A Conversation about Evan Dara’s Novel Flee (Part 2)

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[Context/editorial note: I’d been meaning to read Evan Dara’s latest novel Flee for a while, 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 second part of a two-part discussion which took place over a few weeks of emails. We discuss the book’s conclusion, including what some people might think of as “spoilers.”

Read part one of our discussion of  Flee.

The tl;dr version of all of this: Both Ryan and I loved Flee, a 2013 novel about the citizens of a New England town who, uh, flee, for reasons never made entirely clear I claim that “Flee is maybe the best novel (so far, anyway) to aesthetically and philosophically address the economic collapse of ’08.” Ryan called it a book “for people who like books to fuck with them and then be their friend.” And I agree with him. — ET]

Ryan Chang: Right–Flee doesn’t prescribe a future, or at least an alternative future. “841” testifies to this. The A-burgian upstakers are no different from the new settlers, rejoicing in the bargains to be had in the town. Carol and Marcus quietly disappear (Spoiler alert). Flee is overall hesitant to prescribe, I think. In my previous e-mail, I was thinking out loud a bit, trying to see if something in the book was pointing to these spaces of the “nonidentical” as Adorno calls it; that Flee as an aesthetic object figures, in exactly what isn’t said, the suffocating presence that squeezes the life out of A-burg, could figure a moment of possibility in absence. Some kind of fracture that, even if it is a failure (as A-burg is, I think), is a temporary moment of reprieve from the administered life.

I’m not sure what the forms of Kimball’s “radical forgiveness” and “hospitality” would be, if he points to them — especially of the former. And is it only that the literary artists get to have all the fun of democracy? Exactly where does democratic critique happen off the page? I’m wondering because it seems that the form of popular critique — save from public protest and other distortions of space — are infected with exploitative capital, with ideology, unwittingly going along with the system that saves the banks before humanity. Additionally: to whom–or what–is forgiveness granted? Hospitality seems more tangible to me, but the phrases Yes? Who’s There? imply exclusion rather than inclusion to me. As if at the door of democracy, the speaker hesitates. Should not a radical affirmation continually say yes rather than no at the door? The questioning yes is skeptical. I wonder if a self-consciousness and -becoming out of administration is required. The molectular make-up of the present absence that suffocates A-Burg and, implicitly, whatever other small town, would have to be transposed, if you like, into another key. To mention Lerner again (briefly) — do you remember that scene in the book, with the first hurricane, the (eventually fictional) threat of Irene destroying the infrastructure as a moment when disparate communities — who would otherwise keep to themselves, much like the voices in Flee — begin convening? That was just a way of getting to the epigraph of the book: “Everything will be as it is now, just a little different.”

Or have I misread the Kimball?

For Horkheimer & Adorno, it rests in this nigh-messianic shift of perception of our past and our future that glimpse, momentarily, a humanity (as it stood, for them, there was no humanity. Only administration). I am reading a chapter from Ulrich Plass’ Language and History in Theodor W. Adorno’s ‘Notes to Literature’ for another class right now. Here is Plass, on a theme in Adorno’s essay “The Essay as Form”:

​…[One] can scarely fail to hear an echo of one of the most persistent themes of Adorno’s essay, namely, the theme of the universal realization of homelessness beginning–mythologically–with Odysseus, and fulfilled–negatively–with the destruction and displacement brought about by administratively organized terror and destruction.

​Indeed we commence in homelessness, and the appropriation of Enlightenment ideals by capital gave us another myth — that of progress; in the American key, that of suburbia, of the family, that of the home — that was always tenuous, contingent to the illusion of stability produced from unceasing economic growth. This is the narrative momentum in Flee. Here, perhaps, Kimball is helpful, because I was about to type: “Adorno’s catastrophe isn’t immediately ours,” but that is a problematic sentence because it is immediately ours. It is humanity’s destruction writ as large as no one could imagine. I am all for radical affirmation, but does Kimball’s democracy have a border? Is it the door? Is it the Yes? Who’s There? And if Flee is such a critique–I agree with you–does it also achieve a kind of shifted consciousness, does it see democracy differently?

Perhaps “X” could be such a moment. It is a dark, dark chapter. It’s cruel and all-too-real. The way Dara reels us in with Marcus. The hope and then the gradual subsumption into the market, that his affective attachments know no other way except participation in the very system that destroyed whatever sense of home A-burg produced. And the shims — stand-ins for that sense of home, but really showing in staggering, violent relief that there is no home. Only–wait for it–fungible units of potential profit. If I can interpret out of Chapter “X” what Dara is trying to figure: a failure. Marcus, though we’re sympathizing with him, isn’t that much different from the rest of the squanderers, right? He’s one of the few left with a job, but it isn’t clear exactly why he keeps working. The infrastructure has stopped — didn’t the municipality shut down the gas lines or something? Who’s coming to check the lights? But he works, in some vain hope of a redemption, which is the myth that Americans are sold. Even in the face of nigh-complete abandonment, Marcus is still plugging away. There’s a moment earlier in the book when a voice is waxing off about the ritual of ritual — what’s needed of Marcus is not to start a new collective within the system — especially in the language and forms that avail itself to usurpation by City Hall (ie., “Hire Ground”) — but to fail. I have been trying, parallel to our conversation (or perhaps inside the conversation; I’m not sure, I’m putting this here in case we have to edit this whole sentence out) to think of “841” as the punctuation mark of the Too-Big-To-Fail allegory, perhaps in Benjamin’s sense (the death’s head allegory, that it is the trace evidence of catastrophe). The promise in the negativity of “X” is that it is wholly different from the A-Burg we know for the whole book. As the town repopulates — the chance is lost for the circumstances that blows away the suffocating present-absence in the town. Radical affirmation and inclusivity could have presented themselves as the only option for the re-build of a home. I’m going off of this because of its temporal setting — had the banks failed, who could’ve known what the future would’ve been? The new future, in the absence of administration? No one, which is frightening, but it is at exactly that edge that could’ve also promised something better.

So: that Flee doesn’t prescribe, but virtualizes (especially in “X”), is a good thing: it points elsewhere, outside of the book, beyond our experience of time. To the possibility of a possibility, maybe? But the Kimball is apt: critique must be incessant, and literature is its strongest force.

What did you think of “X”?

Edwin Turner: Well I loved “X.” It’s almost like a perfect little sci-fi short story—almost like a Twilight Zone episode minus the pulp. I wonder how reading it first—or even on its own—would change the reading experience.

You’re right that Dara reels us in with Marcus, who’s been there at the peripheries of the novel. He becomes the protagonist that the Hire Ground crew simply couldn’t become. Marcus’s failure is fascinating. He tries to practice a kind of radical gratitude, but there’s a sense—especially at the end of “X”—that his gratitude is solipsistic, narcissistic—masturbatory even. We learn early in the chapter that he jerks off to mental images of Laura Linney, who later turns up in one of the gratitude mantras he recites before falling asleep. His gratitude prayer is really a form of consolation—hedonistic consolation at that.

And of course he fails at the end of “X” to perform—I’ll go back to Kimball via Derrida here—radical hospitality to Carol. He can’t affirm her existence—can’t ask her, “Yes?” When he does sort of have a breakdown and realizes his failure, it’s kind of too late, I think. He transmits his gratitude through a medium. Like the neighbor whom he shares music with, or the lights that he watches dance at night, there’s a lack of real human connection here. Marcus’s experience of gratitude is wholly internalized. He wants to share but can’t. When he does actually have an opportunity to talk to someone (outside the old record store), he’s belligerent. He can’t turn his imaginative conception of gratitude into action.

And yet I don’t think Dara is condemning him, or satirizing his efforts. Marcus is an idealist, even though his will to self-improvement eclipses his wish to do unto others, to help others (and save the town, too). Marcus’s epiphany is entirely secular, it seems to me, despite his wishes for transcendence. The big-G he latches onto is Gratitude, not God, although I think he’d like the G to name both, to be the name of the name. Indeed, Dara elides references to churches in A-burg—he shows us only stores, commerce, and government. Notations of the spirit, when they appear, are othered, non-Western—the Tibetan prayer wheel, for example, which gives people access to “the ritual of the ritual” (the spirit of the spirit—an abyssal structure, to use another Derridean term). Later, Marcus invokes Sumerian cosmology, gamelan music, and the “Indonesian creed that God is found in dissonance.” In the next line, the narrator—finely tuned into Marcus’s reeling consciousness—tells us that our hero’s “G-energy is becoming limitless.” I read the line ironically. Marcus’s will is to transcend, to find a gratitude that says, Yes yes yes, Thanks thanks thanks, outside of a human economy (time and place)—but this is impossible. He wants to be radically open to a transcendence-to-come, but fails when it arrives at his door. He closes, he rejects. His gratitude is ultimately limited to/by his imagination and his memory.

The most interesting moment of “841” for me—and I agree with you that it punctuates the book, returns the narrative to a kind of normalized continuum—are the notations about the families from Sierra Leone. What do you make of that?

RC: I didn’t catch the Linney connection, which is brilliant; I totally agree with your reading of “X.” There are a lot of ways to think about how “X” juxtaposes itself with the rest of the chapters. It names itself as a literary artifact/time stamp with the Roman numeral but also separates itself from that narrative because it doesn’t fit perfectly in the novel’s structure, both linguistically and architecturally. You’re right that Marcus becomes the protagonist that Hire Ground couldn’t be. It’s interesting to think of Hire Ground against Marcus vis. their narrative function, because their plot lines are about how they can’t practice hospitality, or don’t have the tools in which to practice it. They’re failed forms of coupling, of the base minimum unit of collectivity in A-Burg. Hire Ground figures this failed family unit. Carol and Rick are a couple of convenience, of [produced] necessity, wonderfully noted in Dara’s choice to have Carol always say “man,” like they’re bros, after sex. They attempt to practice a radical hospitality by accepting Ian, no questions asked, but HG falls apart for two reasons. Firstly, that Marcus & Rick’s hospitality is almost masturbatory; they’re self-preserving via the HG scheme, taking advantage of a bad situation and turning it into a profit for themselves; it’s why John from City Hall eagerly wants to contract them into municipal work. Secondly, Ian is a kind of orphan, his own fleeing confirms that he was never interested in rebuilding the town. Of practicing hospitality. So too: Rick. HG isn’t making him money, so he skips town for an academic job. All this as if to say that the family can’t work in the way that neoliberalism sells it as. They’re being sold a form of the family through the vocabulary of business, but it can’t work, because it’s grounded in self-preserving narcissism.

It’s a similar trajectory for Marcus, but something is much more sinister about “X.” You’re right that Dara isn’t condemning him; I think the narrative sympathizes with him. Pities him. Because his mode of practicing hospitality is too embedded, like HG, in idioms of neoliberalism. It is a (western) secular realization, for sure; the book never explicitly mentions a western theological system or God or Jesus or anything like that. The pairing of hospitality vs. “Eastern” traditions; Bertrand Russell; Omnilectics. It’s as if the book is trying to constellate, a la Benjamin, a different history for Marcus so he can make a future that is radically inclusive. But it ultimately fails.

For one, I think the difference in language between “X” and the rest of the novel is indicative. “X” and the interpellated Carol/Rick/Ian sequences are not afraid to name. To say, to express, whereas the rest of the chapters can’t. They categorically can’t define, can’t definitively say this is the bad thing, and that is the solution. How they’re unified is in the emdash, the hesitation-interruption; it is a negative marker of collectivity, all in the not-said. “X” and the HG sequences, in their ease of expression, show that there’s something else that’s limiting them. I’ll try to connect this to the line you cite about G-Energy. I agree, it should be read ironically, because the irony is that once that force that’s beyond space & time (Kimball’s transcendental future) is named, it is no longer transcendent. It’s a name, and it’s syntax is something that might be found for a private Yoga studio or on the bottle of a Dr. Bronner’s competitor. Language can’t communicate, it’s a limit, yes yes yes… So becoming attuned to that “presence of presence,” the trace of the graffiti’s “we was here,” to its transcendental possibility of “we is everything,” means a kind of true communication. But what is that? I think that answer is in Kimball…Kimball’s theses seem to imply that a democracy — which is resonating with Whitman and Adorno, I think — is always a not yet. And Dara’s resonating frequency here is flickering in and out of it; literature as a virtualizing structure can’t even do this. But it can approach it. It has to asymptotically approach it (eg., “X”), and necessarily fail. Because language is a limit, will always be a limit.

It’s funny; it seems that both “X” and “841” both fall in step to a kind of weird correspondence. “841” is the 11th chapter, and this: “And, well, with so many people filing for Chapter 11 here, there were some very fine oppor–“. Filing for Chapter 11, an admission of bankruptcy–both financially and perhaps morally/spiritually–reproduces the momentum. There could be a reading that says that the Sierra Leone families are the patsies in a kind of commodified hospitality on the part of the government, that it’s another form of economic colonialism. A forced hospitality rebranded as hospitality, a “government program.” It’s also interesting that one of the voices says “…the British had to go in and get out all the foreigners” (234).

What do you think?

ET: I can’t believe I didn’t see that “X” was Ch. 10 and “841” was Ch. 11—yes, the bankruptcy thing, yes, totally—Flee is maybe the best novel (so far, anyway) to aesthetically and philosophically address the economic collapse of ’08. (He writes, having only read a few others—in fact, Auster’s somewhat forgettable Sunset Park  is all I can summon this minute).  I kept reading the title “X” as a kind of algebraic variable, an indefinite article set against the other chapters’ (seemingly solidly) referential titles.

And on referentiality/indefiniteness—-

I like that you’ve brought up the graffiti here—which, tellingly, Marcus mocks. The second graffito communicates—in the absence of its sender—and, as you rightly state, points to a transcendental wish in three perfect parts: the “we” (who?), an “is” that seems to transcend copular status, and then that oh-so-indefinite pronoun everything. Marcus fails to read through its possibilities: We is everything; We is everything; We is everything—etc. But why should Marcus try on different readings? He’s human.

Your note that the families from Sierra Leone might represent a “forced hospitality rebranded as hospitality” reminds me that the etymological root of “host” is “ghostis,” meaning stranger. This root also give us hostility, hospital, hostage….and it encapsulates the strange relationship between host and the hosted (as Derrida has written about in Of Hospitality and elsewhere). “Pure,” open, absolute–indefinite—hospitality is never fully possible—it requires always a dominance, an enforcing of boundaries on the part of the host—an imposing of definitions. The Sierra Leoneons help, perhaps, to define the “new” A-burgians (the “A,” its own algebraic variable) as the “rightful” (dominant) hosts. The hegemonic culture reifies itself in this way, through the specter of the other—here is “the reproduction of the momentum,” perhaps.

At the same time there’s a kind of sympathy there that some of the “new” A-burgians evoke towards the families from SL—but, yes, a sympathy doubled in the power of the host to be sympathetic, a sympathy that is not radical openness to any kind of future (any kind of we, or democracy, or whatever). Again, I’m not sure if this is condemnation as much as it is description. “841” returns us to the emdash, a technique that “unifies” (to use your term) the otherwise (supposedly) heteroglossic/polyphonic voices of Flee. The emdash is “hesitation-interruption,” but it also links,unifies (maybe). There are two sides to its pole, and if they push the words apart they can also link the words together.

Final thoughts of Flee? Good book? Who’s it for?

RC: We had a lot to talk about in Flee. There’s so much else that didn’t get addressed, because it couldn’t: Marcus’ theory that goes beyond dialectical thought, that goes beyond Boethian idealism and Hegel’s dialectics, the latter a system in which most, if not all, of the understanding of western thought and history has been filtered through. Whatever Omnilectics is. Bruegel. The Bertrand Russell quote I couldn’t track down. How does that constellation of artists and thinkers function? What is Dara giving is here? Who’s Ezra? Neil?

I’m beginning to shift my reading of “X,” slightly. Upon re-reading, it seems that Marcus has always been invested in a kind of masturbation. The radical gratitude is the myth itself, not a salve against the deserted town, nor the the way I had it before. It seemed that, initially, it had been something very genuine for Marcus, hence our connection to him as a character, the devastating outcome. But that the system subsumes it because of Marcus’ no-recourse, that it is always there in front of us for the entire chapter, is even more devastating. What’s eliminated is the narrative’s pity. See here: he mentions that he’ll set up a charitable fund for the Second Congo War. That he’ll market A-Burg as a backdrop for any movie. Also note in this small paragraph the return of the emdash. It is a signal of his return of the distended voices we’ve grown accustomed to for most of the novel, and a sliver of what Marcus’ “true” motivations are…

I liked this book a lot. I haven’t read The Lost Scrapbook or The Easy Chain, but Flee was incredibly rewarding…a strong, strong book. There’s not only attention paid to the aesthetic of the novel — the rhythms of the individual sentence, the tightly woven constellation-form of the book — but to its commitment to resisting easy narrative closure, to give the audience what it wants: pure entertainment, pure release from the tension of everyday life. This is not to say its function is primarily polemical or pedagogical. This was definitely a book that sucked me in and fucked with me a bit, and at the end, it said, “Okay, but it’s not really okay. But we have books.” This book is for people who like books to fuck with them and then be their friend.

ET: That’s a lovely description there, your last line—I feel like I should let it be the last line of the conversation, but the structure here is me replying to you, so: Yes, this is a book for people whole books to fuck with them and be their friend.

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