The Easy Chain, Evan Dara. Aurora. 502pp, $16.95
Evan Dara’s sophomore novel, The Easy Chain, published thirteen years after his outstanding The Lost Scrapbook, is likely among the most bizarre novels published in 2008; however, it also must be among the most compulsively readable (and re-readable) of them. The novel centers around the rarely-seen Lincoln Selwyn, a British citizen from the Netherlands who lived in a “top-floor former storeroom in a tiny squat on the Westerstraat until he crashed collidingly into all squats’ primordial problem, the bathroom.” Selwyn arrives in Chicago and quickly rises to the status of rich and famous socialite, seemingly for no other reason than his good looks and charm. Then he disappears. As one mourning his absence notes: “What can I say? He just appeared one day and then, wow, after doing like miracles, he was plucked away, he was suddenly taken from us. I don’t mean to stretch, but it was like Jesus, it felt like that.”
It’s a standard enough plot for a novel, except readers familiar with The Lost Scrapbook will know going in that almost nothing about a Dara novel is standard—or easy. The magic of his writing and what he accomplishes through it is, despite its difficulty, obscurity, density, and abstractness, manifested in how mesmerizing, hypnotizing, and just plain readable Evan Dara is.
The Easy Chain is written as a melange of voices, some in dialogue with one another and some first-person; in these passages the writing is so immediate that even the non-dialogue expository passages seem like they might be narrated via first person, too. There’s an omniscience to all the writing in the book that doesn’t typically go hand-in-hand with so much dialogue.
There are four or five basic styles that Dara uses throughout the novel, and a description of these will give a clearer picture of the novel and how it works.
One of these could be described as The Lost Scrapbook style—lengthy set pieces that sometimes have no endings and that create a sense of uneasiness, despite their often pedestrian subject matter. (They, for instance, recall The Lost Scrapbook’s lawn mowing/yardwork scene, although The Easy Chain doesn’t contain nearly as many instances of scene-jumping or shifts in first-person narration mid-sentence). One standout from The Easy Chain is the story of Lincoln’s transit from a Dutch company that dredges rivers and waterways for metal objects to the University of Chicago. First, Dara narrates Lincoln’s job at the company. This lengthy story then leads to Lincoln finding, in a purse that is pulled from the water, an IOU from an English-language bookstore; this leads to his enrolling in and attending the University of Chicago, which leads to him getting very sick, etc. Each segment can almost stand alone, and the way in which each is written would indicate a forthcoming climax or resolution, but the payoff for each piece is merely that it leads into the next segment of Lincoln’s life.
When he lands in the United States, we’re treated to this:
Blinking dry under the seven hours of jetlag, waiting for the two knapsacks at the spinaround carrousel, he greeted all the skipdoodle of the airport with the grand gesture of a sneezing fit. Plus gurgly coughing. Huge outflushes of gases and sputa, tears leaping from every backwhip. Good four minutes, he said. First time in the U.S., he’s saluting it with mucus.
A second style found in The Easy Chain would encompass sections written from the point of view of inanimate objects. This is a speck of dirt:
Hup on an untied sneaker-lace on the unattached chin-strap of a bike helmet in a cig cough and then tumble-shoved by a snorting SUV contrail on an upstream of belched evaporating raspberry Fresca jolted by a home-returning marker-cap and
The dirt (of course) ends up on the anus of a dog (a “roan-brown chow”), where it remains until the dog defecates.
In a third style, a restaurant is forced out of business when new landlords impose a quadrupled rent; this triggers the economic collapse of the city, which is finally taken back by nature:
So applaud us, hail us, worship us for this, that the awnings are gone and the carpet cushions are gone, and the Portland cement and photovoltaic collectors and interdendritic spaces in the steel-substrate coatings, and the sheet carpet and the bintley lintels and the roller shutter frontages and the lead paint encapsulants and the piling, gone, they are gone, we are to be worshipped for this.
But it’s dialogue—mostly centered around how much the speakers love Lincoln (and occasionally the speakers segue into set pieces about harebrained business ventures, like a health-food buffet where you pay based on how much weight you gained while you were there)—that makes up the bulk of the first half of the book. It is full of bits like: “Zenkofsky’s is a benign dysfunction of the semanto-neurological system, thought to be triggered by exquisite sensitivity to social nuance . . .” and, “Six people killed in a bus accident is a tragedy; in a plane crash it’s a miracle” and, “It’s only gotten to the point where it’s easier for us to imagine the destruction of the world than the changing of our economic system—” and, “The guys with the big eyes think it up, then the guys with the little eyes take it over.” This will inevitably bring about comparisons to William Gaddis, though I think Joseph McElroy would be more apt for Dara’s use of science, the denseness of the prose, and his refusal to give the reader any sort of a helping hand through the text.
But like Gaddis, Dara’s work is littered with dozens of things that get brief mentions: schemes and ideologies, ideas and jokes that populate the world of the novel and that would not at all be out of place in ours. Dara’s imagination is such that many of the items would make great pieces for further satire and examination, but they are simply steamrolled by the increasing weight of the text as more and more threads accumulate. Things like: “promosexuals” who have “an erotic accord with the advertisement”; “expectatory therapy”; “paleo-optometry”; a man who wants to sue his mirror for slander; forensic musicology (“he found Proof! that the Rosenbergs were Fall-guys for Stravinsky!—absolutely, that StraVinsky was the culprit, that he was encoding nuclear secrets in his tone rows!”); a scheme cooked up by the Catholic church to pay whores to mock and humiliate their customers, thus discouraging the solicitation of prostitution; “autaganda,” which is “the propaganda we feed ourselves, all the suggestions and exhortations and judgments and secular beliefs—you see what I’m getting at—that we accept as original and true, indeed as coming from our innermost essence—unmediated, as it were, arriving from eternity, and delivered with Godlike authority by our inner PA.” With so much accumulating everywhere, the only thing to do is keep pushing through to see where it’s going, though in the end all of these things do seem to work together, forming a sort of mosaic through which the action of the book takes place, as if the narration happens through the ideas of the novel rather than exposition.
But there is more! Anyone who flips through The Easy Chain will no doubt notice the forty-one-page textless gap, as well as the sixty-page section that is written in verse. (Upon closer examination it appears to be narrated by an autistic girl, although in one of many instances of unanswered questions, the clues could point to numerous other possible interpretations.)
The second half of the novel—post-lacuna—is comprised of the following: Lincoln’s search for an aunt who moved to America; a young journalist named Tracey Kassner, who is trying to sell the story of Lincoln and the mystery of his disappearance to magazines and agents (and whom we only see through her emails to those people); the team of investigators on Lincoln’s trail looking to nail him for various crimes, most of which seem to involve credit card scams (and who speak in hilarious, overblown language: “then the miserable fuck meets his inevitable destiny in some black-dark sweat-cell somewhere, living like the crawlspace-scum he really is, eating like a beggar in Bangladesh”). But Lincoln’s real crimes come later.1
I could go on, but I doubt that these first 1,500 words, or even another 1,500 words, will give the experience of reading an Evan Dara novel. For those few who are familiar with The Lost Scrapbook, The Easy Chain is very different—but it’s clearly written by the same author, and, like The Lost Scrapbook, even when one is thoroughly lost and totally confused, there’s such a power and variety to the writing that it’s quite possible to read along until things begin to again make sense. In this way both books are also quite quick reads, surprising given their length and high degree of difficulty.
Elsewhere in The Quarterly Conversation I have referred to The Lost Scrapbook as one of the best novels of the 1990s; The Easy Chain should be remembered as one of the best novels of the 2000s.
Scott Bryan Wilson is a contributing editor to The Quarterly Conversation.
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