By Scott Gloden
Roundabout Press, April 2014
There are many attempts to write something original, or offbeat, in the trends of literary fiction. These attempts include insular references, experimental sectioning, pictographs, and so on, but a good writer can always achieve something original in linear form. Vernon Downs is eccentrically original, and it may not even be a book I like.
Briefly, it’s a story about a young writer who falls for a girl in love with another, already famed writer, Vernon Downs. Girl goes back to London, neglects the feelings of the boy, and the boy, out of irregular but plausible circumstance, befriends Vernon Downs.
While our narrator, Charlie Martens, is always reckoning his lost love in Olivia (if not all together attempting the long con to win her back), it is the affair between Charlie and Vernon, which motivates the entire plot. What propels the story away from anything even lazily thought, however, is the fact that Vernon Downs is Bret Easton Ellis—not for all intents and purposes, but undeniably so: “He’d intended to read a comic scene involving business cards but had inexplicably opened the book to a scene that included one of the most violent passages in The Vegetable King.” A reference here to Ellis’s American Psycho—albeit, a slightly less overt one than Vernon Downs’s premier publication Minus Numbers, a comical allusion to Ellis’s Less than Zero.
Jaime Clarke is certainly not the first person to fictionalize a contemporary, or even thoroughly put history to someone of the recent past, but he manages his story with an admixture of accuracy and hilarity, which makes it hard to pass by.
Clarke attended University of Arizona as an undergrad, and then went on to Bennington (Ellis’s alma mater) for his MFA. In the first forty pages, Charlie’s character mounts the same trajectory: attending an Arizona community college for creative writing, and ending up at a Bread Loaf-esque writer’s conference at the fictionalized Camden College (Downs’s alma mater, and the college Ellis fictionalizes in The Rules of Attraction). At the conference, where it becomes clear that Vernon Downs and Bret Easton Ellis are one in the same, Clarke really begins to explore and scrutinize roles of fanfare and criticism in the literary world, but he does something even slyer.
As we watch Charlie pursue Vernon to a point beyond fandom, we also watch Charlie becoming not only a version of Vernon, but also one of Vernon’s characters. Clarke creates a cycle in this maneuver, but one that runs slowly enough for us to clock each character’s next move, revealing the inevitability of futures. With smart execution, the lines of fiction and non-fiction seem to blend and cross over: the story of Vernon is fiction, but with real facts of Ellis; the story of Charlie is fiction, but he interacts in a world where features of Ellis’s work are exampled as true: fiction within fiction based on fact. Or, more intriguingly in Clarke’s words: “With so few witnesses, veracity would be lost in the fog of time.”
The story, in less than 200 pages, avenues how quickly a mentor’s opinion can edit one’s work, the way in which a city can chew on your sense of ego, and how the flaws of our heroes can be defended when they’re more often indefensible. The idea is a vacuum, but one that’s incredibly fun to explore.
Did I like it? Truthfully, not really, and yet I think this was the very point Clarke was attempting to make. No work of writing can ever be dismantled and sold for naught, when there may just be a readership it speaks to. I finished reading, because Clarke possessed me enough with this concept, and sold it on his merits of talent and craft. In fact, every detail feels so dutifully researched that one becomes lost in the evolutions of Vernon and Charlie alike; one can’t help but appreciate Clarke’s, either, homage to or warning of literary celebrity; but, most of all, one can’t help but admit that Clarke is a flat-out clever writer.