CHRIS EATON, A BIOGRAPHY
By Chris Eaton
The Internet didn’t invent narcissism, but it has had the effect of amplifying already powerful cultural trends taking us in that direction. Social networking, after all, has nothing social about it, but just provides a way for us to spend more time alone. The Internet is a mirror in which we endlessly examine ourselves, analyzing not just our own identities but the way others see (and evaluate) us. Or, taking the metaphor of the network, the Internet is a web that always has us at the center.
Who, for example, hasn’t Googled him or herself? And when we find all of our name’s secret sharers, haven’t we wondered if there might be some mystical connection between us and that legion of virtual avatars and digital selves peeking out from behind the Cloud?
Such a sense of connection is the inspiration for Chris Eaton’s Chris Eaton: A Biography. Notably, it is not an autobiography. Chris Eaton has little to do with the Chris Eaton who is a Canadian musician (recording as Rock Plaza Central), and currently one of this country’s best under-the-radar writers. Instead what we have here is a composite portrait of a number of Chris Eatons: men and women, gay and straight, young and old. After a while it becomes hard to tell some of them apart, but that’s the point. The life you’re reading about might be your own.
The book’s loosely biographical structure follows Chris Eaton (all of them) from cradle to grave. But Eaton (the author) isn’t interested in telling a story in the traditional way, unless the tradition you’re referring to is that of the experimental “new novel” or magic realism. Within those terms of reference one can recognize a number of familiar elements, as we are constantly being sidetracked into rambling lists, historical background, flashy displays of esoteric research, and complex digressions dealing with obscure (and often imaginary) subcultures and secret societies.
It’s information overload, and it poses the question of just how all of this information — and we are all bits of information now — adds up to a life: that is, something coherent and meaningful with a beginning, middle and end. Your Facebook and MySpace pages, your LinkedIn profile and Twitter account, your personal homepage and network of friends, your genealogy, cache of Google searches and other digital spoor . . . you can package all of this together into an identity that can be sold to advertisers, but the whole will be less than the sum of the parts, and has little relation to your life as you experience it.
What is it about us that is un-Googleable and most real? Nothing that can be captured between the covers of a standard biography, but rather those spots of time and flights of the imagination that defy the dry realism of data. In rendering these, the author Chris Eaton, like the painter Chris Eaton (one of his subjects), has as his goal “not to depict just one moment in the life of a person, nor even the complete biography . . . but to capture life itself in its entirety.”
All of this may make Chris Eaton (the book) sound a bit high-minded and programmatic, but that’s not how it plays. In the first place, the writing is alive with an energetic use of language and wit. Eaton’s similes are a particular delight. Take, for example, this description of a young Chris Eaton learning to swim:
He was just a child, a spastic three-year-old with wet towels for feet, head like an overgrown ape’s paw, his legs like welded bows, too fast for his body, so they just bounced up and down like the limbs of some delicate, drunken ostrich.
That’s perfect, both at capturing in a jumble of discordant analogies how an awkward three-year-old moves, and how those movements feel.
What’s even more impressive, however, is the way Eaton puts heart into his personal brand of magic realism, a self-consciously literary genre all too often taken over by intellectual gamesmanship and superficial cleverness. One of the Chris Eatons we meet is an experimental musician who finds his work falling in-between the derivative pop platitudes that provide ear candy for the masses (“music for people who hated music”) and the “equally frustrating” efforts of the avant garde “who seemed to praise so-called ingenuity, but at the expense of true beauty or feeling.”
This is the same, frankly non-commercial middle-ground Eaton’s fiction occupies: exciting and experimental writing with intelligence and soul.
Review first published in the Toronto Star May 24, 2013.