“trauma-kindred towns”

Evan Dara’s THE LOST SCRAPBOOK pp. 402-[/Done]

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It’s proven to be a wonderful and baffling and honestly inspiring novel to the very end. i think i’ll be returning to it soon and often, jumping around in the text, trying to figure out how it works. The conceit of bite-sized narrative blocks continues but the rapid-fire pace that climaxed the last section gears down to a steady pace. We witness a community’s powerlessness and marinate in corporate media while an ecological catastrophe unfolds. The Ozark corporation is sued by an oak tree, and it all culminates in a final six-page wall of text which might qualify as the most forbidding part of the whole read, but it’s still accessible, and loaded with significance.

image found here
image found here

SUMMARY

This whole final section of the novel’s three “chapters” proceeds in a one-narrative-one-paragraph fashion. First we hear of a narrator’s struggle with what i think is their electrolarynx. Then a narrator struggles with hooking up their VCR to record and watch different channels at the same time. A speaker lists their woes in trying to run a shop that only sells tea. A woman cant decide if she wants to go out to a cafe even though the prices are up, or see BEETLEJUICE, or stay in and finish leftovers and watch a TV special on date-rape. An old woman is preparing fried pastries while her son badgers her in vain about an appointment for which they have to leave; eerily, she starts mixing nonexistent batter in an empty bowl. Someone has forgotten their own phone number and the operator cant divulge it without identification — and then a woman appears at their door. A speaker has an awful job where boss and co-workers make fun of them. Someone gets a spontaneous nosebleed, and when they get to the bathroom there is a woman at their door.

Following this is a long expository paragraph on Piaget’s theory of object-permanency in a child’s early development.

The next twelve paragraphs are different accounts of this visiting woman. She’s described like the substitute history teacher from the very first entry of this let’s read, but it doesnt seem to be her — she isn’t there to ask people if they vote or not. We learn that her door-to-door visitations are in Isaura, and she’s asking about the chemical poisoning scare. She recently moved into town, and she found a dead cat next to the vent at the supermarket. And her son’s pet gerbil Erwin suddenly died (?!).

A speaker watches their father watching TV in complete darkness, getting up to go to the refrigerator, and returning with nothing in hand. We return to the dixieland band, from the pov of the drummer. Their show isn’t really happening tonight; they cant find the pocket, there’s no “sense of ensemble, of a single organism breathing as one.” The trumpeter asks the drummer if they should get a guitarist, but the drummer is shocked at the suggestion and the trumpeter is immediately ashamed. Our speaker tries to lighten the mood by saying if they did they’d have to change the name to the Ozark Nonet Minus One Plus One. A parent expresses grief for their son, who went deaf in both ears shortly after birth, from causes unknown. A mother reflects on how desperately she wants to know what her child is saying and thinking, “for what are his or her thoughts but my own — though purified, and stripped of inessentials.” The silence used to be tolerable but now “I am terrified of unmeaning –”

A resident of Isaura goes to Key West for a fishing retreat, and spots George Forbel in a prosperous retirement.

Another flurry of town voices: an internal memo has leaked that Ozark has been dealing in deadly chemicals for years. Then a parent takes their child, who suffers from chronic headaches and eye aches to the doctor, who is baffled. In a private convo the parent asks about the chemical rumors, and the doctor says even if he knew he wouldn’t tell them for fear of a lawsuit.

More voices, more symptoms, and another leaked letter: this one reveals that Ozark is dumping its waste products into the water supply in full awareness. The chorus worries about husbands who work at the plant, about their kids who they strictly bathe, about boiling all their water.

A man helps install tracking lights for his sister Nina’s and her husband’s exercising room — she accidentally mentions Jeremy and her husband storms out. She cant mention their baby’s name, whose old room the narrator is currently renovating.

We learn of a woman named Carol Daren who is leading an advocacy group responsible for leaking and disseminating the incriminating communiques. The main newspaper defends Ozark, there’s a barrage of hearsay and phone calls and misleading statistics, tests made and results repudiated, self-serving PR rhetoric. There is news of a lawsuit from an Oak Tree damaged from the poisoned water supply. The chorus explodes in derisive anger.

This final stretch of the section shows italicized quotes, reported by the township, from television news and radio. The drama shows Ozark trying to cover its ass, and a multitude of local and federal government agencies making tests, evidence refuted and twisted, tons of confusion. The miscarriage rate is alarmingly high among women in Isaura. Multiple birth defects are reported. A 15 year old girl commits suicide from fear of getting cancer when almost everyone else on her street has gotten it. But it becomes clear that Ozark has been dumping a incredibly deadly carcinogens into the water, has been doing it on behalf of other chemical companies to recoup their investment on waste-treatment infrastructure. They have poisoned the whole area within a two-mile radius because they could turn a profit from it. The EPA orders a mandatory evacuation.

Just like that, the towns people who lived next to the Ozark plant have to be relocated; and they will probably face health problems for generations.

And we reach the final 6-page paragraph. it appears to sift through multiple subjectivities. The prose is stilted and redundant — the evacuee(s) seem to be trying to decide what to take with them and what to leave behind. There is sadness and anxiety about the future. The latter half of this bit becomes more omniscient. We watch the people leaving

in waves, the cars, the people, the families now as waves, disjoint, disparate, differently propagating differently routing but waves, finally waves, the cars the people the families now waves, unarguably waves, but waves out, waves away, waves that will refract and dissipate and scatter, waves that are bending and flowing and coursing, waves that are bending around what is flowing in, flowing back, flowing back in, the waves of government trucks and government equipment and removing equipment and trasnporting equipment and protective gear, of low-rist specialists and high-risk workers and high-risk workers[…]

Then there are details of letters, pouring in from all over the country, addressed to that Oak Tree which led the lawsuit against Ozark. A list of origins spans a whole page, a catalog of “trauma-kindred towns.” The letters are like “confessionals,” the writers pouring out their grief and outrage of their own problems and addressing it to this tree which has become the emblem of this disgraceful ecological and social disaster.

The final passage goes like this:

but by then the signals were faint, yes, the sounds and the signals were flickering and faint, yes, the signals were flickering out, flickering into the amassing re-gathering, into the conclusive regathering of physics becomes math becomes psychology becomes biology, yes flickering and lost to the definitive regathering, the comforting regathering into continuity, into consciousness, into abundance, into that abundance that is silently and invisibly working on every variation, into full and enfolding abundance, into the extreme abundance of silence, yes into its opulent abundance, its sweet unity and opulence, this definitive regathering into willed abundance, into the sweet abundance of silence, of unity and silence, yes this definitive reclamation, this grand extreme of regathering and reclamation into silence, for where else could this go but silence, yes silence: silence. Silen

VOCAB

Idiopathic, of unknown cause. Any disease that is of uncertain or unknown origin may be termed idiopathic.

COMMENTS

i dunno if the incomplete final word is a printing error or not — ive seen other writers quote it fully spelled. i like to think it’s deliberate because it looks cool.

While the writing is relatively easy-going compared to other experimental novels we could name, it is still a structural challenge: it’s a deliberate mess, with almost nothing explicitly connected, and plenty of teases and misdirections. Like, the punctuation is a little odd, but each block is coherently narrated in the past tense — each piece by itself is coordinated although the whole book is unmappable; it doesn’t add up to an overarching consensus. Every monologue is like a bar mate spilling their guts to you out of compulsion, a potentially awkward kind of interaction that the constraints of conventional fiction is supposed to safeguard against. It’s amazing that TLS carries the torch of this kind of heterogenous postmodern practice while still being really transparent and readable.

But perhaps the biggest challenge arises from the question: “Who is the novel’s protagonist?” Even the wildest novels have an easily id’d main character: Joyce’s Leo Bloom, Pynchon’s Slothrop, Nabokov’s Hugh Person. Can we say that Evan Dara has really done it? That is, fashioned a novel in which the protagonist is a utopian collectivity of individuals across a vast space, moving towards a collective action of protest against an equally abstract antagonist of crony corporations and their destructive capitalist system?

But then again the novel ends so tragically, with a community in shambles, families doomed for generations on down, while that executive has a nice life in Florida with a cool convertible and a clean conscience. And saying that everybody is the protagonist is the same as saying nobody is (back to the Special Relativity point from Archie in the last section). It’s the paradox of being both a particle and a wave (pictured above), but never both at the same time. This notion has run thru the whole text. There are distinct individuals who feel autonomous but also painfully lonely, and there are patterns, continuities, and systems in which we comfortably fit. We feel ourselves in our own body, listening to our equivalent of the Walkman of the 80s, and who knows your life or experiences better than yourself? And we also feel the social forces that shape and guide us.

As a single person there is nothing you can do about white male supremacy, or colonialism, or Israel’s genocide, or the capitalist death drive. Collective action remains the most promising bet, but after the horrors of the 20th century we also know better. Ultimately it’s realism that holds out the promise of unification: all differing perspectives are made to fundamentally agree, thus naturalizing a single, objective reality. But here there is no consensus, no integration. And yet, the voices still move together for justice, if only briefly and without “success.” Perhaps we don’t have to get everyone on the same page and thus consolidate and objectify the world. By now we’ve taken to heart the lessons of post-modernism, it’s all systems and we are just carriers of knowledge and discourses etc. etc. Postmodern literature confounds the systems of realism and shows us the prison bars, but LOST SCRAPBOOK goes a bit further — it possibly gives us the key, by suggesting that we dont have to be searching for one.

The pleasures of an avant-garde practice are in being a marginal individual who has a voice that threatens to jam the system, creating the art that fits in-between the market-sanctioned and power-serving content of the mainstream; being like Harry Partch, or the pirate broadcaster, or Noam Chomsky (sorta). But there’s also joy in an emphasis on the group, of finding the pocket in a great music ensemble, of feeling like you’re contributing to a factory work flow, or making animation frames.

This whole unmappable novel unfolds as a litany of failed communications, but each discrete narrative block is a like a voice from the margins, or the “interstices.” And like the people of Isaura, or to the teen at the gas station, or the anonymous victims at the end of the book’s first section, we’re effectively held hostage by capitalism and the “free” press it controls, so that in the end the townsfolk can do little more than regurgitate the sophistries and statistics and deflections of the news.

(Maybe literary scholars will be able to comb thru the whole text and draw all its elements together and make a map of the novel, showing to be an intricately constructed thing and not a deliberate mess. And while the book is silent on how this whole thing is racialized it doesn’t preclude it, since environmental racism is an obvious extrapolation you can make; still…)

Every single block is a case-study of navigating that tension between being a particle and a wave, the repeatedly deferred process of moving from the mainstream to the margin (like that poetic patch after Kevin Flack’s performance). It never really happens; it’s just a sublime ideal — the real interstices that we are looking far are the literal margins of the book, the white spaces without a textual voice (like the pirate broadcast section).

But the project is still worth the effort. There are teases that invite us to naturalize the novel’s structure. Could the production of the book be from the anthropology student, taping a whole cast of voices? Or maybe these words are from the deluge of letters addressed to the Oak tree. The novel’s optimism, it seems, comes from the hope that narrative can give a voice to the people who are disenfranchised the most by the system (and there are certainly people more marginalized folx in this country than the largely white midwesterners we meet here). it’s certainly part  of why i became an historian.

i think THE LOST SCRAPBOOK earns the right to its experimental style, if it has to. Your mileage will vary of course but i thought it kept up its cleverness to the end. The text is unmoored from chronology and it allows us to dwell in prosaic and mundane lives, which has always been the fare of novels. The messiness and weirdness is not a distraction from a paucity of time or character or plot, or a way to spoon-feed its themes or arguments: it’s all embodied by the style, it gives the reader a lot of space to draw their own lines of significance.

They say a mystery plot is a story (what happened) hidden behind the main story (how the detective solves it). The titular lost scrapbook is like another example of this sort of marginal/counter-narrative within the book, made by some eccentric grandpa/utopian commune leader/radical archivist/Utah Phillips-esque folk musician. That guy’s story is itself marginalized and hidden in this novel’s narrative. But the hope is that under Capital’s iron grid of communications, these kind of stories will still get out.

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2 thoughts on ““trauma-kindred towns”

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