Dara, Evan. The Lost Scrapbook. FC2, 1995.
So-called “experimental” fiction is often criticized for various reasons by both critics and readers: that it is somehow inhuman (i.e. unfeeling, cold) or too difficult or that only a realistic conventional plot structure can maintain a reader’s interest. Evan Dara’s first novel (and here’s hoping that there will be a second one, so far, 9 years later, there is no sign) can be considered an “experimental novel” and is called so by a number of the reviews I found. The experiment is in the form, the structure, the organizing principle of the work. Tom LeClair in his overwhelmingly positive review from the Washington Post (June 9 1996) (the review that got me really interested in the book) states “The Lost Scrapbook is not really a novel.” I’d have to disagree with his statement: a novel is more than just a story organized around a plot, but I’m not here to argue it. The Lost Scrapbook makes the point on its own.
The novel begins with a one-sided dialogue that turns into a monologue by a teenager who refuses to decide on a career path. He or she (I’m undecided in the end on the gender of the first narrator but will use she hear, as I hear the voice as female without any real evidence) half runs away from home — I say “half” because she stays in the same town and even returns home, leaving behind some indication to her mother that she is still there — and walks around town, sleeps in the park, and listens to a walkman (John Cage on Muybridge). Thirteen pages in, as we are becoming accustomed to this narrative monologue about the teenager’s drift into social invisibility and disconnection, the landscape shifts. A car? A late appointment? Subtly, at first unbeknownst to us, the narrator of the monologue has changed. The walking teenager becomes a man in a car on the highway. He meets with another man who is catching fireflies and filming them, planning to overlap the image of one over many others to create a swarm (of one). The man tells our new narrator about his son and the drum kit he bought for him. The son left to live with his mother, and the man leaves the drum kit in the middle of the room as a reminder of absence. It’s a monologue contained within the monologue. The second man is also a musicologist studying Beethoven’s variations:
“Beethoven’s late interest in variations had less to do with exfoliating development or controlled tonal fields, as is traditionally taught, than with procedures in problem-solving; in other words, 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, repeated graspings-at and circlings-in towards some central truth; but variations also illustrate the cliché that the truth remains, ultimately, indeterminable; that’s why all the fancy footwork of variations is necessary: we never actually get to what we’re after, to where all the gropings, all the variation-searching, would no longer be necessary, to that point where there would be no longer be music–to which I say, All the better!; for the late Beethoven, then, better the beauty of struggle and futility than the illusion of accomplishment; for as we struggle, he would seem to say, so we are beautiful;” (41)
I quote here at length for two reasons: one, because this passage illustrates a strong thematic relation to the structure of the novel itself and two, because it illustrates the way each section of the novel contains a microcosmic relation to the novel’s macrocosmic structure. The novel consists of monologue variations from many narrators, and each one seems to illustrate a smaller thematic relation to the work as a whole. It’s these relations that hold the work together, not any plot structure.
The monologues blend into each other, often in such a way that it is impossible to really say at what point one begins and the other ends, yet each remains it’s own story (which lack beginnings or endings). The stories often involve loss and a search, connections and disconnections between people, presence and absence. An animator discusses the way the separate images of a cartoon are made to look like they are a single movement. A man remembers the bond formed with a lost friend over old radio programs. A woman walks door to door trying to discuss with people why they don’t vote (in this case the setting is the first Bush’s election).
The monologues go on and on, and then, somewhere in the last 160 or so pages the change in voices become more frequent, every paragraph or every sentence (always denoted by a new dash at the beginning of a new line), and a story forms. In the Missouri town of Isaura, the Ozark Chemical company employs a large number of townspeople and holds a particular sway in the area. Through the numerous voices we learn about the chemical spill that is discovered and the subsequent events that stretch over a few years: the cover-ups, the attempts at political action, government investigation, flight, but mostly, the anxiety, anger, and confusion of the people. The story itself is nothing new, but the way it is told in a symphony of voices makes it new. The chemical spill and its effects on the environment and the people foregrounds the connection and disconnection of everything around us: hidden connections, unwanted connections, and unacknowledged connections but also individuality, isolation, and lack of communication.
To return to my original paragraph, The Lost Scrapbook is a “human” work, filled with characters and emotions, overflows with them even, and it is through the form and style of the novel that this is successful. There is no conventional narrator (whether of the third or first person) to tell us the story, but rather a proliferation of narrators that show us dozens of variations on struggle and beauty.