Friday, September 11, 2015

Evan Dara, The Lost Scrapbook (1995)

This book, little read but hyperbolically praised and cultishly adored by those who have, had been on my radar for some time, but as it's not available anywhere as an ebook, obtaining it while outside the US would have been difficult. I'm going to use my time here to read as many books that are only available physically as I can.

The back cover copy of The Lost Scrapbook declares that it “received exactly one review in the mainstream media. But that review declared The Lost Scrapbook the most accomplished first novel since William Gaddis' The Recognitions, from 1955.” I feel like this statement doesn't prove as much as it's meant to; “some random dude said it was almost as good as The Recognitions” doesn't inspire that much confidence. As it happens, I believe the review in question was by Tom LeClair, well-known for his writing about postmodern literature; I read him when I was writing my dissertation, and I take his opinions seriously. BUT HOW WAS I TO KNOW IT WAS HIM? HUH?!?

What's The Lost Scrapbook about? Well, there's the question, and to tell the truth, it would be better to just read it that read about it. According to the back cover, it's “a story of the shattering of community in modern America—and a vision of reconstitution,” and THAT is the only hint you will get. The novel opens with the narrative of a teenage runaway, whose busy mother seems not to even realize s/he (impossible to tell) is gone. Then, there's a guy going to meet a guy collecting fireflies for a promotional video. Then, a guy talking about a notebook he found belonging to his grandfather. And goes on like this, for the first three-hundred-ish pages. Vignettes flow into one another, often in the middle of a paragraph or sentence, and there are times when you're reading and suddenly you realize, whoa, I've been reading something different for some time now, and you go back and it's impossible to pinpoint the exact moment where one section ends and another begins. There are a few occasionally recurring characters and events (often obliquely alluded to), but mostly, the segments stand on their own—and they're quite interesting, even if they have no clear-cut beginnings or ends. Recurring topics include musicology, animation, developmental psychology, advertising, and linguistics, and certainly, the question of community is addressed. The scrapbook in question, mentioned a handful of times, was collected by someone's grandfather during his Depression-era travels, and includes all kinds of pictures and texts and things that he collected from people all over—a clear metaphor for the idea of connectedness (and, of course, an analogue for the novel itself). The fact that it's, um, lost may not be insignificant. At any rate, all of these stories riff on this main theme, some in obvious ways, others less so.

We don't get a semblance of a plot until towards the end of the novel, when all the voices start to coalesce around a town in Missouri and the company that—people are starting to think—is contaminating it with toxic chemicals. People talking about bad things that have happened (maybe because of the company?), officials issuing denials, townhall meetings, activists, EPA officials—it really has a cumulative force, and the ending is very effective.

Above, I described praise for The Lost Scrapbook as hyperbolic, but I kinda have to take that back. All of the praise is receives is perfectly due. As much as I hate agreeing with anyone ever, it must be said: it's a visionary novel, completely sure-handed, and I've never read anything like it. Compare it to Pynchon or Gaddis if you must, but aside from the fact that they're all broadly writing in the postmodern tradition (an oxymoron?), Dara's work really has nothing in common with theirs. If we had more of a literary culture, I feel like this is a book that would be hailed as Important. But in this one...well, it's not surprising that Dara has to publish his books through his own weird private press (at least, I think that's what it is?). I have no idea how you would even begin to market a book like this, but I sure am glad that it's out there for those who seek it.


Post a Comment

<< Home