Bret Easton Ellis Reviews Your Novel, Part One - 'Regard' by Pablo D'Stair
Have you heard of The Canyons? Of course you have because you are a living, breathing human who uses the internet. In case you are the creep who gets his news off the iPad of the pretty lady sitting next to him on the subway, The Canyons is a "contemporary thriller" written by Bret Easton Ellis, author of American Psycho, directed by Paul Schrader, and starring Lindsay Lohan and James Deen. It was partly funded by a Kickstarter campaign, through which they ultimately raised about $200,000. The suckers, err, contributors who gave $5,000 got the chance to have Bret Easton Ellis review their novel. Here we have the first of Ellis's Kickstarter reviews, of Pablo D'Stair's novel Regard, which was published this year from (KUBOA) art house. —The VICE Reader
If I’m counting the number of titles correctly on the “Other Fiction by Pablo D’Stair” page then Regard falls among his 38 works of fiction. I’m noting this because D’Stair was born in 1981, and for someone in his early-30s this is a crazily prodigious accomplishment. Judging from Regard, I’m guessing that most of this fiction is experimental and, like Regard, carefully crafted enigmas that bury dramatic incident in reams of minutiae, which is part of a plan—the novel as puzzle. Here’s the description from its dust jacket:
“A 13-year-old girl moves through a world equal parts routine and randomness, tenderness and violence, tedium and excitement, intimacy and ambivalence, making no distinction between one state or another, her life rendered in minute physical description with only as much psychological insight offered as would be leveled at a stray cat or an insect.”
If that sounds like 275 pages of fun reading, then Regard is definitely for you. This approach might seem meek, almost a shy way of constructing a novel. As a writer who has used this device myself, I understand why another might be attracted to it, but the risk in doing so is that a reader might become too busy thinking, Why isn’t a narrative announcing itself? and then skimming through pages instead of concentrating on what’s happening. A reader might get distracted by asking, “Where is the, um, story?” There are, of course, stacks of uninteresting books with strong narratives and forceful characterizations, and a writer can be a complete hack and still write a terrific narrative. But someone needs to be a freaking genius to pull off a 300-page experimental novel. This all sounds like I’m going to complain about Regard, but I’m not because the book blithely manages to go its own way and the reader ultimately goes along with it, if not always eagerly.
Regard was written about a decade ago and only published this year by (KUBOA) press. In just the second chapter, there’s a writer (I suppose he’s a writer... Like everyone else in the book, he’s never given a name) speaking to the 13-year-old girl and offering his touching feelings about the permanence of books. This was probably written as this analog world was on its irrevocable way to becoming a digital one, where screens would ultimately replace typeset-bound objects. The speech resonates and sets up the rest of the novel as a serious literary endeavor couched in an old-fashioned avant-garde that has its roots in American modernism.
While reading Regard, it’s hard not to wonder why someone would attempt to write a book like this now—one that moves so slowly and purposefully tries your patience—and you might be annoyed at first. However, it’s not annoying enough to toss right away, and the writing flows so that it is (at times) easy reading. Despite the specificity of the prose and the “situation” (I won’t call it a “plot” exactly) you find yourself drifting in and out of Regard because the prose, while fluid, is stuck in a plan that demands it adhere to the novel’s overarching conceit, which means that the prose doesn’t really breathe and never differentiates. (I’ve tried this before in my fiction and know that if you play it right, you can achieve startling effects via the juxtaposition of the flatness of the prose with what’s lurking in the action.) Regard doesn’t always make its case but it is written by someone who cares about language. You’d be surprised at the number of novels written by people who don’t. It takes a lot of daring and ambition for a writer to tease out a book like this in such minute detail, and D’Stair is committed.
Regard reminds you that every writer has their own plan. Some are more apparent than others. With some books you can decipher that the writer is smarter than you. With others you can figure out that they simply think they are smarter than you—and didn’t fully comprehend the plan they were trying to execute. A few are just inept. With Regard you stop yourself from skimming because you start thinking you might be missing something—the book is too well written to skim. And then you’re thinking, Well, have I? And then you’re thinking, Does it matter? Somehow again and again you’re drawn in, and you eventually stop wondering if the novel would have benefited from being more ambitiously conceived. Would the situation of this girl have resonated more had the book been conventionally told? (Instead of “She wakes up, stretches and goes into the bathroom to brush her teeth” there are eight pages describing these actions complete with numerous parentheticals.) But you get used to the book’s rhythm and follow it because the work is obsessive. We finds ourselves in a languid kind of suspense bracing ourselves for something to happen—the diminishing returns and the skimming vanish—and then at a certain point something that was only alluded to early on is confirmed and the novel changes.
The girl, never named, floats through the book (like a ghost) in a nonspecific locale. We see the girl at school, with her father, going to the movies, spying on a neighbor. Pages and pages of dull incident are occasionally interrupted by jarring images: a cigarette being crushed into a hand, fireworks, urination. Did we just read about a rape? We’re not in the young girl’s consciousness; we’re in the writer’s consciousness and always aware of the disconnect. The events in the book are kept at a distance, and you start longing for the meaning of it all. But then something happens. Very early on, buried in a paragraph we think might be an incestuous sex scene between the girl and her father, what we might have thought was a rape but are not completely sure. Our suspicions are confirmed midway through the book when the girl finally confesses to her mother—who has conveniently passed out... the only way the girl could confess—that her father has been fucking her. It’s a violently sexual confession and the first time we really hear the girl’s voice. It’s in this moment that you realize the book couldn’t have been written any other way. Everything streams from this transgression. It is the book's reason for existing.
Regard is labeled “a novel,” and the more you read of it, the more you realize that a novel means many things. It’s a reminder that anyone who carries a strict set of rules about what a novel is probably loses out on a lot of literary fiction.
The VICE Reader is a series in which we publish original fiction—mostly. We also feature the occasional poem, essay, book review, diary entry, Graham Greene-style dream-diary entry, Zemblan fable, letter to the editor, letter to a fictional character, and anything else that is so good we feel it must be shared among the literary-minded and the internet at large.