Saturday, July 23, 2016

Evan Dara's Lost Scrapbook, or the art of listening to static

In Wim Wenders's Wings of Desire, there is a scene in which the angel Damiel (portrayed by Bruno Ganz) flies over the city listening to people's thoughts: a small snippet unlocks an entire life. The reader of Evan Dara's novel might feel a bit like that: inhabiting multiple consciousnesses one after another, although perhaps without all the intimate knowledge afforded to an angel. No, there is nothing supernatural about this novel. The reader is invited to lend an ear to the most quotidian -- and to the marvelous that resides within the quotidian.

Another metaphor that one could use to describe the narrative technique invented here -- and one perhaps more to the point since it is deployed within the novel -- is the metaphor of the radio. Imagine that, with every turn of the dial, you are tuning in to someone's voice: a conversation, a letter being read, an internal monologue, an interview on the air, a town hall meeting, a courtroom debate... All these voices are always on; you are tuning in at an arbitrary point, always in medias res. You are not a patient listener: sometimes you stick with the story for several pages, other times you can put up with just one paragraph. Sometimes you recognize a voice you have heard before. Sometimes the same person is mentioned by different acquaintances or friends, even though they may never speak directly.

The Lost Scrapbook could then be described as a transcript of that radio channel-swapping session. Like on the radio, you are also reaching out to different locations. Sometimes they are given (starting with Edwardsville -- that is Edwardsville, IL, first hinted at by a reference to Hoppe Park (p. 7) and then named directly), other times identified by some local marker (a unique succession of intersections in Springfield, MO (pp. 8ff); or state routes in western Tennessee... (p. 22)), and other times, omitted entirely.

The transition from one "radio station" (speaker, narrator) to the next is as fluid as on the radio, there is no break, no rhetorical transition. Full stop is the one punctuation mark absent from the book: there are dashes, commas, ellipses, spaces -- bigger or smaller, contracting and expanding -- semicolons, colons... Punctuation is not always used in the way you'd expect. Sometimes it is like the static you get on the radio when the signal is getting weak.

How can you tell that the radio dial has been given another turn (let's stick with this metaphor), since you are actually not in control of the knob?
Besides geographical markers, there are others: gender markers, more or less easily perceptible changes in the subject, contrary character traits, proper names... Sometimes you are reading, not so much between the lines, but between "stations" where voices of two narrators overlap, & you can't tell exactly where one breaks off the other begins because the lines you read could belong to either: a father talks about a falling out with his son, about the drum kit he had bought him and which the son left behind, and which now sits in the living room like a "commemorative sculpture". "God damn God damn God damn God damn, he said;
-- Sorry?, I said;
-- You know, I've really got to establish something right off, he said: and it's this: that there is one thing [...] that I want from life [...]--and it's for this damn sprinkler just to turn around!..." (p. 42).
Whom does the God-damn belong to? The father regretting his estranged son or the guy frustrated with his sprinkler? There's no way of knowing. This is the narrative gray zone. Voices blend on the air, words hold double meanings. One character ends another one's sentence: semantic break in the midst of syntactic continuity.

Many of the characters' ruminations could be described as metanarrative: Nick, an inbetweener, who fills in cartoon drawings between so-called extreme shots, muses on his job: "so you see what happens: once your brain registers sufficient similarities between the figures, it understands--it just knows--that they're the same character; then, with the help of good old persistence of vision, you blend together the movement and the sequence comes to life; what may seem like impossible difference in the individual images are submerged in the onrushing flow;" (p. 48) It doesn't matter how poorly executed the in-between drawings are: the eye registers continuous movement of the same, recognizable cartoon character.

We can't help but make wholes out of fragments, wholes despite holes. "O let me teach you how to knit again / This scattered corn into out mutual sheaf, / These broken limbs again into one body;", says the epigraph from Titus Andronicus. The eye leaps over lacunae, fills in narrative gaps, knits loose strands into a tightly woven tapestry. We are able to reconstruct a conversation even though we can hear only one side of the dialogue (like eavesdropping on one end of a phone call) or fill in the missing counterargument only on the basis of the rebuttal.

Continuity / discontinuity can be said to be one of the major preoccupations of the novel, not just in the sense of narrative flow. One character, a woman working at an office, describes her experience of losing touch with her own feelings and desires once similar responses have been expressed by others:

[...] I feel as if words, others' words, have crowded mine out, and have left me no place; I do not know why, through what mechanism, this occurs, but when it does, and it is often, I find that I develop a need, an earnest yearning, for words that have not become sour and strange--that is, for words that are my own, words that are uniquely mine amid the foreign wash; and yet I find, when I look for such words--my words--none seem to be there: all of my words, upon the slightest inspection, seem so foreign to me, so much the work of others; and so I wonder how I can claim that anything that occurs in my consciousness is mine, and not product of some otherness; often I feel that I am not thinking so much as eavesdropping on my own thoughts, listening on a narrative being told between othernesses--that it is the otherness thinking in me. [...] others' words have even determined the content of my own suffering, and I want, above all, is to find my own means to suffer, to be able to express myself in sadness; this, then, will be my project, my creative enterprise: to find an absolutely personal mode of sadness; it is, perhaps, the most significant work left me; yet I shouldn't even say me, my, myself, when speaking about this, for doing so represents too bold an assertion; it would be better, more accurate, certainly more discerning, to use the third person, she, to best capture the situation--or even he, the masculine, the form that is even more generic: I should really say He wakes up; He sloshes to the bathroom [...] (pp. 190–1)
The self dissolves in the continuous stream of words generated by others. To look at it another way: every character says "I". What is there to distinguish one "I" from another? A person's gender or geographical location, although they provide the reader with clues about the speaker, are arbitrary and extraneous. Even certain tics of speech ("Mm...", "Hm..."), idiosyncratic phrases ("she's a bit flippo" pp. 186, 351) can be shared by multiple voices. Similarly, objects can act as red herrings (for example, you may remember a speaker early on in the book talking about owning a 10-speed Raleigh bicycle (p. 13); another Raleigh crops up later on in the novel (p. 418), and your memory knits its happy synapses, only to realize that the second bike is a three-speeder). So, how, from an uninterrupted flow of speech is an individual supposed to emerge?

Or for that matter, how can you know you have made any progress in the narrative? Perhaps what you hear (read) is the same voice speaking in the same place, spinning in place, quite literally, like a broken record? Not quite in the middle of the novel a character seems to emerge from radio static. The effect of his emergence is at first a bit uncanny. The reader suddenly no longer feels safe (safe, that is, apart, uninvolved). It's as if the radio started speaking directly, not to anyone out there, but specifically to me (whoever "I" am), even while the speaking voice seemingly answers a question launched by a radio host to an incoming caller: "is there someone there...?; no...?"

...Well, in fact, yes...

...yes, there is someone there...

...yes, indeed...

...There is someone here...

...I am here...

...I am right here...

...and so are you...

...But are you here?....

...are you?...

...are you listening?...

...are you there?...

...Yes, you...

...That's right, you... 
                                                                             (pp. 72–4)

I am reproducing the spacing here as faithfully as possible. Ultimately, it is this space, which we cannot skip over as easily as spaces between words or the discontinuities in the narrative flow, this silence which spills over an undeniable duration, that creates an uncanny effect. The emptiness which expands on the page, a nonverbal terrain vague, a suspension of words, catches the reader off guard. You almost look over your shoulder, wondering if someone else will take the responsibility for the response, or if you is you; and if you don't answer, will the story get stuck in the rut and the question keep reverberating until ... until ... until ... ?

The situation is similar to that encountered in Eisenstein's montage, "It has to do with the whole notion of cut, of adding any kind of discontinuity on screen," affirms a film studies instructor to his student as they discuss the term paper topic.
[...] how radical a departure that was; [...] because audiences weren't used to anything like that; the first movie audiences had only seen continuous takes, or onflowing plays, and then filmed transcriptions of plays [...] Precisely: it's related to Piaget's work with neonates, or newborns--how they aren't born with a sense of permanence of objects, how they have to learn this. [...] you show a child a ball, then you put a screen between the child and the ball, then the child no longer thinks the ball is there; [...] to the child the ball hasn't only disappeared, it doesn't even exist any longer; the child withdraws his hand, and doesn't even attempt to push aside the screen; the ball has literally ceased to exist for him--or, as Piaget said, the child has not achieved object constancy. (pp. 204–5)
Not quite in the middle of the novel, then, a character emerges seemingly from radio static. It is no coincidence that the character's preoccupation is static itself, or more precisely the reach of a radio signal, which he proceeds to test by driving (through neighboring streets, then out onto the highway, then along I-80) to find the exact line in space where the signal cuts out. Like some character in a movie trying to walk outside the frame only to find himself in the next frame. Strangely, the signal's strength remains undiminished despite the traversed distance. So the (nameless) character drives off the beaten track and into the woods ... until he comes to an abrupt stop.

(Since, similar to "othernesses" determining the nature of our own sadness, the whole of literature passes through the novel (cf. Victor Hugo, the whole of poetry can be heard within a poem), the charater's predicament could have been expressed thus:
When I had journeyed half our life's way,
I found myself within a shadowed forest,
for I had lost the path that does not stray.

The character then comes to an abrupt stop because right there, in the middle of the forest, is a man, kneeling in the grass, apparently oblivious to his surroundings. He becomes the newcomer's reluctant guide. The two meander through the dense wood, searching for a patch of white fungus. At the end of that journey, the (still unnamed) narrator feels utterly lost and uncertain of the distance covered. Amazingly, however, he finds he is right where he started. He finds his car, gets in, shuts the door, turns on the radio ... only to find that, the signal that wouldn't drop, has now been lost. How is that possible? The car is in precisely the same physical position he'd left it. And yet something has changed. There has been a rift in the fabric of space-time. One, however, that cannot be exactly mapped.

The path of the character lost-in-the-forest, circling around the same spot, mirrors perhaps the zooming in of the novel's narrative stream on one geographical location: after various towns scattered as far as Rochester, NY and Byrd Spring Lake, Ala., perhaps Cleveland, OH and a long stretch of I-80 in Iowa or Nebraska, passing through a bunch of small towns around southern Illinois, west Tennessee, eastern Oklahoma, then Missouri (Springfield, Saint Joseph...), we end up in a fictional township of Isaura. Similarly, the narrative stories converge: various quotidian preoccupations about diet, home improvement, gardening, rising prices, housing market ... now appear tethered to one central point -- an environmental disaster caused by long-term storage of toxic material by a local photographic film manufacturing company. The speaking voices become more tightly interwoven, and one can retrace, over a span of some years, the unfolding of the disaster. From the first signs of concern and company attempts at cover-up, to the emergence of symptoms (deformed births, suspicious deaths), to the state and federal response, and finally to the evacuation of the town. The reader wonders whether there were any signs earlier in the book that might have hinted at this: what about baby Rebecca who died of a sudden respiratory failure (pp. 244ff)? what about the teenage boy Raymond and his "worsening condition" (p. 55)? Was the reader at this point interested only in propelling the narrative forward? Did the reader fail in any way to respond?
but by then the signals were faint, the sounds and the signals were flickering and faint, yes, the signals were flickering out, flickering into the amassing regathering, into the conclusive regathering where physics becomes math becomes psychology becomes biology, yes flickering and lost to the definitive gathering, the comforting regathering into continuity, into continuousness, into abundance, into that abundance that is silently and invisibly working on every variation, info 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 into silence, for where else could this go but silence, yes silence: silence. Silen


  1. beautiful description of our favorite book.

  2. p.s. we grew up in Jefferson City, Missouri, so you can imagine our surprise when our hometown started popping up all over the place.

    1. Thank you for your comments: I am probably as surprised to have a visitor on my somewhat derelict blog as you must have been to see familiar streets visited in Evan Dara's novel. The novel has been a fortuitous and stunning discovery to me. Having read it, I am surprised it does not have a bigger following.

  3. Terrific post! I first read this in 2001 and it has been in my lifetime top 5 ever since. Happy to see folks still loving it and discussing it!