The Embrace of Influence

In the 22 years since Evan Dara published his first novel, he has granted no interviews nor provided any substantive insight regarding his background or his working methods. Except once.  Following the release of The Easy Chain in 2008, the dean of postmodern literary critics, Tom LeClair, emailed him and asked about the influence of William Gaddis on his writing, specifically The Recognitions and JR.  While LeClair wasn’t able to serve up a direct quote, he reports that Dara denied having read either book.

Without survey data to support this supposition, I don’t think current authors are as threatened by this question as Harold Bloom once theorized.  When Lucas Thompson appeared on The Great Concavity, he derided the notion of the “anxiety of influence” as an outdated metaphor, a relic of a hyper-masculine framework which equated the acknowledgement of influence with a form of weakness.  To admit that you were shaped by a contemporary was a sign that you were lacking in genius, which might invite the most dreaded of damning adjectives: derivative.

In his book Global Wallace, Thompson channeled his voluminous research on David Foster Wallace within the Harry Ransom Center into a compelling argument regarding the breadth of influences upon his writing, along with the notion that Wallace was both generous and candid when it came to crediting those who wormed their way into his consciousness.

Having spent weeks scouring the materials within the center’s inventory, Thompson was a natural person to ask whether there’s anything about Dara in the archive. However, he told me that he didn’t run across any mentions of Dara.  “I could well have missed something, though, so it’s still a possibility, but I’m fairly sure there’s nothing (sadly) in the archive to corroborate the anecdotal evidence.”

But as he traced the evolution of Wallace’s style and his use of typographical tools such as dashes and ellipses—including the Q’s in Brief Interviews with Hideous Men and earlier incarnations in Infinite Jest and Girl with Curious Hair—he saw that Wallace had adopted some of these methods well before he encountered the work of Gaddis.  He references the work of Wallace and Dara scholar Stephen Burn, who says the evidence suggests that “Wallace came to Gaddis’s fiction at a relatively late stage in his career, circa 1993.”

For those who believe that Gaddis has always exerted a strong gravitational pull since winning the National Book Award with JR, it’s worth noting that his rise to renewed relevance came in the summer of 1993, with Penguin’s reissue of The Recognitions (which features perhaps the most memorable of William Gass’s introductions) and JR. Just looking at the tick-tock, we know that Wallace was already working on Infinite Jest, while Dara was surely hip deep into The Lost Scrapbook.  It would have been difficult for either writer to ignore Gaddis’s presence after this point, especially following the release of A Frolic of His Own in 1994.  But it’s quite plausible that he wasn’t even on their radar prior to this recrudescence.

So, if you were to rule out Gaddis as the most likely suspect in planting these dashes and ellipses in the heads of Dara and Wallace, who might we assign partial credit?  In the case of Wallace, both Burn and Thompson point to the Argentine novelist, Manuel Puig, with Thompson concluding that he appropriated the stylistic device of including ellipses to indicate non-verbal reactions due to Puig, rather than Gaddis:

“Wallace used this particular form of punctuation to great effect in his first novel, The Broom of the System, though in later texts ellipses constitute one of his stylistic trademarks, appearing in almost all works from Infinite Jest through to The Pale King.  And though the representation of such pauses resonates on some level with the way that Wittgenstein used ellipses—indeed, an early reviewer once scolded Wallace for relying on such ‘pseudo-Wittgensteinian’ techniques—it was clearly a homage to the Argentine author, with Wallace himself admitting in 1987 that ‘if the technique is a rip-off of anyone it’s of Manuel Puig.'”

640px-Manuel_Puig,_1979
Manuel Puig (By Elisa Cabot – http://www.flickr.com/photos/76540627@N03/7454615382/, CC BY-SA 2.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=57373759)

 

Reading through Thompson’s work tracing the connections between Puig and Wallace, one could easily substitute Dara’s name.  For example, Puig was a proponent of the dash to indicate speech or, in some cases, silence. Here’s a passage Thompson pulled from Puig’s Betrayed by Rita Hayworth, which was published in 1968:

puig

Compare this with the section from The Lost Scrapbook where the tobacco industry spokesperson fields questions from a press gaggle, after reading a statement in response to a pair of significant courtroom wins in the summer of 1987:

tls196

Of course, Wallace pushed this device hardest in Brief Interviews with Hideous Men, where the questions of the therapist are represented simply by a Q.  Dara has used this sparingly, and tends to allow the respondent within a conversation to vocalize their agreement or acknowledge the speaker.  What’s interesting is that he and Puig use a similar tool to accomplish this, the “mmm.”

Here is a passage from Kiss of the Spider Woman:

puig2

Puig deploys mmm or mmm-hmm 36 times in the novel.  Dara, on the other hand, clips one of the m’s in The Lost Scrapbook, inserting it 38 times.  Here is a swatch from p. 303:

tls3

Wallace’s appreciation of Puig ran deep, and touched on attributes which are among Dara’s strengths (bolded for emphasis):

“But there were parts of it that were a rip-off of an Argentine writer named Manuel Puig, who is best known for the book that Kiss of the Spider Woman is based on. And most of his stuff is entirely in dialogue. One of my professors was also a playwright, and so that was a time when I was real excited by dialogue. I mean it’s straight dialogue without attribution, so the reader has to tell who is talking by difference cadences. That was fun.”
This certainly seems like a fertile field for some aspiring Evan Dara researcher to begin tilling, especially one with a deep background in Puig and the Latin Americans.  At the very least, perhaps we can begin to steer the conversation away from the shadow of Gaddis and navigate toward the stronger frequencies heard in his work.
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