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Beckett on the Richter Scale

Evan Dara’s fantasized destructions of the world

Permanent Earthquake by Evan Dara. Aurora Press, 257 pages.

The characters of Evan Dara’s Permanent Earthquake inhabit an unnamed Caribbean island held in the shaking fist of the eponymous seismic event. The island could be Haiti or Martinique—names are in French, the local constabulary are referred to as gendarmes—but it could just as easily be Thomas More’s island utopia; a circle of Dante’s Inferno; or Georges Perec’s lost island of W, a screen memory for a concentration camp. The earthquakes might have been caused by mining for what seems to be uranium, or something else suitably radioactive, or climate change, but no one left on the island has time, mental energy, or peace and quiet enough to make scientifically informed inquiries. Their foremost challenge is staying upright amid the different vibrational intensities while not biting off their tongues:

All across the greenfield, crumpled people push their shoulders from the juddering ground. They get up, wave like seagrass, collapse under upflung arms. Eventually reinflate and get themselves to vertical. Then the deep breath, then the few heavy, rooting steps, then the tottering forward. Never once does anyone slap the new dirtstains from their cladding or bodyguards. Strewn among the unfolding bodies, the few remaining upright trees bend and bow in the no breeze. The uppoking limbs of the felled do the same. And forever, forever, the groaning continues, the everpresent earthgroaning rises then subsides then crests to near roar.

Despite the literal upheaval, certain things remain constant: the island’s poor and dispossessed toil in the service of a set of “manse” owners. Their older, well-built homes have mostly survived, yet require constant buttressing with stones scavenged from any available rubble, including cemeteries. The teenage protagonist and narrator—sometimes first-person, sometimes third, as if the earthquakes have shaken up pronouns and identities—begins as one of these laborers, shifting stones for a few coins used to buy supplies at the local dispensaries.

I lock my ankles and plant my feet, drill air into my chest, bend til just before my kneeguards snap and pick up—I pick up the stone, the gray-black evershifting stone. My forearms burn, my hunnph is lost in the constant earthgroaning but the new weight shoves me forward, forces me to follow it at the same time as I must resist letting it fall. In uncontrollable stumble I go, and go, then more slowly go. I have no choice. The only release is not to stop. There is no place to put my lever.

Dara at least places the reader on somewhat solid ground: the premise and title are B movie; the metaphors Sisyphean; the prose Beckettian, with its staggered rhythms, surprising compounds, obsessive self-observations and enumerations. Steps are counted according to different seismic levels. “With the numbers set, he used them to anticipate his actions. Plan errands, map out routes. Determine the number of stonetrips he’d make to the manses, decide whether to go all the way to a tree to piss. The robot endlessness of everyday.” As in all disasters, but also in the permanent disaster of Beckett’s novels, everyday objects are elevated to talismanic importance. Wrist guards, mouthpieces, and scraps of footwear are as sacred to the nameless narrator as Molloy’s bicycle. “My left footwrap pinching, my right wrap too big—its front tip keeps folding under my foot, tripping me up unless I step higher on that side.”

The premise and title are B movie; the metaphors Sisyphean; the prose Beckettian.

“I go on,” the narrator says, picking himself up between inevitable falls; the “I can’t” hovering unstated. It is not yet “necessary to slither.” But this is twenty-first-century American writing, and although we’ve been going on for a while, not many can or do go on in this way. Adorno perceived Beckett’s style as a response to a totalitarian “surplus of reality” that threatened to kill off any possible subjectivity. This left no choice for Beckett but to push “the artfulness of anti-art to the point of the manifest annihilation of reality.” But here we are, more than half a century into the end of history and Adorno’s “disaster triumphant,” and most literature remains trapped in a tightening loop of older realisms. Worse, “reality” impinges ever more on the work: judgments come in the form of up or down votes on the virtues or essential qualities of author figures.

To write, under these conditions, with the unsparing intensity of minimal, late modernism, yet knowing already how that turned out, requires total, practically hermetic commitment to a form and voice that has never been outmoded or transcended, but instead celebrated as “difficult”—all the better for it to be bypassed and then ignored. Beckett remains one of the few writers whose cadences fall close to the desperate unconscious rhythms of our own fracturing lives. As forbiddingly modern as he was more than half a century ago, his work is still anathema to a publishing industry that continues to mistake an unending supply of juvenilia, first novels, and magical realisms for a fountain of youth.

Collective Bargaining

Only a writer outside the circle of conventional rewards and punishments associated with trade publishing and its literary imprints would have the, erm, “stones” to attempt this kind of work—a pastiche, i.e., a minor form, of what was, in its time, determinedly minor literature. Terry Eagleton refers to Beckett’s “politics of lessness,” in which “every sentence of his writing keeps faith with powerlessness.”

Dara’s outsiderness, if not powerlessness, has been preserved or cultivated since the appearance of their first novel, The Lost Scrapbook (1995). That novel rose from the depths thanks to winning a prize from the Fiction Collective Two, judged that year by William T. Vollmann. FC2—the collective started by director Noah Baumbach’s father, Jonathan, along with Curtis White, Mark Leyner, and other theorists and practitioners of gonzo avant-garde fiction that would later expand to include the experimental prose writers of the Dalkey Archive Press—published it under its imprint. Scrapbook deployed a narrative cheat code, switching from one voice to another, one situation to another without warning, breaking off and breaking down the various stories of the vanished inhabitants of a midwestern town destroyed by what gradually reveals itself as a Delillo-esque toxic industrial event. Other novelists, notably Dos Passos in Manhattan Transfer and the U.S.A. trilogy, have tried before to capture collectivity in this manner. But by the time Scrapbook arrived, the creation of a succession of truncated characters towards whom the reader forms the briefest of attachments—indeed, of whom the reader is meant to ask “Wait, what happened to them! Where did they go!”—seemed to have been tossed onto the scrapheap of novelistic techniques. That is, until another very large multi-character novel appeared the following year. That one was called Infinite Jest.

Foster Wallace’s prose was more exacting and virtuosic than Dara’s, and despite the title and the novel’s length, the number of distinct characters and voices turned out to be more finite. Both novels nevertheless shared a preoccupation with technologies of dissemination and distraction that foreshadowed the rise of what we now call the “Attention Economy.” These works also appeared in synchronicity with the end of one American way of making: the tinkerer, the artist, the obsessive hobbyist and sportsperson were yielding to the programmer, the celebrity, the careerist, and the influencer: Dara’s novel contained long disquisitions on stereophonics, Beethoven’s Diabelli Variations, roofing, and other forms of American DIY; Foster Wallace had tennis and the dictionary. The Lost Scrapbook focused on pirate radio frequencies and fastened on the Walkman as the device through which characters both transmit and lose themselves; Infinite Jest used the seemingly more “cutting edge” MacGuffin of the circulating videocassette. To read both novels now offers a good reminder of the extent to which “each era dreams the next.”

Unlike Foster Wallace, though, Dara remained committed to authorial impersonality. To this day, few, if any, know who or how many are behind the masculine-sounding name: there are no interviews, the only photograph circulating on the internet could well be anyone, the name is a pseudonym.

Thirteen years elapsed between The Lost Scrapbook and Dara’s next, self-published work, The Easy Chain, again a massive novel (502 pages), told with a certain “gee-whiz” earnestness that makes it veer between a Horatio Alger tale for the tech startup age and a satire of the same. Its notional focus, capitalist superhero Lincoln Selwyn, begins as an eccentric autodidact punk and ends as everyone’s indispensable conduit, connector, influencer, adman, and pal—making a fortune along the way. The use of business and startup clichés (really the novel is one long study of them) made one suspect the author had spent time in the milieu, or at least had good sources.

In Flee (2013), Dara introduced the B-movie motif that’s used to greater effect in Permanent Earthquake. A small New England town’s university shuts down, seemingly from one moment to the next, after its sociology department is revealed to be a hollow accounting trick of the provost’s office. The mayor and city council are on vacation, but might never have existed in the first place. The traditional employers go next. Then the inhabitants begin, little by little, to vanish. They are soon replaced by new people with no memory of what has been lost; the cycle restarts. Everything remains ordinary until it becomes creepy; everything is already creepy because ordinary. The atmosphere is Winesburg, Ohio, infected by Invasion of the Body Snatchers. A semitransparent allegory of 1950s communist infiltration paranoia has been repurposed to narrate the rampant privatization and asset strip-mining of various American burgs from the 1990s to the present.

Evan Dara activates the contemporary reader’s apocalyptic and bloodthirsty cultural sensibility but also turns it against itself.

As a whole, these novels constitute a rather rare sustained effort in contemporary American fiction to chronicle the atmosphere and feeling of the “creative destruction” of the American economy and its accompanying depersonalization, the extraction of human dignity from American life. Individually, however, none of these works is entirely successful. The scope, the profusion of different voices who never quite become full characters, the “system novel” qualities that keep the reader’s attention on “discourse” and ways of talking—all end up inhibiting the climate of feeling that Dara often evokes before blurring out. A town meeting sequence in Flee is probably one of the best fictional portrayals of American political dysfunction of the twenty-first century; each line of dialogue manages to convey the forces bearing down on the characters that they can’t even conceptualize. But too often the critical overbears the literary, and the novels start to make readers think of that dread adjective “conceptual.” This is not because Dara breaks the frame to make didactic comments about destructive capitalism, but because they manage to represent one of the hallmarks of our economic system—the fungibility and replaceability of any voice by any other, any experience by any other experience—on the page. The novels come to share the same relentless quality of hopeless repetition with their subject matter, performing what they try to resist.

Alone Dies

All of these issues have been cleaned up and resolved in Dara’s turn from choral maximalism to single-voice Beckettian minimalism, in the shift from narrative realism to parable. Permanent Earthquake has the feel of an “allegorical” novel, but the allegory is as unstable as the ground beneath. Is this situation about the impossibility of equitable global development in the face of permanent, designed “disaster capitalism”? A dramatic displacement of the slow-motion ecological carnage of climate change into the fast and furious pace of unending seismosis? A literalization of the “downward mobility” and “precarity” of the respectable “professional” American middle class to which the narrator once belonged? (His father, we learn, was a public school teacher casualized into life as an itinerant educator, which is how they came to the island.) Is the narrator’s eventual quest for what he believes must be “a stillspot” somewhere on the island an embodied metaphysical struggle, a long-form meditation on “being as thrownness?” An extended jazz improvisation on Heidegger’s concept of anxiety, “I put my foot down and down is not there,” literally described as the feeling of stepping into nothing where once was something?

Perhaps the novel is a meta-commentary on conditions of literary production in an age of catastrophes? Or just on the difficulty of writing well? The paragraphs appear to compose themselves unsteadily, sentence by faltering sentence. What R.P. Blackmur said of criticism also holds for imaginative literature: “like walking, [writing] is a pretty nearly universal art; both require a constant intricate shifting and catching of balance; neither can be questioned much in process; and few perform either really well.”

The answer to all these questions is yes. Although allegories want to have fixed meanings, a strict correspondence between signifier and the occulted signified, like a code, it’s in the nature of meaning to decay into multiple and occasionally conflicting meanings. What sets Permanent Earthquake apart from Dara’s earlier fiction—also from most fiction being published now—is that this half-life process of meaning-fraying is sped up and rendered visible in the vessel of a basic story structure. As with Beckett, in Endgame or Godot, for example, there’s a humanist or “existential” reading of the novel that’s simultaneously available and withheld, in persistent tension with the nihilistic and cataclysmic created world that’s not just shattered but perpetually shattering.

At an early moment in Permanent Earthquake, the narrator attempts to help a fallen old man on the way to the dispensary. Instead of accepting the outstretched hand to right himself, the man uses it to climb on the narrator’s back: “The man clings to me, he hangs on, a human drape that will not come loose.” It’s a classical image of pietas, almost sculptural; Aeneas carrying his father, Anchises, from the burning ruin of Troy. Then the man tries to steal food from the narrator’s front pack and practically bites him in his hunger. The image becomes grotesque, Goya’s Saturn eating his young. “He is only doing this . . . to survive,” the narrator thinks, “he cannot not do this.” The narrator carries him all the same, even after the old man topples them both multiple times. At last, the old man leaves the younger one stunned and in pain and staggers off, “merges with the other crabbed plasms hunching towards the dispensary.” The transformation from humanism to anti-humanism is accomplished in the space of a few paragraphs, but the narrator still can’t help crying.

There’s no way out of this double consciousness, the human inside the post-human. As I write this review, the news is devoted to the sudden collapse of a beachside, Miami high-rise condominium. Feature stories on individual victims are being published. The state convenes a grand jury to find individual responsible parties—probably the condo board—as if this were a case of simple incompetence rather than culture-wide negligence in the face of climate catastrophe, brought on by decades of malignant disinterest from those who should know better. The ninety-eight victims are today’s stand-in for the millions more to come, but our culture can only know this and forget about it simultaneously.

Neither can Dara’s protagonist, later in the novel, keep himself from other feelings: hope, freedom, wonder, awe, guilt. In his search for the “stillspot,” he encounters a juggler, who, seemingly alone among the inhabitants of the island, possesses a secret inner grace, in both the spiritual and physical senses, allowing him to remain undisturbed by the persistent tremors and temblors. Rings, pins, diabolos, and knives—the juggler has the whole carny circus act. The nameless adolescent hero is smitten and follows him around. When they finally speak, he even recovers or acquires a name: Sam. Here, Dara turns the screws a bit tighter and risks a sentimental, almost Dickensian twist. The juggler offers the boy a job, a way out of the grind of hauling stones, not just freedom from starvation but the magic of art. Yet the juggler reveals himself to be something of the old American showman, a man on the make. “Sam, you have officially been incentivized,” he says, offering him a percentage of their nightly take, “you can walk through the crowd with the cookie jar, kind of encourage the folks to throw something in. Because it’s like that—the people in the back, when they think you don’t see them, they don’t give.” Spirit of play, spirit of capitalism, spirit of art, all merge in this juggler whose joviality or light irony can only ring false.

“Only when play becomes aware of its own terror, as in Beckett,” Adorno comments, “does it in any way share in art’s power of reconciliation.” The juggler does not recognize any terror in his play, nor the terror of the populace that it mollifies and subdues. His is the gospel of positivity and of the faith healer. He speaks to Sam as if they are inhabiting a totally different world from the juddering mess they indeed inhabit. His power is that of pretense.

The power of pretend in Permanent Earthquake is trying to do something different, even as it shares in the “step right up” showmanship of toying with the impossible, the unthinkable, the “earth shattering.” It’s true that we delight in fantasized destructions of the world, preferably with as many details as possible. Certain qualities of Dara’s writing share in this extremely, aggressively American sensibility, not unlike that of the Marvel Cinematic Universe. The novel’s bloodied tongues, broken limbs; poverty raised to an exponential power of utter desolation; the piecemeal glimpses of the wider landscape of upended vehicles, downed helicopters, smashed bicycles; the ruins, the dirt, and the grime and the blood and the sinews; and what can only be described as frantic editing—this disaster mashup also feels like Hollywood in the shadow of Michael Bay.

Dara activates the contemporary reader’s apocalyptic and bloodthirsty cultural sensibility but also turns it against itself. Every disaster movie contains a seductive survivalist promise: you too could make it, if only . . . Dara is too aware of the genre as well as the depredations of what they have called “intense moral decay turbo-capitalism” to let things in the novel take this particular course. Survival under these conditions is mostly a matter of accident, timing, and also of being willing to let go of most of what makes us human. The subtler tensions and pleasures of Permanent Earthquake arise from the reader’s realization, at a certain point, that we want Sam to take this last step into make-believe and self-mythologizing, to lose himself in order to find his feet. But Dara wouldn’t remain the same impossible outsider they’ve always been if they gave readers what we wanted.