[Context/editorial note: I’ve been meaning to read Evan Dara’s latest novel Flee for a while now, and 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 we…Flee 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…
RC: I’m deeper in now, at Chapter “X,” so let me riff about this we some more. The more Carol/Rick seem to take up page-space, the more apparent it is that narcissism is Flee‘s central motif, and collectivity–the possibility or failure of–its central theme. As in our last exchange [on Ben Lerner’s novel 10:04], I’m reminded of Whitman’s line in “Democratic Vistas”:
Subjection, aggregation of that sort, is impossible to America; but the fear of conflicting and irreconcilable interiors, and the lack of a common skeleton, knitting all close, continually haunts me.
–Oh, my. I mean, I look around and…and what is my context? What can I do — can I mean — what can I possibly do that would––Am I just a receptacle? Am I not supposed to have some bearing on things? I look and see and look and see. But one thing I do not see. Where am I in–?
Perhaps this impossibility of a collective is a dialectical relationship, then, built on some fiction “before” the we (perhaps the originary fiction that exists outside of time, that inaugurates the possibility of writing/thinking the fictional we), where the I needs a we in order to be that I, to be secure in a space wherein the I is coordinated by other I’s, which means that a we is constructed from the I‘s projection onto the fiction of the we. Maybe? This we would always point to this “before” fiction, and rely on the projection of I’s, which the we would reflect back onto an/the I. Was that English?
And later, when a voice reflects that standing in the same spot–eg., staying in A-burg–is moving backward in time. Fleeing is recontextualized as a move for progress. It foregrounds the emptiness in the American dream, the “before” fiction that is produced for us, to keep us fixed in the imposed, sanctioned narrative, that was always there. Dara concretizes this we very early in the book — on page 17, a voice (a professor perhaps; now I think it is Marcus) says something about a Tertullian presence of absence. The town is this space that, given that the economy works as it’s supposed to, promotes the veneer of collectivity. Of a small town community, when it is really just a zone for neoliberal capitalism to sustain itself; an abstract narcissism, one that produces its own flow and consciousness — the result of developing capitalist production to a logical extreme. It sells the idea of community to A-burg. In the absence of viable jobs, of an inability to pay bills, all bets are off.
Back to Carol/Rick/Ian. There’s little sense that Carol & Rick are in love; Carol keeps distance between them; ‘Thanks, man,’ is a favorite phrase of hers, often after sex. We’re ostensibly meant to root for them because of their separation from the cacophonous chorus, but when Carol decides to start Hire Ground–an unemployment agency, for God’s sake; they’re taking advantage of the housing crisis in the same self-preservational, narcissistic way that the flee-ers are–we’re meant to see that they are not only no different from the chorus, but perhaps worse. Because they think it is doing A-burg good, that they’re rebuilding it. Too, that they “adopt” Ian, and form this haphazard nuclear family unit, we’re also meant to see a) that late capitalism has made the family unit completely fungible, a variable in which to stabilize the flow of capital and b) the impossibility of even this supposed basic collective. Micro forms of the collective — the couple, the triad, etc. — show, as if in relief, the mere fungibility of late capitalistic collectivity.
Of course, there is a different kind of collectivity at stake for Dara; a collectivity that, perhaps, allows us to live outside the forces of administration, as Adorno has said. That’s what I’m wondering now — are the conditions for imagining a fictional we in which “real” collectivity, however it is defined, can exist completely precluded from us? That is, at least in Adorno, the ability to imagine a life undamaged relies upon the damage in everyday reality. What is more important — the ability to imagine that undamaged collectivity, or living it? Does Dara ask, in Flee, “is there a different way to live?”
ET: Well hell, Ryan, you’ve given me a lot to chew on here. (And used “fungiblity” again, too!). So I’ll work through that last question first:
Does Dara ask, in Flee, “is there a different way to live?”
Maybe all, or most, strong/strange literature asks “Is there a different way to live?” — or maybe, to rephrase that: “Is there a different way to imagine?”
I think Flee offers a description here of the we without necessarily giving us a prescription for the “undamaged collectivity” you bring up, and that description is sort of Deconstruction 101 stuff—that yeah, there is no we without the possibility of fleeing the we, dissolving the we. No presence without absence.
This theme is shot through the novel—I think of the moment where one of the voices points out that he comes to know another A-burgian through his absence: “Now that he’s not here, I see him everywhere” (94). The chapter “336” is full of these moments that speak to what you describe above as “the originary fiction that exists outside of time, that inaugurates the possibility of writing/thinking the fictional we.” On page 151:
–But of course. We’re joining the future. Everything everywhere turning into bits, into dust, to data, to imperishable prickles, and now we are too…It must happen here, when here is transvestite everywhere. And so we vanish. Do you get this?: Fear of vanishing begets vanishing. For by vanishing we become stronger – we become eternal. Dematerializing we find diamond-solidity. Anti-dimension can only expand. Non-being is the best defense. Only absence lasts forever.
Your analysis and your questions above reminded me of “Some Principles of Democracy and Deconstruction—American or Otherwise” by A. Samuel Kimball, who I was very lucky to have as a teacher and mentor in graduate school. Kimball:
Democracy and deconstruction name the namelessness of a we, the people in relation to this people’s unimaginable possibilities of collective self-identification to come.
For this reason democracy and deconstruction locate the we in a future that transcends any possible transcendence of time, and therefore that remains utterly contingent and extinguishable, able to be obliterated in an apocalypse of the name.
Working from Derrida, Kimball suggests that
. . . democracy and deconstruction demand of the citizen to come an attitude of radical forgiveness and hospitality [and] entail a radical affirmation—that is, they are ways of saying “Yes?” or “Who’s there?” in the absence of any determinate voicing.
Radical forgiveness, hospitality, asking Who’s there?—are these ways to live “outside the forces of administration”?
Thus, democracy and deconstruction require an incessant work of critique.
Flee is one such critique.
And finally from Kimball’s list:
Democracy and deconstruction are inseparable from the fictionalizing, virtualizing power of literature.
In the spirit (of the spirit) of the fictionalizing, virutalizing power of literature—and in the spirit of Flee’s formalizing rhetoric, I’ll let the novel speak back. From pages 154-55:
–What is the preceding unsaid, the imposed premise in whose conditions we rattle, the implicit postulate that, with our every whim and volition and gesture, we continue, modify, extend, affirm, even through de-affirming it? What is that statement, that referent, that no one will say, or can say with rigor and conviction? The central and determining predicate that can no longer be brought forth? Why can we never get to the one organizing proposition that, in no uncertain terms, will–