NB: if you’re only here for my comments on Daniel James’ entertaining postmodern novel, The Unauthorised Biography of Ezra Maas, scroll down to the image of its cover and read from there. Everything before then is a mediation on the way many forms of labour reduce our sense of person-hood.
I really enjoyed Daniel James’ big debut novel and read in it only a few days.
I had a long road trip yesterday to do some freelance catering work at a party on a telecom billionaire’s semi-private island (lol) and read half of the novel squashed on the backseat of a car.
In that car were six other people, all of whom – like me – lack that certain something that means we don’t refuse accepting work as, essentially, a feudal servant.
I haven’t written here about the weird – and often undignified – work I’ve been doing recently, as it’s neither stressful nor exciting, so doesn’t hit the emotional triggers that result in me needing to blog my feelings out.
Working for the past few months in high-end catering, I have served food at a charity dinner hosted by a property developer on the 75th floor of an incomplete skyscraper, I’ve been a butler for two days during a prolonged funeral, and I’ve done many other less strange things.
I don’t think psychologically healthy people end up in situations like this without some serious avoidance of what’s going on: it is inherently demeaning to serve someone within their domestic space, regardless of how “freelance” or short the shift is. In these shifts in people’s houses, I am never doing anything the host is incapable of doing themselves: they just don’t want to pour wine, open champagne bottles, carry food out of the kitchen, etc.
As a server or a bartender in someone’s house, you become a status symbol: you are – I am – as much a part of the “showing off” as their cars and boats and property and décor: “look at how many neatly dressed and polite people I can afford to have handing out food and drinks at my house party,” is what my presence is saying.
For me and my colleagues, it is intrinsically objectifying, and working these kind of events is fundamentally different from waiting tables in a restaurant or a bar or working at an event like a wedding or a swanky dinner in a museum or whatever. A private event in a “public” building is very different from a private event in a domestic space. It’s probably not the kinda thing I should be doing, mental-healthwise.
I’m writing about it now because, as I sat reading the final pages of The Unauthorised Biography of Ezra Maas (with plans to spend my evening writing this little blog and sharing a baked sweet potato with my dog), I received a phone call offering me some last-minute work right now, and I turned it down.
It wasn’t many hours and it wouldn’t have been difficult, but going and shutting myself down and being without self is something that requires effort and, right now, I don’t want to do that.
To appear blank – which is the appropriate behaviour the majority of the time when doing this job – is something I, as a long term sufferer of depression, do not struggle to do. But I know that it’s a bad trait and a bad habit.
Being within that blankness, that lack of personhood, is something I’d avoided doing today and I felt like myself: I’d read the latter half of an enjoyable novel, I’d gone on a nice walk with my dog, I’d worked a little on some poems and I’d arranged some socialising, which I keep forgetting to do as a result of feeling blank.
Today, I’d pulled Scott Manley Hadley out of my blank self: I was awake, I was conscious, and though I would have liked the not-negligible money I would have been paid for a few hours’ work, I didn’t want to iron a shirt, shave, polish my shoes and get on public transport just to be polite and personless for a few hours.
I don’t think one needs, necessarily, to be without personhood to work: certainly in the occasional professional writing I do, my personality/personhood is present, even when I’m writing commercial copy for a bar or a pet insurer. It’s not only in my writing about mental illness that I’m able to keep my sense of play and fun with me in the “workplace”.
When I’m carrying boxes or plates or mixing simple cocktails or pouring expensive wine next to someone’s pool or whatever, who I am doesn’t matter, I am – and need to be – merely what I am. In fact, if I insert my personality into my work there I am bad at my job. A depressed English poet with no hair and big debts from that time I bought a structurally unsound boat isn’t the correct persona to be handing out hors d’oeuvres at a glamorous party where there are cases and cases of a tequila that costs more per bottle than three months of my rent. If they notice my accent and ask me about it, I tell people that “I came here for love” with a big smile and that’s usually a sufficient explanation.
I keep telling myself that it is “good” that I am physically stronger and fitter than I’ve been since adolescence, but why is it good?
I am the healthiest I’ve [arguably] ever been, but I don’t have any prospects of imminent personal development and I currently rely on work I find demeaning because I don’t know how to get enough writing and tutoring gigs to graduate out of hospitality.
I “have my health,” as they say, and I tell myself this is the right thing to prioritise because I might want to still be alive and healthy in a few years’ time. Right now, I don’t feel like being healthy, I feel like being self-destructive and self-sabotaging, but instead of causing further damage to myself physically and financially, I’m merely grinding myself into an increasingly literal rut.
My life has lost its forward momentum, and this evening I did a good job of finding it, of feeling it, for a bit, and I didn’t want to go and spend a few hours having it squashed back down, which also would have meant that I wouldn’t have had a full night’s sleep before I have to work in the morning. Today, at least, my need for selfhood made me reject the offer of work, even though I’m very financially precarious at present. Also, though – and perhaps I should have considered this sooner – I earned more in one day yesterday than I do some entire weeks, so the money pressure was lessened, lol.
Anyway, readers, this post is meant to be about a book, right?
Earlier this week I read a friend’s work-in-progress manuscript, in which she quotes her father – a poet’s – favourite refrain: “life’s too short for prose”. I was reminded of that while reading Daniel James’ The Unauthorised Biography of Ezra Maas (Dead Ink Books, 2018) because though this is a very enjoyable read, it’s a book that clearly took a lot of work, time and effort, and there was a part of me that, even though I enjoyed it as a reader, couldn’t help but wonder… was this book worth – for Daniel James – the time he put into it?
The novel is a collage of various voices and styles and it is riddled with footnotes (which also possess different voices) and, in a hallucinatory sequence towards its conclusion, seems to set itself in our reality by revealing that the narrator-protagonist – a writer called Daniel James – believes he has successfully removed all mention of the global superstar artist Ezra Maas from human consciousness aside from what exists in this novel.
Does that make sense?
If it sounds like it doesn’t, that’s my failure, because The Unauthorised Biography of Ezra Maas does read like it makes sense. This is my point, I think: this is a silly, playful, campy text (these are not criticisms), but the success of its structural complexity makes it clear that its readability is hard-won.
James – both the fictional one and the real one – fills his text with pop culture and high culture reference points, and it is a multi-layered text about [fictional] Daniel James writing a biography of an elusive, missing, international artist, Ezra Maas.
There are first person sections about James investigating the life of the artist – who may even be fictional within the fiction(!) – and third person sections that offer possible interpretations of Maas’ life as written by [fictional] James. These third-person sections are the in-progress and incomplete manuscript of the biography that [fictional] James was working on before he, like Ezra Maas, disappeared.
There is a third significant figure – who the reader is able to interpret as either of these men or any one of several other peripheral characters – who has supposedly edited this novel together from the notes and drafts James left before he disappeared. This [fictional] editor adds footnotes to James’ and adds transcripts and press clippings related to their investigation of James’ disappearance to the rest of the novel’s text, slotting them amongst the diary entries, interview excerpts and letters/emails/phone calls that [the fictional] James has collected in the book.
I realise this explanation sounds messy, but that is what I’m trying to convey: although Ezra Maas is a relatively straightforward novel and definitely not an inaccessible one, its structure is complex and interweaving: it is genuinely impressive how [the real] Daniel James moves from voice to voice, from form/style to form/style, and how he manages to hold the reader’s attention throughout. This is a well-made novel.
It does, perhaps, feel a little dated, as it’s self-consciously a riff on 1980s/1990s post-modernism, which James references throughout. A conspicuous gap in the namedropping of Pynchon, Auster, DeLillo etc is David Foster Wallace, whose influence is the most apparent, not only in the heavy use of footnotes (over 500 in a 390 page book), but also plotwise in rumours that circulate of Ezra Maas having created a film with the power to turn people insane.
Using the author’s real name (Daniel James) and certain biographical details in the central figure is also not something new (I mean, I’ve done it, lol, and so did Martin Amis in Money and Bret Easton Ellis in Lunar Park), but the reason why writers did/do this is because it’s FUN. In fact, that’s the best way to describe this novel: it’s a really, really fun read.
The Unauthorised Biography of Ezra Maas plays with genre, particularly detective fiction, and even references the Fredric Jameson’s pseudtastic The Detections of Tonality as an intellectual justification for how close to the genre the text is. Yes, the real Daniel James understands that the womanising and boozing of the fictional Daniel James is a literary cliche, but using a literary cliche and then writing that you know it’s a literary cliche is already kinda a literary cliche, right? Maybe it isn’t, maybe I’ve just read too many books like this, lol, but that is because I like books like this. I liked this book. I think it’s good.
If you like experimental but readable fiction, I’d recommend it.
If you like quirky detective fiction or literary thrillers, I’d recommend it.
If you like supporting independent UK publishers, I’d recommend it.
As a novel, Ezra Maas succeeds at doing everything it tries to do, and it’s clearly the result of lots of hard work and engaged writing and thinking.
James has produced something of serious technical merit, but I think it is the following that left me uncertain about the whole thing: emotionally, Ezra Maas is flat.
Ezra Maas is stylish and undeniably impressive, structurally, but it is about people who fail to engage with their emotions in a significant way and though it conveys that, it doesn’t convey the seriousness of this or the repercussions of this on others. There is a letter, towards the end, from one of [fictional?] James’ lovers that mentions this, but it’s too little and draws attention to the lack of felt emotion elsewhere rather than compensating for it. Like with the textual comments about the use of genre tropes mentioned above, James seems to know when his text reaches its limits: but with something that exhibits such intellectual rigour, why is there no questioning of the text’s ultimate purpose? This is a complex novel, but it’s one without much feeling: 100,000 words (an estimate) and not one of them made me cry. I cry all the time.
Bearing this is mind, though, I want to make it clear that I really enjoyed this, and that I am fundamentally more interested in emotionality and catharsis than anything else in literature and see these as the form’s need. I know that’s an opinion, though.
To wrap up: this is not a difficult read, but it’s certainly not an unintelligent one: The Unauthorised Biography of Ezra Maas is well-pitched to appeal to the casual, as well as the avid, reader of experimental fiction. Could I write anything this complex? No. Did I enjoy reading it? Yes.
I enjoyed it more than I expected to, if I’m being honest, and I’d heartily recommend it to you, whoever you are.
OK, gotta go.