The Lost Scrapbook (1995)

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Now here’s a friendly little book that is notorious for being unknown and overlooked. If you’ve read it, you’re likely the passenger of one of three channels: (1) You trust William T. Vollmann’s judgement*; (2) you heard that the novel has been lumped in with the names Gaddis and Pynchon; or (3) your tastes coincide with those of Steven Moore. My own arrival is the result of a confluence of these channels, catalyzed by the Goodreads recommendation engine. While its affinities with the likes of Gaddis, Pynchon, et al. are not as prominent as I expected, Evan Dara’s debut novel achieves that almost impossible echelon of sui generis for which I pine. That is, I’ve read The Recognitions and Gravity’s Rainbow, but I can still say that The Lost Scrapbook is a unique experience that stands on its own.

First off, Evan Dara does not exist. This is a nom de plumethat has been linked to several candidates, including Richard Powers. The book, which is published by Evan Dara’s own publishing house, Aurora, offers this illuminating biographical note: “Evan Dara is an American writer living in France.” A footnote in Steven Moore’s biography of William Gaddis, William Gaddis: Expanded Edition (1989), reveals that Evan Dara has deliberately eschewed Gaddis’s books (or, at least, J R) because Dara does not want to be influenced by Gaddis. So, like Pynchon, we know little to nothing about the real author. Which, I assert, works wonders for freeing us of dispositions that mar the text proper.

It can rightly be classified as a difficult novel. The difficulty here lies in the way it is structured and the fact that the framing story is delayed for a bulk of the text. Like scanning through radio channels, The Lost Scrapbook reads like a stream of different voices and concerns. This panoply of voices and perspectives is devoid of transitions, also as in radio scanning. I found myself getting a rush every time I pinpointed a lapse into a separate voice and situation, so cleverly rendered are these “breaks.” And forget about the final episode of Joyce’s Ulysses being the longest sentence in the English language–the first full stop (i.e. period) of this text comes on page 476! Once we pick up on the wraparound story–an ecological disaster that exposes the fault lines between a huge chemical company and a small American town–our footing is a little more sure. But, inevitably, to understand the purpose of the novel better we must question why Dara chose this form.

The text makes explicit the theme of its form. Before the story even begins, we have two quotes about honoring every man (Kierkegaard) and knitting together fragments to form a whole body (Shakespeare). Later on, we get a rumination on the concept of montage and scene-cuts in film and how this form is “much more dramatic than just a gradual… [ellipsis in the original]” and how it creates “its own language by crashing perceptions together through montage, fabricating a bridge… [again, ellipsis in the original]” (204). And this beautifully eloquent statement of intent comes on the heels of some of the best remarks on originality, uniqueness, and individuation I’ve ever read (190). This crashing of perceptions is interrupted only by an extended break that carries on for roughly 100 pages by an entity that we could anachronistically call a Danielewskian narcon.

And it’s more than just formally inventive; the book has all the trappings of Tom LeClair’s systext. It seeks to present a new view of the cosmos to the reader. We must set aside our prejudices and accept the world we are given. The writing is often poetic and striking (“wind-gusts corduroying the park’s grass”; “guitars hanging like ducks in a Chinese grocery”; “a black drum set that was stacked like a ziggurat on the floor”; “there was a rustling throughout the auditorium, as if a finger had been drawn over taut saran”). There is much meta-commentary of the writing. The text is peppered with jokes (mostly Jewish) to alleviate the reader’s consternation. My favorite moment of levity: “…and put us up in the Ambassador Hotel–separate rooms, of course–no embedding of these dependent clauses…” (287). There are several delicious 90s symbols, the Walkman and Waldenbooks being my favorites.

The book ends with Joycean truncation that will compel you to go back to the beginning. It practically begs to be re-read, and I cannot wait to do so with more context in mind than before. Some may ask why the need for the difficulty, or whether Dara is a good writer or just a maddening inventor obsessed with tinkering and subverting tradition. The fact is that he (or she) is a very strong writer: narration, dialogue, and storytelling are all present and of high quality. The authenticity of the voices are so perfectly captured that you will find your self believing these characters really exist. And the conflict between the Ozark corporation and the residents of Isaura will leave you as tense as the best thriller available. Still–you may ask–why this need to close off your book to the average reader? Well, in the words of one of the many characters: “…that’s why all the fancy footwork of variation is necessary: we never actually get to what we’re after, to where all the gropings, all the variation-searching, would no longer be necessary, to the point where there would no longer be music…” (41).

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* As the front cover boasts, it was chosen by William T. Vollmann as the winner of FC2’s National Fiction Competition.

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