The Rules of Obsession
(Roundabout Press, 2014)
Jaime Clarke’s Vernon Downs is a fast-moving and yet, at times, quite sad book about, in the broadest sense, longing. The specifics of the longing, ultimately, revolve around a simple premise: a boy (Charlie Martens) has a crush on a cute British girl (Olivia). He wants to impress her, wants her in the most basic, biological way. Charlie and Olivia’s story starts at Glendale Community College, in Arizona, where they are in a creative writing class together. Olivia’s favorite writer is Vernon Downs (a character based much on Bret Easton Ellis), and Charlie decides that if he knows enough about Downs, he’ll get the girl; and so he makes Downs his own project, or quarry. Things move on: Olivia leaves, Charlie eventually gets to New York, and soon latches closely onto Downs. I don’t mean to be dismissively breezy—the plot is serviceable and fine, but ultimately it’s not quite the reason you go to the show: Ultimately the novel is about identity, specifically: the theft or borrowing of such. And thus, the book itself enacts and engages with notions of authenticity.
There are a lot of things fantastic about this book, from its small press publisher (Roundabout Press) to how it’s being released (Clarke—a founding editor of the monumental Post Road, co-owner of Newtonville Books—has asked readers not to buy the book from Amazon, and then furthered the ask by offering, to anyone who ordered the book direct, an essay to accompany the book, an essay titled "B.E.E. & Me," describing Clarke’s own personal relationship with Bret Easton Ellis). But the most interesting aspects of this book, of course, are to be found inside the book itself. Most interesting among them is how the readers find themselves situated in it from the outset: We’re dropped, almost instantly, off and running into the present of Charlie’s life in Arizona. Where many novels offer the prerequisite back-story exposition—who the players are, how they got here, and what they want—Vernon Downs trucks with precious little of that. As a result, the reading experience itself feels unusual from the start: We’re less offered traditional fiction’s full, perfectly rendered profiles of our protagonists, but are instead offered just people, acting, doing, being, not presented so much as activated. And through their actions, we deduce and understand who they are. The sensation, at least for me at the book’s start, was that I kept trying to page backward to before the book had even begun, searching for a back-story that somehow predates the book’s conception.
What this does, functionally, to the reading experience, is that you can’t help feeling like you’re discovering Charlie as he sets out to discover Vernon; and then, once he has discovered him and they’ve become friends (and more: Charlie works for Downs, house-sitting at his apartment in New York), you move on to beginning to understand who Charlie is. It gives nothing away to say that Charlie becomes more than a little obsessed with Vernon, to the point of pretending to be him. Clearly this brings lots of trouble, but, in the process, even more is revealed about Charlie as well—his family background, and why he’s so hard-up for human connection, why he desires to feel like he belongs, desiring it so intensely that he would cross pretty obvious Do-Not-Cross societal lines.
What makes the book so moving, I think, by its end, is how it tries to square this search-for-self in the context of story: The novel literally ends not with some big climax and denouement of action or release, but with Charlie considering how he would, in the future, relate the events of the whole book itself—in other words, how he’d package it as story, and how story creates and/or defines self. Such a notion is, of course, nothing that monumental—most of us understand it intuitively, and yet the awareness of this does nothing to diminish the pleasure of Clarke’s story. Charlie’s a lost sort, looking for something, grasping, and yet, ultimately, what he finds has much more to do with his own self, his own cares and tendencies.
I don’t want to make it sound like some massively idea-driven book either: Vernon Downs is reading pleasure, and, like the best books, big abstractions are presented largely through the story as it unfolds. Among the readerly pleasures, also, is how closely this book hews to nonfiction: Bret Easton Ellis is Vernon Downs’s obvious model, and the 1980s book world of New York is painted entirely fictively. Yet, if you recognize some of the characters, some of the books, some of the controversies that arose in those days, there’s a deliciousness to seeing them rehashed, albeit mildly tweaked. That’s not at all to say you need to know about, for instance, the furor Ellis found himself experiencing on the publication of American Psycho; Clarke’s new novel will offer enjoyments to any reader. The operative thing is that Vernon Downs offers an unsettling, bracing look at what obsession with an artist can look like.