everybody’s grandpa

Evan Dara’s THE LOST SCRAPBOOK, pp. 6-72

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Many of us im sure think a little about how to write differently. To make something that could push out beyond Brechtian alienation or the long postmodern and all the rest of that which is now tradition. Is there a text out there that really captures this moment, the psychological situation brought on by late capitalism, and promises a radical response? Is there a book that turns its gaze onto this current political-historical dilemma that frames our discourse — the blood on our hands which postcolonialism highlights, the tension between the margin and the center; a book that prescribes some kind of antidote to contemporary alienation while still conscious about how power works?

It was Evan Dara’s THE LOST SCRAPBOOK which i was told was a white male writer’s text that offered a model to navigate this moment; one that delivers on its radical promises. i dont read the blurbs on books often but there was one on my copy from a monograph, and how often does that happen? Professor Jeremy Green calls it “the most formidable political novel of the 1990s”. The source, Green’s LATE POSTMODERNISM: AMERICAN FICTION AT THE MILLENNIUM, which i read a few months ago, brings up

Robespierre’s distinction between the “citra-revolutionary,” those moderates of the French Revolution who wished “to draw the Republic back from the resolute measures necessary to save it,” and the “ultra-revolutionary,” fanatics who were determined to push forward into further extreme and excessive acts.

And THE LOST SCRAPBOOK is to Green’s eye an “ultra-postmodern” text, fun! i want to devote more than one post to this book and chew on it slowly. It’s pretty wild and exciting yet oddly wistful, and there’s only two teases of a plot line but the pages just tumbled by; it’s compulsively readable.

images found here
images found here

SUMMARY

We drop into what is apparently a career counseling meeting for a high school teen. Thing is, ze has a lot of interests, including medicine, law, forestry, “quantum biography and psychogeology,” and chafes at efforts from the grown-ups to make hir choose a rigid path. The person ze’s addressing changes from Ms. Clipboard to Dr. Sphincter to Sr. Goatee:

spare me your solicitude, my dear diminishers, for I can already hear what you are going to say next: that before long I’ll need to be realistic, and to acknowledge the inevitable[…]

after all, you’ll tell me, children can only make purposeful movements after they’ve learned to rein in their fitful, neonatal fluttering[…]

i should probably mention that there aren’t really sentences in the text. This unattributed dialog spills forth, connected only by colons and semicolons. Paragraphs end with ellipses suggesting that the voice goes on where the text stops.

So this teen talks hirself thru the revelation that this whole career path stuff is a sham, and that reality is the opposite of what the authority says: “growing” is actually shrinking and closing off of interests in favor of a limited skill set, “moving forward” is actually walking on a treadmill of 9 to 5 careerism and endless consumerism,

action is only reinforcing stasis, effort establishing impotence…

And then without any change telegraphed the teen actually is walking, walking through the streets of hir hometown. We learn ze has run away from home.

The next few pages are an interior monologue that sort of does the groundwork for understanding the state of our social life: the individualistic bent of neoliberalism that has made collective action or even a sense of community impossible to imagine or otherwise too much extra effort in our uncertain lives. While globalization has created monoliths out of human beings, it still feels like a “one man world” to us. The teen looks out on a park and listens to Philip Glass in hir Walkman.

…It’s a question, really, of figure and ground, of learning to integrate the two: of linking the landscape to the flamelike cypress thrusting up within it, of considering the World along with Cristina: dissolving patterns into particles…; and I, for one, and perfectly positioned to make such investigations: I am either a bland assemblage of denim, sweatcloth, sneaks, connecting flesh and Walkman scuddling through the streets of Springfield, barely perceptible in its random passages, or an indrawn 19-year-old with slightly stooped posture who has run away; it depends on whom you ask for the description; […]

the monologue is interrupted by the iconography of the street, namely, signs: YIELD, TOW-AWAY ZONE, KEEP DOOR CLOSED. Ze realizes ze is invisible, perhaps literally. No one notices hir; ze goes back to hir house, which isnt in an uproar as hir parents or neighbors or police search for the missing kid; ze leaves OJ on the table and moves a kitchen chair to create a trace of hir absence and leaves.

Then we get a flashback to four years ago when ze was pumping air into hir bike tires at a gas station when ze is suddenly taken hostage by a gunman, the situation is diffused by the gunman’s sudden flight almost as soon as it arises.

Back in the present, ze is shoplifting — perfect for invisibility. Earlier ze has likened hirself to an electron in an orbit, and now ze is not a body but a propagating waveform in the “trenches of commerce” that is the supermarket. Then ze checks on hir house again, everything is put back in its place, which makes it as though ze had never been there the first time:

…So again I acted, again I took matters into my own hands — I could not stand apart and witness even my invisibility being erased; […]

And so ze leaves the house a little bit more disheveled this time and takes some crackers and a couple of apples and goes back to the park where ze sleeps on a bench and takes a moment to look at the people walking by, and then there is imagery of the cars getting onto the interstate, there are thoughts about the feeling when you are in a hurry but have to wait for others, like when you’re in line at the postoffice, or the interstate onramp, and it feels like everyone is in your path but you cant have things your way.

And just like that we’re with a new narrator driving his car on Route 51 on the way to a rendezvous for 7:30. He’s meeting a guy called Dave, we don’t know for what purpose, and he gets lost so he doesn’t show up til almost 8:30.

Dave is a chill guy with a long ponytail. He doesn’t have time to talk like they agreed on bc of the narrator’s tardiness since he as a video shoot to do, but invites the narrator to come along. They drive off to a field somewhere and meet up with Dave’s video partner Jurgen. They are catching fireflies to make a promotional tech demo for a big screen TV at the electronics store. Customers and try to guess how many they can count on the screen.

The “I” looks on as Jurgen and Dave get fireflies, and there some disjointed musings: maybe fireflies are “on” by default and they should be “douse bugs,” how the chemical reaction in fireflies is one of the most efficient known, with almost zero heat lost. When they’re done Dave and Jurgen reveal it’ll actually only be one bug that is taped multiple times and overlaid for the final product. (The multiple catches are necessary since they die pretty quick once on camera.)

They drive to Dave’s house and while Jurgen starts to work Dave takes the narrator into his room. We get a teasing line from Dave:

— So then, Dave said: what did he say about it…?

— Whose that?, I said;

— Your grandfather, Dave said, lighting a cigarette;

— Sorry?, I said;

But we never find out what the “it” is or what the grandfather’s about.

Instead Dave talks about his work as a musicologist, writing an essay about Beethoven’s late period variations,

why this Titan would purposefully invert the sustaining Western conception of progress as expansion — why he would challenge our central Faustian myth of more — and turn so self-reflective, so damn indrawn, or, as I put it in my piece, so circumscribed: trying to generate infinity within a finite area; it’s as if he had turned against the notion of history as progressive and so had set out to deny the workings of linear time…;

To come up with a possible reason Dave talks about his son Michael, who got really into drumming. After a while, when his enthusiasm didnt seem to die off, Dave takes him to the music store, and they are both mesmerized by the 5-piece Tama kit. But it’s 19 grand. A clerk shows them a black Power Plus kit that’s manufactured by the same company with the same parts, but goes for under 100. But for Michael it isnt the same. They return without a drum kit, and Michael is upset. After two weeks of fallout, Dave buys the kit and assembles it. Michael comes home and sees the kit, thanks his dad, and the next day has run away and taken a train to his mom in South Carolina. And so Dave thinks that

for Beethoven variations were a way, musically, of thinking something through, a kind of ongoing, Popperian method for testing a Thematic conjecture’s aspects and implications and points of weakness from different angles; in other words, variations, much like my brooding, represent excursions towards some kind of higher understanding, […]

In the middle of a quote ostensibly from Dave he changes the subject to how he wants out of anything in the world is for his sprinklers to work.

We are now in a new space: a guy named Nick is tending to his front lawn sprinkler and another nameless “I” narrator is here to interview him.

We get a second mention of someone’s grandpa; this time it’s Nick’s, who had an old and ratty scrapbook (the lost scrapbook of the title?), was in fact a collector of all sorts of things.

Nick has a job in animation, as an in-betweener, drawing the animation frames that complete the sequences of key poses done by the higher paid animation directors. His current project: an educational science film about mitosis. He talks about a hazing prank for inbetweeners in which a single frame of cartoon raunchiness is slipped into the rushes, passing by subliminally,

— So you see, even the wildest inbetweens don’t disrupt the overflowing current;

Now this next block of narration was a little confusing because it’s the most worked-in mid-phrase transition yet.

This new narrator talks about the death of radio and his friend Raymond, who together could do good impersonations of various old radio personalities. They scheme together about getting radio back into its glory days with their own serial program, but Raymond is ill and is getting worse. He never explicitly states that Raymond is dead but he goes to a party hosted by Neville, and listens in silence to the people there sharing their own memories about Raymond. He muses about how his best contribution to the conversation was just listening, that, like his experience with seeing the film RASHOMON, he doesnt want the different stories, the different ways of remembering, to end.

And then, we are in an interview which is broadcasted live. The subject is a substitute history teacher from Oklahoma who had become so disgusted by the US political process that she starts going door to door, representing no organization, and simply asking whoever answers the door whether or not they vote. It’s the low turnout that gets nightmares like Ronald Reagan into office.

She begins to regard the broader story of Western modernity with horror:

[…]maybe I shouldn’t be introducing the [French] Revolution as this great moment for the common good, with the Social Contract and the Enlightenment and the triumph of equality over privilege, all that stuff, but that it should really be seen as the disastrous consequences of the financial problems resulting from the Seven Years’ War and France’s participation in the American Revolution, or that it should be interpreted as an act of auto-genocide committed by people terrified by modernization — an upheaval whose real and lasting consequence was to establish Year One of rationalized mass wars and police states and the idea that all opponents are traitors who therefore must die — in other words, that it was no more than a speedbump along a route that led from the Principia to the Gulag —

And so she embarks on this project, and a weird bit happens when she is invited into the home of an old man and his son, and after sitting down the son ties her to her chair with a lawn hose while the older man calls the police, no charges pressed by anyone.

And there’s a bit, where again, a grandfather is mentioned. Her grandpa was a Welsh factory owner who sounds decent as far as bosses go. He went to the US and started a utopian society (there were many such places in the US’s early history) but it doesn’t end successfully.

She gives more thoughts on how American “Democracy” turns on how everyone who can’t or won’t vote simply does not count; that this may be a conspiracy amongst both political parties, who are not fundamentally different in any way. She wants to emphasize that not participating in the system should actually count for something. Paraphrasing, she thinks that not-voting is closer to minus one than to zero, and so the absolute values of voting and note voting are the same. She wants to start a new organization for the non-voters, who by far outnumber the voters.

VOCAB

Watusi, a solo dance that enjoyed brief popularity during the early 1960s. It was the second-most popular dance craze in the 1960s in the United States, after the Twist.

Mediagenic, tending to convey a favorable impression when reported by the media, especially by television.

COMMENTS

To my mind there’s at least two kinds of minimalism. One is a painting of just a black square, or a long slightly curved band of metal that stretches diagonally across a public square in a very inconvenient way that says a lot about society. This is represented by Lorrie Moore and Raymond Carver and that school of literature from the 80s, which i was really into as a teen.

The other type is one that can from a different angle be viewed as a kind of maximalism. It’s like the films of Peter Watkins, where the material is delivered in massive chunks, with interviews going on and on; it’s presentation with minimal manipulation or editing.

The majority of the text is people spinning these long maundering speeches, and it’s marvelous how deeply i was transported to each person’s world with a bare minimum of description (usually nothing but what they’re wearing) or gestures or characterization or psychology.

What i also like about this kind of minimalism is how it lets you make whatever kinds of connections you want between these disparate narrative blocks. The grandpa thing is what im highlighting the most of course but there’s also conceptual motifs of continuity, patterns, and insignificance. The teen’s invisibility is erased when order is restored in hir house, the narrator in the next block marks upon leaving the field how the luminosity of the fireflies stayed the same despite the number they’ve removed, the prank frames in the animation ‘tweens don’t make a difference. There’s a line from Camus that goes something like “The world always conquers history in the end.”

At the same time there are traces left behind, as Jurgen remarks that the fireflies can burn their lights into the video camera, and the party-turned-memorial for Raymond. The narrator talks about how other people’s memories showed sides of Raymond he had never known before, bringing to mind that we can never really know other people:

[…] I had always liked that Raymond seemed infinite — that his sense of humor and his voices just went on and on — but apparently he was infinite in more ways than I had known; and this was somewhat unsettling, I must say — although it was also a little comforting; […]

So that while the outer world is complex and also so massive that we leave no lasting impression on it, we also contain an infinite complexity. Are we moving towards a utopian vision, like the history teacher’s grandpa, that can sustain the complexities of the individual self and the whole pattern that can stand against the power structures and their illusions of choice?

Green provides some background to how this, Dara’s first novel, appeared in 1995:

First published by Fiction Collective Two in 1995, Evan Dara’s The Lost Scrapbook was greeted with resounding silence (there was, I believe, one review); only on its paperback reissue in 1998 did it begin to attract favorable notice, winning the FC2 National Fiction Competition, and receiving a cluster of laudatory reviews. Mention was inevitably made of other remarkable first novels, including Thomas Pynchon’s V. and William Gaddis’s great 1955 novel The Recognitions.

Yeah i know it’s silly to read criticism of texts before i read them (the only novels in this study ive read were by Delillo) but im a secondary source junkie, and it’s the only critical attention on this novel i can find. He draws our attention to the opening teen’s interest in Philip Glass, which ze calls an homage to Muybridge (pictured above)

with its repeating rhythms, endlessly rechurning, the music resembles a wave that doesn’t move, a standing wave […]

This forward moving stasis is to Green an analogy to “the novel’s own procedures.” The images of music, animation, filmmaking, history, and other disciplines and hobbies enrichen the text — it’s cool just to hear people talk about stuff they’re really interested in. Maybe another interpretive key passage is in the Beethoven section, when Dave talks about the composer’s

radical turning inwards, this obsessive project of minutely considering limited materials — or, to pick up current cant, why he would become so enamored with recycling, of telling his same story over and over again;[…]

Scanning back through this section, the transitions between narrative blocks are not signaled by any kind of section break; indeed it might be happening in the middle of a “sentence”. The first one occurs in a beautiful passage of the teen, back at the park at nighttime, observing the “ever-replenishing succession of figures” and then

[…] so I clamp my Walkman onto my two good ears, and stand up at my dark park bench, and continue on, walking, just walking, one foot after another, walking, just walking, forever walking, just continuing, walking and continuing, they continue, they continue, they just continue, the endless succession of rushing cars just continue on, one after another, entirely oblivious, entirely indifferent to my being late;[…]

im thinking the shift here is at the repetition of “they continue.” So these vignettes are hooked together in sly ways.

Unconventional punctuation aside the style is really easy going — every narrative pulled me in and I was sorry to be plucked out. i didnt expect to read through this section in one sitting and i already want to go through it again (i missed the above quote the first time and it jumped out at me when i scanned through that bit).

There was one niggling thing that made me laugh kinda, when the substitute teacher says the low turnout and the shit show of US politics

just can not be accidental; and so it came to me that the parties had realized, maybe uncounciously, that it wasn’t enough just to attract the faithful; they also have to put off the infidels — to neutralize, to demobilize the opposition; and so, in effect, this is a rare instance of the parties working together — of silently agreeing to work to keep the greatest segment of the electorate from joining in;[…]

It was funny to me that the “can not” is in two words rather than “cannot,” since making it two words opens up the obtuse yet possible reading that there exists the option that this tacit collusion may not be an accident rather than having no doubt. Maybe it helps to shape her speaking of that line, but then you could write is as “cannot” since Dara is pretty liberal with italics elsewhere. It’s not important though.

So far, a great start. And the next section looks really weird…

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