[Dead Ink Books; 2019]

For readers only nominally familiar with postmodern fiction, Daniel James’s The Unauthorized Biography of Ezra Mass might indeed seem offbeat, even “difficult.” With its extreme self-reflexivity — the protagonist’s name is “Daniel James,” and he is trying to write a book — its rhetorical layers — sections about Daniel James in his authorial quest, sections about the titular Ezra Maas, taken from the vestiges of the book Daniel did manage to write, commentary (in footnotes) from the unnamed “editor” who claims to have assembled the book we are actually reading, along with other inserted documents — and its hall of mirrors play with illusion and identity, the novel emphatically shouts “unconventional.” And the novel certainly avoids conventional storytelling, although it ultimately does offer a more or less linear narrative — if side trips are allowed.

But for more experienced readers of postmodern fiction (reaching back to Beckett and Borges, ahead to Barth and Auster), the novel’s themes and devices likely seem fully recognizable, if not derivative of those earlier writers. Indeed, one could read The Unauthorized Biography of Ezra Maas as almost a parody of the postmodern novel, a comic apotheosis of postmodern tropes and strategies — a prodigious Borgesian labyrinth from which there is no escape, for the characters or the reader. In the end, however, James doesn’t seem to want so much to mock the postmodern novel and its metafictional maneuvers but simply to play its games at full speed, to indulge them (even excessively) without much concern to cloak the artifice in pseudo-seriousness. This is postmodernism on steroids.

The novel’s very exorbitance makes it inherently entertaining, at least intermittently — there are times when the actions portrayed start to seem repetitive and the metafictional moves too predictable. These may be the inevitable dangers of any lengthy metafiction that attempts to carry out the logic of its own conceits, but in this case it is also the consequence of the limitations of its subject, or at least the limitations of its co-protagonist, the ostensible object of the authorial doppelganger’s investigation. (At one point in the novel, “Daniel James” meets what he takes to be his own doppelganger, who may or may not be the “real” Daniel James, making the hall of mirrors effect even more vertiginous.) “Daniel James” is writing a biography of the modern Renaissance man, Ezra Maas, who makes the task almost impossible by his secretiveness, which achieves its own apotheosis when he literally disappears, reportedly dead but ultimately a mystery, one that Daniel is determined to solve.

The problem is that Ezra Maas is not a very interesting character. He is known (in the fictional world of the novel) above all as a controversial artist, in some way associated with most of the major developments in contemporary art, from Pop to Performance Art, but he is also a dabbler in literature, science, religion, and other intellectual pursuits. Perhaps this ought to make him an intriguing character, but in effect Maas is made so grandly into everything that he comes off as nothing in particular. This is exacerbated by the paucity of exposure we get to his artwork (mostly descriptions of his weirder “installations”), but really what is emphasized most about Ezra Maas is the mere fact of his elusiveness. Thus finally he is not an enigma but a cipher. He is the literary device by which The Unauthorized Autobiography of Ezra Maas is constructed, but it is hard to sustain interest in a figure so manifestly synthetic, so attenuated by the restrictions of his assigned role.

It is of course possible, within the perceptual field set up by the novel, that Ezra Mass does not actually exist, that he is the product of Daniel’s paranoid imagination, or simply a fictional character the editor has created, along with Daniel (or that the editor and Daniel are one and the same). Thus, to ask that he seem “real,” a “rounded” character is beside the point. It is also conceivable that Ezra Maas is intentionally a sketchy character, since he apparently has spent most of life trying to make himself as much of a public nonentity as possible. If “Daniel James” finally fails to evoke a fully-formed portrait of Ezra Maas, one that takes us beyond the fact of his eccentricity, perhaps this is not a sign of Daniel’s inadequacy as a biographer but the confirmation of his success at getting at the truth about Ezra Maas (which Daniel insists to everyone he meets is his goal). Ezra Maas is indeed simply the sum of all the known facts about him. Otherwise, there is no there there.

Still, the patently contradictory impressions of Ezra Maas given to Daniel by those associated with him (collected in “Ezra Maas: An Oral History” and interspersed throughout the novel  — although it is not entirely clear whether these were to be part of Daniel’s biography or have been assembled by the editor from Daniel’s notes) do not so much make Maas into a complex character as so insist on his mutability that all of his conflicting qualities are essentially canceled out, leaving him again mostly a blank. The repetition of this device unavoidably causes the reader to assume that, no matter where Daniel James’s search for the truth takes him next, we will not learn the “truth” because there is no truth about Ezra Maas, only endlessly mutating conjecture. At some point, this becomes merely tedious.

However, the novel’s larger formal conceit manages to sustain interest, and “Daniel James” is a more interesting character than Ezra Maas. One suspects that Daniel is actually less interested in Ezra Maas himself than in managing to write a book, and thus arguably The Unauthorized Biography of Ezra Maas is more an investigation into its own modes of representation, and their arrangement into an integrated work of fiction, than an investigation into the life of a reclusive artist. Its most provocative theme is not the slipperiness of identity or the elusiveness of truth but the configuration of fiction as a literary form. Its most pressing concern is to show how failure can be the grounds for success, how aesthetic order can be produced from disorder. (In this regard, the postmodern novel Ezra Maas most resembles is Gilbert Sorrentino’s Mulligan Stew.) The authorial Daniel James is best represented not by “Daniel James” the would-be biographer but the editor of all the documents that have been gathered to create The Unauthorized Biography of Ezra Maas.

This sort of play with point of view and structural legerdemain are the prototypical features of postmodern fiction, and while Ezra Maas provides a diverting enough variation on the self-reflexive strategies of postmodernism, its elaborate artifice seems little different in kind from that first cultivated by writers such as Barth and Robert Coover. It doesn’t really advance the further possibilities of self-reflexivity as a literary technique or introduce any particular formal innovations. (It is most accurate to call The Unauthorized Biography of Ezra Maas an epistolary novel, a form that goes back to the very beginnings of the novel, and the extension of the form to the assemblage of various kinds of documents is relatively common in contemporary fiction.) Most palpably, it seems more a summing-up of the paradigmatic practices of postmodern fiction, an anatomy of its fundamental assumptions, than an attempt to revise or reinvigorate it to better fit with changed cultural circumstances.

The Unauthorized Biography of Ezra Maas is not necessarily an aesthetic failure: its use of the compiled document form is deft enough — although the editor’s footnotes do at times seem superfluous — and the novel does evoke an effectively creepy tone as Daniel becomes more and more suspicious of the entire shady apparatus built around Ezra Maas by the “Maas Foundation” and literally starts to fear for his safety. The novel does not take itself too seriously, making it easier to accept its more prankish qualities. But the sense it leaves that finally nothing much is at stake does prompt reflection on the remaining value of the term “postmodern” in identifying certain works of fiction that are blatantly unconventional, but now utterly familiar in their efforts to “bare the device.” Perhaps this mode has entered its mannerist period, destined to repeat the same strategies and gestures. Perhaps the way forward for adventurous or experimental fiction lies not in the flamboyant antics of Ezra Maas (or the novels of a writer like Mark Danielewski), but in more subtle reimaginings of form that are less ostentatiously metafictional and, following perhaps a writer such as Gary Lutz, a renewed attention to the yet untapped resources of language.

Daniel Green is a literary critic whose essays and reviews have appeared in a variety of publications, both online and in print. His new book, Beyond the Blurb, has just been published by Cow Eye Press and his website can be found at: http://noggs.typepad.com.