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Review: Chris Eaton, A Biography

Although I have read a fair amount of literature that can safely be called experimental or at least non-conventional, I tend to doubt my ability to make fair, sound judgments about which among these works are good works. Much of Barth is tedious and masturbatory, and there’s plenty under Pynchon’s name that strikes me as very weak, for example, and yet both are widely regarded as masters at what they do. (And of course they’ve also both written plenty that I do find worth serious study.)

In spite of my self-doubt when it comes to such judgments, I think I’ve made some correct calls. Gaddis and Wallace write good books. Some of Bolaño and Pynchon I recognize to be quality work even when it doesn’t appeal to me personally. When a book is a great book, I think I generally have the sense to recognize it as such.

Chris Eaton’s Chris Eaton, a Biography, however much it is a book I found myself rooting for, is not a great book. It is not, in fact, even a terribly successful book. But it is a book that I really wanted to be successful, whose conceit I found appealing if, in the end, very overworked.

The promotional blurb sets the novel up rather promisingly (if a little over-enthusiastically):

Chris Eaton, A Biography is a novel that arises from the idea that we have all been driven, at some point, to Google ourselves. And if you did, what did you find? That there are people out there who seem to have something in common with you? Dates, places, interests? How coincidental are these connections? And what are the factors that define a human life? We are the sum of our stories: Anecdotal constructs. We remember moments in our pasts the way we remember television episodes. In pieces. And we realize that our own memories are no more valid in the construction of our identities than stories we’ve heard from others. Chris Eaton, A Biography constructs a life by using, as building blocks, the lives of dozens of other people who share nothing more than a name, identities that blur into each other with the idea that, in the end, we all live the same life, deal with the same hopes and fears, experience the same joys and tragedies. Only the specifics are different. From birth to death and everything in between, the narratives we share bring us closer to a truth about what it means to be alive. To be you.

This, it seems, will be a book about what it means to be a person struggling through life, and this is what the great books tend to be about. I won’t say that I agree with every word of the blurb, but I thought the use of a shared name as the thread through a life, or a series of lives, demonstrating the universality of the human condition, seemed new and interesting. So often it’s time and place that throw characters together, and I was receptive to this different organization of a novel’s happenings.

Right off the bat, Eaton introduces us to a number of characters whose histories are compelling. It’s a little confusing at first, not least of all because without further comment, he begins suddenly using the feminine pronoun for one of the Chris Eaton characters. It’s unexpected and gave me a pleasant little jolt. A little confusion in a book like this isn’t really a liability. It’s probably part of the point, in fact. But as the book unfolds, we meet more and more characters and some of the story lines begin to blur in what for me were unpleasantly disorienting ways. Was I reading, at a given moment, about the life of the punk rocker, the politician, the artist, the wrestler, the pornographer, the carpenter, or somebody else? And for that matter, was it possible that some of these apparently distinct characters were in fact the same character at different times of life, with me having simply missed the connections linking them across the novel’s time? And if so, was this all really the designed point — that blur that the novel’s blurb mentions — or was it a flaw of the book? And if it was the designed point, was it a good design? These are the sorts of questions that I think make assessing non-conventional literature so hard. It’s tricky to decide when the flaw is in the work and when it is in the reader.

Chris Eaton, a Biography grows more fantastical as we move further into it, with conspiracy plots and people with comically specific occupations and proclivities. Some of these I found rewarding and others gratuitous. We meet many people tangentially related to the various main plots, and they become, in spite of the humor with which their stories are so often told, a really big distraction. Think of Pynchon’s lightbulb conspiracy or adenoid taming repeated over and over in a much shorter book. What’s more, their names or the names of their organizations or areas of interest tend to be anagrams of Chris Eaton, which is clever given the underlying conceit of the book but which becomes so heavy-handed here as to become not just a distraction but a game one can’t help but play.

I’m reminded of a thriller by Dan Brown entitled Digital Fortress whose entire plot hangs on the existence of someone’s anagrammatized name. The last half of Brown’s book hinges on this clue that none of the inspiringly brilliant people in the novel can puzzle out, which turns out to be the anagram that practically blinks on the page. The inability of the novel’s brilliant inhabitants to see this obvious thing becomes infuriatingly comical.

Similarly, Eaton’s book becomes a sardonic game of “spot the anagram.” Some of the anagrams are cute, and I enjoyed some of the stories that go with the name variants, but the game became tiresome. Tonia Hersc? Tina Cerosh? Hornet Cisa? Ian Rotches? A pair named Chorea and Nits studying creatures known as antioch ers? Those couldn’t possibly be anagrams for Chris Eaton, could they?

Many of the side stories Eaton presents seem to exist solely for the purpose of introducing another anagram of the name, so that we get a three-page digression here and another there as back story for a back story. These are often hilarious and well enough written, but they also become a little annoying, the more so because they contribute to the muddling of the plots of the main Chris Eatons.

These side stories also result in the book’s seeming to consist of summary after summary. Again and again we read “he did, she did” prose but precious little (if any) dialogue that brings us closer to the characters. We skip around from one zany summary to the next, and though the book does contain a number of conflicts, it seems to me by and large very emotionally sterile, devoid of any humanizing drama presented in a way that makes me feel for the characters. The result is a book full of cleverness but lacking the gravity that I think is necessary for a book purporting to offer truths about what it means to be alive.

I wanted to like this book on the basis of its conceit alone, and I did enjoy many of the stories in the book, but I don’t think it holds up very well as a novel. It often feels as if Eaton made a list of anagrams and wrote little stories for each one, then stitched them all together into a book loosely centered on the lives of a cluster of Chris Eatons. I’m receptive enough to fragmented narratives, but Chris Eaton, a Biography I think ultimately falls short because of a lack of coherence among its parts. There’s too much in the book that’s not essential.

Still, on the basis of this effort, I’ll root for Eaton. I would try another of his books. I think what he’s written here is intelligent and well-meaning if not altogether successful. It’s something more than a curiosity if something far short of a masterpiece.

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