about this, because on the one hand, you can make a very real criticism of the book, which is (spoiler, I guess): after this section, Lincoln has returned to Chicago, and is apparently readying himself to commit an act of terrorism against his old stomping grounds—and the reason for his change of heart is apparently contained within it. Except even if is—even if you were able to perfectly decode what's going on, which I'm not convinced is really possible—I can state pretty darned confidently that the poem is never going to give you more than a vague idea, which is just plain a problem for a book that seems to have—and, in fact, does have—salient criticisms to make of the cultural landscape and significant moral force behind it. I dunno.

And yet—I have to admit—I just find all this experimentation, poem included, exhilarating as hell, whether or not I can extract explicit sense from it. I guess you could accuse me of favoring style over substance if you were so inclined, but to the extent that such a thing is possible in this jaded day and age, Dara truly upends our sense of what a novel can be and do, and he deserves to be encouraged. It's difficult to say whether or not I liked this better than The Lost Scrapbook, given how different they are, but I certainly loved it in its own right. Hooray for books!


Blogger Unknown pontificated to the effect that...

I, very happily, found it.

2:50 PM  

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