A Conversation about Evan Dara’s Novel Flee (Part 1)

[Context/editorial note: I’ve been meaning to read Evan Dara’s latest novel Flee for a while nowand when Biblioklept contributor Ryan Chang told me he’d be reading it as part of a contemporary literature class I decided to join him. This is the first part of a two-part discussion which took place over a few weeks of emails. — ET].   

Edwin Turner: So you’re reading Evan Dara’s Flee for a class, right? What’s the name of the class again? What are some of the other texts in the class?

Ryan Chang: Yeah, a class called 21st Century Fiction: What is Contemporary? We started out reading Reed’s Mumbo Jumbo and Acker’s Empire of the Senseless. We just finished reading Egan’s A Visit From The Goon Squad (awful), and we’re moving onto Chaon’s Await Your Reply and Pynchon’s Bleeding Edge. Everything, up to Pynchon, has as its central conflict the dissolution of the subject vis. the postmodern. Perhaps because of the spatialization of time (Egan, Reed) or a steroidal fungibility of a self because of technology (Chaon). The awareness of how deeply we are disciplined by master narratives (Acker). We’ve yet to get to Blake Butler’s There Is No Year and Richard Powers’ The Echo Maker, which I’m looking forward to after the Chaon and Egan who, in their attempt to write novels critical of the contemporary (more so of Egan, who does nothing but neuter the very real state of late capitalism’s terror into entertainment), do not make it past the merely interesting. I liked the Egan much less than the Chaon; part of the problem is the prose style, I think — it’s characteristically white American, shaped by sentimentality and preoccupied with the syntax of conventional form. In other words, the blueberry muffin prose styles betray the experimental forms in which they’re enveloped.

ET: I always have to look up the word fungibility. Dara’s Flee seems to fit into that early theme you mention, the conflict of the dissolution of the subject, which is both the book’s formal rhetorical strategy, but also its plot program, encapsulated (maybe) on page 45: “What is the weight of we?” What do you make of Dara’s style here? Like initial impression?

RC: I’m about ~40 pages in. I think I mentioned in the Books Acquired thing I wrote that Dara, stylistically, is hitting hard on Gaddis. Admittedly, I’m most familiar with the late Gaddis — Carpenter’s Gothic. (Agape Agape, too, but this is, of course, his letter to Bernhard.) I like that both focus on voice, on streams of speech that collide or blur into each other. The Gaddis influence is more of an echo than anything.
Specifically re: Dara — the interruptions, digressions and hesitations immediately struck me as something like a Tragic Greek chorus that, having incurred some sort of its own trauma (and not acting only as the all-knowing unconscious of the play), is completely disoriented, confused of its own purpose. But amidst the cacophony–or something like a directed cacophony towards the reader–they are still unwittingly functioning as a chorus. They’re giving us the stage for Flee’s story, hinting quietly at the book’s central plot conflict. Also naming characters (Carol, Rick, Marcus, etc), which is now more intriguing to me at the passage from p.45 you mention. What’s also different in Carpenter’s Gothic is, while that whole book remains on one diegetic level (as far as I can remember, it’s been a few years) because no narrator ever announces itself, in Dara, there’s a blurring of diegetic arenas, a refusal to centralize any narrative authority. Ok, so, re: dissolution of the subject: It seems that not only are the chorus members interrupting themselves, but they’re also interrupting the narrator as well. Each left-margin emdash cuts the narrator off, in a way, if you will. That scene when they’re pitying Rick, acting as a narrator with dialogue tags. The commonly individuated voice of the narrator is subsumed into the characters’ diegetic arena; a tension between the collective and individual implicit in prose structure alone. It also seems, by “36,551,” that whatever the population is fleeing from is not collectively driven (ie., the pity for Mark’s poorly planned meetings for something, we don’t know what yet), but selfishly driven. And in the flattening power of numbers, that selfishness — a hermetic individuality — becomes collective. There is a kind of infinite distance between I and we that, perhaps, the book is trying to trace? Or its relationship in the temporality of the novel is a perpetual expanding/contracting relationship, like a rubber band?

As far as I am in the book, the interruptions and digressions also have a hysteria to them that points to something the chorus is ignoring even in the face of the beginnings of a series of rude awakenings. Each voice just bemoans this dissolution of themselves; but, especially in the scene where Rick is, like, torn apart for his idea in service of the township, each voice is just narcissistically concerned with how it’s going to inconvenience them, rather than the potential worth of Rick’s idea.

ET: I teach an introductory American lit class, and today we were talking about Faulkner’s short story “A Rose for Emily,” which I think offers this wonderful example of a first-person plural narrator, this kind of limited chorus that is not-quite omniscient, not-quite omnipresent, and hardly omnipotent. It’s this weird we that seems able to transcend time, but not space—it can live for more than eighty years but it can’t see into Emily Grierson’s house. Its limitations are human; its limitations are the limitations of all the members of a community. I had your email in the back of my head while I was riffing on all this today—that, yes, the we is this fiction that we all subscribe to (hey look, I just used it!)—it’s our linguistic tag for culture, religion, whatever—but it requires some other—a you, I guess, that we can all point to, an Emily Grierson that’s only part of the we by paradoxically not being a part of the we, by defining the weFlee doesn’t seem to have that other, at least not in the first seven chapters anyway, although it does foreground two protagonists in Rick and Carol—something that Dara’s first novel The Lost Scrapbook does not do. The Lost Scrapbook is far more polyglossic than Flee also, which again reminds me of Faulkner’s story in its unified we-ness—Flee‘s narrative voice somehow unifies entropy, breakdown, the chaotic rumbling becomes this throbbing tone of dissolution (“There’s no here here,” page 79), where the narcissistic flight of each member of the community paradoxically underwrites the viability of a community, the possibility of a community… Continue reading

“I was simply trying to write about people” — Faulkner on the origins of “A Rose for Emily”

William Faulkner: Yes, sir.

Unidentified participant: Sir, it has been argued that “A Rose for Emily” is a criticism of the North, and others have argued saying that it is a criticism of the South. Now, could this story, shall we say, be more properly classified as a criticism of the time?

William Faulkner: Now that I don’t know because I was simply trying to write about people. The writer uses environment—what he knows—and if there’s a symbolism in which the—the lover represented the North and the—and the—the woman who murdered him represents the South, I don’t say that’s not valid and not there, but it was no intention of the writer to—to say, “Now let’s see, I’m going to write a piece in which I will—will use a symbolism for the North and another symbol for the South,” that he was simply writing about people, a story which he thought was—was tragic and true because it—it came out of the—out of the human heart, of human aspiration, the human—the conflict of—of conscience with—with glands, with the Old Adam. It was a conflict not between the North and South so much as between, well, you might say, God and Satan.
Yes, sir.

Unidentified participant: Sir, just a little more on that thing. You say it’s a conflict between God and Satan. Well, I don’t quite understand what—what you mean there. Who is—did one represent the […]?

William Faulkner: The conflict was—was in Miss Emily, that she knew that you do not murder people. She was—she had been trained that—that—that you do not take a lover, you marry. You don’t take a lover. She had broken all the—the—the laws of her tradition, her background, and she had finally broken the law of God, too, which says you do not take human life. And she knew she was doing wrong, and that’s why her—her own life was wrecked. Instead of having murdered one lover, and then to go on and—and take another and when she used him up to murder him, she was expiating her crime.
Yes, ma’am.

Unidentified participant: But can’t a person like Miss Emily, though she did do all the things that she had been taught not to, and being a sensitive sort of a woman, it was sure to have told on her, but do you think it’s fair to feel pity for her because, in a way, she made her adjustment, and it seemed to have wound up in a happy sort of a way—certainly tragic—but maybe it suited her just fine.

William Faulkner: Yes, it may have, but then I don’t think that—that one should withhold pity simply because the—the subject of the pity, object of the pity, is pleased and satisfied. I think the—the pity is in—in the—the human striving against its own nature, against its own conscience. That’s what deserves the pity. It’s not the fate of the individual. It’s man in conflict with his heart or with his fellows or with his environment. That’s—that’s what deserves the pity. It’s not that the man suffered or that he fell off the house or was run over by the train. It’s that he was—that man is trying to do the best he can with his—his desires and impulses, against his—his own moral conscience and the— the conscience of—the social conscience of—of his time and his place, the—the little town he must live in, the family he’s a part of.


“To read and to read and to read and to read” (Faulkner’s advice to young writers)

Unidentified participant: Mr. Faulkner, you may have touched on this previously, but could you give some advice to young writers? What advice would you give to young writers?

William Faulkner: At one time I thought the most important thing was talent. I think now that—that the young man or the young woman must possess or teach himself, train himself, in infinite patience, which is to—to try and to try and to try until it comes right. He must train himself in ruthless intolerance. That is, to throw away anything that is false no matter how much he might love that page or that paragraph. The most important thing is insight, that is, to be—to curiosity—to—to wonder, to mull, and to—to—to muse why it is that man does what he does. And if you have that, then I don’t think the talent makes much difference, whether you’ve got that or not.

Unidentified participant: How would you suggest that he get this insight? Through experience?

William Faulkner: Yes, and then the greatest part of experience is in the books, to read. To read and to read and to read and to read. To watch people, to have—to never judge people. To watch people, what they do, with—with—without intolerance. Simply to—to learn why it is they did what they did.


William Faulkner explains the genesis of The Sound and the Fury

Unidentified participant: This is a question about writing in general. I think maybe you just answered it, but they say until Hawthorne came along that there were two ways to construct a story: either start with the characters and then a plot, or start with a plot and make up your characters, and they say that Hawthorne started with the idea and invented both. And I wonder, I know there’s no one formula to producing a story, but I just wonder where you start most often and what you feel is most important, what pattern you [have worked out] to use?

William Faulkner: Three methods you just stated, all will work but—but none—neither or none are more important than the others, and no one can say just what method the story demands. Apparently there’s something inside the man or the woman that must be—be told, must be written. It could be an anecdote. It could be a character. It could be an idea, but I don’t think you could say which system to—or which pattern to assume in order to—to create a story or a book.

Unidentified participant: You have no favorite pattern? It just depends on the individual—?

William Faulkner: That’s right, that’s right. It could be an anecdote. The Sound and the Fury came out of an anecdote, a picture of a—a little girl, the muddy seat of her drawers when she climbed the tree to look in a parlor window, and that’s—the book came from that.

Unidentified participant: Mr. Faulkner

William Faulkner: Sir.

Unidentified participant: In The Sound and the Fury, the first three sections of that book are narrated by one of the—of the four Compson children, and in view of the fact that Caddy figures so prominently, is there any particular reason why you didn’t have a section with—giving her views or impressions of what went on?

William Faulkner: That’s a good question. That—the explanation of that whole book is in that. It began with the—the picture of the—the little girl’s muddy drawers, climbing that tree to look in the parlor window with her brothers that didn’t have the courage to climb the tree waiting to see what she saw. and I tried first to tell it with one brother, and that wasn’t enough. That was Section One. I tried with another brother, and that wasn’t enough. That was Section Two. I tried the third brother, because Caddy was still to me too beautiful and too moving to—to reduce her to telling what was going on, that it would be more—more passionate to see her through somebody else’s eyes, I thought. And that failed, and I tried myself, the fourth section, to tell what happened, and I still failed. [audience laughter] So—

Unidentified participant: Mr. Faulkner, when you wrote this, did you have it thought out beforehand, the whole sequences, or did they sort of evolve as you wrote it?

William Faulkner: It evolved as I wrote it. It began with the picture, as I said, of—of the little girl climbing the tree to tell her brothers what was going on in the room where the grandmother’s funeral was taking place, and the rest grew from that.


“The work is the thing. It don’t matter who wrote it” — William Faulkner

Unidentified participant: Sir, concerning individuality you were discussing a moment ago, you’ve often said—been quoted that you’re a literary man—I beg your pardon, you are not a literary man. By implication one might think that you’d prefer the author who is so to speak spontaneous and not always steady against one who’s read all the literature in his culture and [gives] a steady effort to produce, and works on his style. Is that correct […]?

William Faulkner: How do you mean prefer the author, to spend an evening with him or the work he does?

Unidentified participant: The work he does […]

William Faulkner: Now you—

Unidentified participant: […] clear up: do you mean by implication that you prefer the man who writes so to speak spontaneously or the man who studies his style, reads and learns techniques and works out something [totally] […]?

William Faulkner: I would say first that—the the author is not—is of no importance at all, it’s what he writes. It don’t matter who wrote it. If—and—to—if you mean prefer him as an individual, then I will take the former because the intellectual man and I wouldn’t have anything to talk about. But the man has—has very little to do with his work in my opinion. The work is the thing. It don’t matter who wrote it.

Unidentified participant: Well then let’s say it’s work, [which type of work do you prefer]?

William Faulkner: Well, I think that some people must be intellectual, must be interested, immersed in—in his craft, in literature, to write, to do the work. Other people must be immersed in something completely different. They must in a sense lead a Jekyll and Hyde existence to do the work. It’s the work that matters. It’s not how he did it.


“The writer has three sources: imagination, observation, and experience” — William Faulkner

Unidentified participant: Sir, a few minutes ago you mentioned that people in your hometown were looking into your books for familiar characters. Realizing that you’ve got a rich legacy as it were, of experiences, it seems to me that nowadays the modern novelist is writing merely thinly disguised autobiography. Which do you think is really more valuable [in] the sense of the artist, the disguised autobiography, or making it up from whole cloth, as it were?

William Faulkner: I would say that the writer has three sources: imagination, observation, and experience. He himself doesn’t know how much of which he uses at any given moment because each of the sources themselves are not too important to him, that he is writing about people, and he uses his material from the three sources, as—as—as the carpenter reaches into his—his lumber room and finds a board that fits the particular corner he’s building. Of course, any writer, to begin with, is writing his—his own biography, because he has—has discovered the world and suddenly discovered that it—the world is—is important enough or moving enough or tragic enough to put down on paper or in music or on canvas. And at that time all he knows is what has happened to him because he has not developed his capacity to—to perceive, to draw conclusions, to have an insight into people. His only insight in it is into himself. And it’s biographical because that’s the only gauge he has to measure, is what he has experienced himself. As he gets older and works more, the imagination is like any muscle, it improves with use. Imagination develops. His observation gets shrewder as he gets older, as he writes, and so that when he reaches his peak, his best years, when his work is best, he himself doesn’t know and doesn’t have time to bother and doesn’t really care how much of what comes from each of these sources. That then he is writing about people, writing about the aspirations, the—the troubles, the anguishes, the—the—the courage and the cowardice, the baseness and the splendor of—of man, of the human heart.


The authors William Faulkner consistently returned to

Unidentified participant: Sir, when you are reading for your own pleasure, which authors do you consistently return to?

William Faulkner: The ones I came to love when I was eighteen, nineteen, twenty years old. Moby-Dick, the Old Testament, Shakespeare, a lot of Conrad, Dickens. I read Don Quixote every year.