Evan Dara’s THE LOST SCRAPBOOK pp. 225-280
This week’s reading takes us to the end of the book’s first “chapter” out of three, this one being almost 60% of the whole text. It’s more or less the same kind of material found in the last section, but with more recursion, more encyclopedic stuff (linguistics, avant-garde music, subatomic physics, Darwinism), more games (returning names and our biggest shaggy dog story yet), and more weirdness such as a sinister telemarketing bot and a creepy neighbor. More layers, more people, more possibilities for how to be in this world: marvel at language or cower in fear of it, connect with other bodies or abandon your own. The novel keeps on accruing, perhaps, as one narrator says, building slowly towards a critical mass.
First, another interlude from the choleric speaker who really wants to talk about Ravel, the same speaker presumably which came after the pirate broadcast. Then we are with a woman waiting in line at the supermarket:
I am standing here thinking Please, lady, please, you who are slowing up this checkout line, please sweet Madam, please find your checkbook quickly, please hurry up!
Among her silent protesting are purplish lines such as: “blue seawaves swelling under my heart.” On the next page she is driving away, and she narrates about fighting against Distance itself, which has achieved a “density” and “viscosity,” so powerful are her desires. She has to “keep the gas pedal within civilized limits.” We learn that she is in a hurry to get with her lover, and what follows is an astounding foreplay scene on the john’s living room floor.
I am clutched, and I am sustained, and I can only think Finally my Diaspora is ended
and then he finds my nipple, and he cups it, and trails his fingertips across it, delicately floating above my nipple’s sparking; and when his other hand magically appears to undo my shirt buttons
and so on and so forth for about five pages.
Now ive read quite a few Harlequin novels, and they never allowed themselves to have a voice as educated as this narrator, but like those books there are silly euphemisms here that make one blush for different reasons. “He nips at my hard soft pellet.” His “tiger-tongue curls to catch the underside of my nipple.” Cunnilingus is described as “the drawbridge of his tongue crossing my murky moat, or like a Soyuz mission docking in space…” But there are other more unexpected moments, like when she refers to the guy’s sucking on her nipples as her own penetration.
Thematically relevant is her desire to lose her apartness in a brief moment of sexual communion.
we are one system, we are continuous, sharing long glissandos of feeling that are lacing between us, stitching us
our every move and gesture is a new expression of a limitless significance;
The metaphor with the spaceships above is the transition to a new speaker who is browsing magazine covers. They regard these glossy images of perfect-looking people and think
This is not innocent, this is not unknowing, every angle and facet and posture in this has been mapped out and calculated for maximal effect; and I heard myself think That these people have spent fortunes to do this, to hire peak professionals, monumental scholars of deception, to determine precisely how to achieve their invisible, irresistible manipulations;
And this insight puts the narrator in a weird position of being “disappeared.” The gulf between what the world of corporate desire-production wants them to feel and what they recognize as illusion doesnt make them any more superior or happy. The advertising world wants them to hate themself and feel inadequate, but seeing through the lies makes them “the product of shadows, finding darkness where human eyes only registered brightness;”
And this notion of light and dark leads to thinking about photographs — their parents met while looking at a photograph, and it it was saved by their grandfather ( ! ) and put in his scrapbook ( ! ! ). But no one could have foreseen that they would become a “sick-seeker” such as they are, nor would they have anticipated what comes next:
While talking with an acquaintance at the laundromat, they notice the person keeps looking at their left hand, which had some gnawed fingernails, and seeing this imperfection they get rid of their hand, “putting it in my head.” Then they put their shoulders in their head, and their right ear bc the earlobe is attached, then their calves (too pale), then their nose (too long), then their scrotum (not as dark as Mick Jagger’s), and their elbow (has a rash), putting them all (and more) in their head.
And yes, they really are going into this person’s head, so that it has buffed up in size and become “somewhat heavier, and larger, and harder to balance upon the pool cue of my neck;”
We leave this poor soul for another voice talking about suicides on the Golden Gate bridge, and how statistically they more often choose the side facing the bay, the land, the other people. Perhaps
the leapers find a concealed continuity, a hidden determinism, although one that is terribly refracted by time, and uncapturable without time-lapse photography — if the pictures could be assembled…yes: drop by drop the leapers seek to become a current, to become like water, a waterfall of man…
This segues into a new narrator, a woman with a five month old baby named Rebecca, and she listens to her sleeping on the baby monitor. This is a tender scene in which the narrator reads aloud a card sent from her friend Robin ( ! ) addressed directly to Rebecca, and she reads it to her softly as she sleeps in her crib. The letter is full of crazy word play, and is all about Chomsky, his political comments, and his work on linguistics, and how they might connect.
Dear Rebecca…O tiny tykelette, o noble neonate, let us now talk of transformations…not grammatical, of course, no clause for alarm here, but personal, ezymatical, sociobiological…for your faithful correspondent, your penning epistler, AKA your anti-Robin has found something that makes auntie-matter!
The mother needs at least two intermissions between this stuff. Aunt Robin writes very engagingly however about “the Chomp’s” emphasis on the human capabilities of language construction, how they will soon be little Rebecca’s in a short amount of time.
After a few pages the phone rings: it’s a telemarketer robot hawking roof maintenance services.
After the fourth round of Robin’s pun-tastic letter, Rebecca makes another hiccup. She made a few other ones before, but to the narrator this one’s different — it’s more like a cough. In fact, Rebecca starts looking and sounding very sick. Holding her and patting her back doesnt help. The mother becomes afraid, takes Rebecca downstairs to the kitchen, fixes her some apple juice in a bottle but she wont take it. She’s crying and coughing at once.
The narrator takes the phone to call the hospital — and this is when it turns into a horror story, because the telemarketer bot is still on the line. She breaks the connection but it persists. The she checks the other house phone which isn’t in use. She starts to visualize her panic as dark fire clouds that are closing in on her. Feeling totally helpless, she simply starts pleading silently to Rebecca to become better, but her baby starts looking brown in the face and her lips are white. The clouds close around her, and the last thing she can see is the baby monitor.
After another interlude about sound equipment, we turn to an odd story narrated by an all-American white guy with a nice house and a nice neighbor named Angelo. Angelo is a math teacher with a permanent smile, who offers to plow the narrator’s front yard in the winter, for free. As the months go one he’s also fertilizing the yard, and trimming the hedges, and shingling the roof, and painting the house — all of these favors, without asking anything in return, to the extent that the narrator tells Angelo that he doesn’t even have to ask. So the narrator is a little weirded out, and is happy to avoid interacting with Angelo, but all the same he appreciates the work this bubbly neighbor does. He even starts creating pretexts, such as leaving his wallet in the house, to take his dates to his driveway to show off the niceness of his home. Then one night a motorcyclist crashes on the street just outside. He goes out to help the guy, and calls an ambulance over. After he’s gone he lingers because, like a good white property-owning American, he wants to help the police. But this is when he realizes: Angelo has been keeping both the narrator’s house and his own, but Angelo’s house looks just slightly better in every single way.
The next block is a fun one. Two people, one of them named Pete, are interviewing a verbose music professor for a statement. Instead this prof tells us the story of the avant-garde composer Harry Partch, who designed and invented his own instruments, such as the gourd tree (pictured above) to perform his pieces, which went beyond the Western scale system.
the Western scale, of course, contains twelve semitones, running, for example, from C to B natural; commonly it’s assumed that this segmentation of the scale into twelve parts is somehow mandated by nature, or reflects some absolute physical imperative; but, in fact, it is an arbitrary convention settled upon just a few centuries ago and rigidly perpetuated ever since;
And after gushingly going trough a catalog of some of Partch’s original instruments, he goes on about other alternative scale systems tried out through history, from the 16th century onward. The interrogators periodically interrupt, but they can never get out more than a “Sir–” before he keeps on trucking. Finally, he tells the people (presumably cops) that he was giving a lecture on Partch when two young people walked out. Then he was walking home when he saw a film crew on location, shooting for a commercial, and then he saw a guy. And here Pete interrupts with a large tantrum, patience gone.
We never find out just what the professor was called to state upon, or what this investigation was for. Instead we get another interlude from the Ravel voice. (“fucking imbecility…fucking boring insipidity…all this stupid neo-pythagoran shit-rant”) We learn a little more at last of what they want to say about Ravel: that they want to continue his Bolero to include more instruments, so that it could go on for infinity. Thankfully this wont happen because the speaker didnt go on to study composition like they wanted to.
Our new narrator is a lonely woman who pulls out her old diaries and counts 66 men that she has burned through. After recalling a few names for us she tells of a revelation, that
my tendencies had taken on, I realized, a self-perpetuating force, the force of a narrative, one whose irresistible, onrushing self-determinism led every time, every time, to disappointment…and so I realized I had to break out of my narrative, to smash it entirely, this ordering of codes that always betrays its content…
That time comes with a new man called Raymond ( ! ). They start dating and things seem nice; they dont have sex or any high level intimacy and the narrator is happy to take things slow. Then she unbears herself to Raymond one night in a wonderful monologue about alienation and a fear of communicating with others that her words might “infect” her listeners; an anxiety that is counterpart to the woman who saw the TV miniseries in the last update. Raymond feels the same way, and after their date that night there is a phone call in which they agree to stay apart as a “community of isolates,” achieving a “link through separation.”
After she reminisces about her absent father, we return to a more scientific discourse similar to the Golden Gate suicide voice. They begin by talking about the
Democritus/Descartes/Leibniz slice-‘n’-dice cartel…by dividing, by reducing, that is how we understand…making the atoms and particles ever smaller, ever further subdivided, that is how we know them…and so with us…we are each of us an experiment…we are each of us a problem that needs to be worked out…to be thrust into isolated focus, to be understood…and you can read all about it in De Particulier à Particulier…but after a while, you don’t remember, after a certain point the particles cannot again be divided…before long there is just nothing there…nothing beyond spontaneously assembling forces…which then spontaneously break down, and instantly decay…rot, decay…in other words, after sufficient reduction the situation becomes inherently unstable…it becomes both self-creating and self-destroying…it endlessly consumes itself, and can only be fixed, can only be calmed, by an observer outside
They transition from here through various small observations that also popped in the beginning of this block (it reminds me so much of the cut-up technique) to talking about Darwin and Spencer. These thinkers are also implicated in the postmodern/quantum assault on classical knowledge. They speak “of a teleology that cannot be supported…”
The survival of the fittest narrative, which is certainly what capitalists have taken from Darwin’s work, is an impossible and nonsensical reduction: it would mean all life being annihilated until only the One remains, alone in a world with all difference eradicated. It’s about the false champion, not the trillions who don’t make it. But the eradication of difference was the happy project of Victorian colonization and industrialization, and here we are.
We go seamlessly into a frightening hostage crisis, with boots tramping on the floor, panicked people huddled together, we read different voices that just stutter and rapidly repeat the same words
— God no God no God no God no God no
and so on. And with that the first section is [/done].
Raymond Queneau, French novelist and poet, co-founder of Oulipo, and associated with postmodernism and surrealism.
Obloquy, Strong public criticism or verbal abuse.
Sibilance, a manner of articulation of fricative and affricate consonants, made by directing a stream of air with the tongue towards the sharp edge of the teeth, which are held close together.
Marquetry, the art and craft of applying pieces of veneer to a structure to form decorative patterns, designs or pictures.
Diapason, an organ stop sounding a main register of flue pipes, typically of eight-foot pitch; a grand swelling burst of harmony.
i fear that ive been getting ahead of myself when talking about this text, immediately pulling out the exciting concepts that square with the undergrad theory ive read. And it’s true that this book is a cargo load of compelling ideas, tapping a whole century of intellectual history and culture. But maybe ive been neglecting the wonderful storytelling that’s going on all this time. The writing throughout is strong, and by that word i mean the writing voice is active and the phrasing is taught; there is no foggy meaning even when the narrative is carrying some unwieldy academic concepts. There are selective details in every scene, and the heterogenous mixture of voices and anecdotes washes over the reader like a continuous dream. It’s engaging, vivid, interesting, and, like any good story, these narratives remind us of just how strange life and the world can be.
Yet the Harlequinesque block that opens this update opens up some implications of the novel’s crazy-quilt method. ill quote Professor Green to give credit where it’s due:
To read in detail of erotic activity cannot, in spite of the breathless assertions of unity, connection, wholeness, and the rest of it, avoid recalling the lurid and objectifying prose of pornography. Such reminders are underscored by the decontextualization of this passage, the fact that the narrator and her sexual partner remain entirely anonymous to the reader: their sexual activity does not figure as a narrative consummation, an act preceded by any sequences and stages of prior experience, save the trivial frustration of standing in a supermarket checkout line.
With the next block opening about magazine covers, the scene here of anonymous, ecstatic bodies invites us to connect the two in this way. Without context or identity, this state of pleasure comes off as little different from the consumerist imagery of pleasures and perfect existence that in the reality evade us. At the same time though, Dara puts in really personal details of speaking, behavior, and thoughts that dont fly in more conventional fiction, so that to me these stories almost have a little more personality, or at least uniqueness, than commercial fiction in that way. At any rate it’s a really complicated space of context, image, and desire that is set up for us here.
Of similar complexity is the following narrator’s malcontent with the phony pleasures of consumerist images, which reminds me a lot of experiences with depression, when you feel ashamed of yourself for no actual reason, which leads to feeling ashamed of your shame.
All of the main blocks in this section have to do with individual responses to the dilemma of communication and isolation. There is sexual contact. Or exile by banishing your body parts, or throwing yourself off the Golden Gate bridge. The mother speaks to Rebecca although she is asleep and cant articulate a response anyway, but she finds her silence “incomparably expressive and moving,” although that quickly turns into a nightmare scenario when she is pleading in futile.
The guy with his neighbor Angelo is a funny moment of neighborly communication that is only friendly on the surface. Angelo seems to embody all the good values of community and aid, but he’s actually buffaloing the narrator out of any real choice, and he feels this intuitively.
Angelo knew that it would be discourteous for me to say no to his request, because it was a service for my benefit; even a kindness can become unwanted when you don’t have options…
The maundering musicology professor could very well be a spokesman for the novel. i dont have Elizabeth Deeds Ermarth’s book SEQUEL TO HISTORY handy but there is a great passage there about how postmodern narrative tries to resist our compulsive need for a pinnacle, to “get to the point already.” Instead it leads us around and around the magic center, deliberately taking the most inefficient route possible, but if we’re on board with the project we find that just being in the text is its own reward. i found the story of Harry Partch to be fascinating, though i imagine it’d be very frustrating if you’re trying to do an investigation.
ill refrain from trying to make meaning out of all the odd events in this update. Instead i want to think about the postmodernist play going on here. Two character names come back — could our new mother be the same narrator as the lady who had a high school friend named Robin, some time later? Is Raymond who is dating the lonely heart speaker the same as the guy who liked radio and died way early on in the book? It could just be a coincidence, how many Raymonds and Robins are in the US? and if it is the same Robin it could just be a different acquaintance. But all the same, it’s like the text is daring us to make the connection, to try to assimilate this material into something coherent the way a more sensible novel would do for us.
As tight and clear as the prose is on the narration level, very little is actually being made clear. We can’t be 100% sure where the seam between narrative blocks are; does the emdash before the prose poem in the previous update mean those lines are being spoken? The elements are so carefully imprecise, and trying to read closer only leads to more confusion, a process that mirrors the erudite speaker on the “slice-‘n’-dice cartel,” that is, the Western intellectual tradition of fragmentation and analysis. In the Descartes sense of slicing and dicing, it is the human itself, separating mind from body. And it’s also East and West, thought and emotion, white and black, civilization and savagery, and all the other false binaries. One is superior and the Other is inferior, and the inferior side is embodied in the latter half of that other pernicious hierarchy: male and female.
i keep flipping through the parts of the book ive already read, trying to go through it word by word, to get a better grip of how it works. But like the quantum subatomic particles, it only compounds the confusion — you may as well try to get extremely close to a Pollack painting.
Next: Chomsky, long car rides, and a town hall meeting…