Some authors everybody has an opinion about. For instance, remember that controversial writer from the early 90s? You know the one. He wrote that satirical novel about the yuppie executive who moonlights as a serial killer—who plays Whitney Houston for his victims (usually women) before swinging his axe. Some people accuse him of being famous not because he’s a good writer, but because he’s a big personality. Remember that author?
Bret Easton who? No, I’m talking about Vernon Downs, the title character of Jaime Clarke’s new novel, which remembers the days when literary fiction could be an event—when authors could be controversial celebrities about whom even casual readers had opinions.
But the central character of Vernon Downs isn’t the author; it’s Charlie Martens, an odd, emotionally removed creative writing student in Arizona. He’s infatuated with an exchange student, the Downs-loving Olivia, although she doesn’t share Charlie’s feelings; after all, she stops returning his calls upon her return to England. But surely Olivia would be impressed to know that Charlie is Vernon Downs’ close friend, right? Charlie thinks so. The only problem: Charlie has never met Downs. So he decides to find him.
Charlie’s quest (or obsession) takes him from Arizona to New York, where Downs lives. In the city, Charlie pretends to be a writer—and eventually, through strange circumstances, he begins to impersonate Downs himself, answering the author’s emails, giving his interviews. Few people notice the deception, too overwhelmed by their close proximity to fame. It’s a dark extended joke Clarke tells in this novel: Being a famous writer is so easy that even a 20-something who knows nothing about literature can do it. After all, Vernon Downs isn’t really famous for writing; he’s more famous for being a writer—i.e., living the lifestyle. Charlie never quite grasps this distinction.
At first, I didn’t care for this book. It seemed like a simplistic satire of phoniness and the ease of literary success, suggesting that Downs isn’t a complex writer but only a popular one. But how complex is Clarke’s novel? “[Charlie’s] need to be the center of Olivia’s life flushed him with jealousy,” Clarke writes early on. In this sentence—and there are many more like it—Clarke asks nothing of the reader, spoon-feeding his meaning. In a novel concerned with the easiness of literary success, this writing seems, well, easy.
But the “easiness” of Clarke’s emotional directness distracts us from Charlie’s real problem: He is nobody. Because Clarke appears to be clear about what Charlie feels, the reader gradually loses a grip on who—or what—Charlie is. I won’t discuss the novel’s final pages, but they reveal a young man who has reinvented himself again and again; he has avoided his past so long that he has lost his center. A character that seems unsympathetic becomes deeper as the novel goes on, and occasionally Clarke’s prose morphs into something golden: “The warm August night draped the landscape in a purple bloom, specks of headlights roving in the distance.” Lovely—but, more importantly, evocative of Charlie’s state of mind in a way that the reader needs to unlock. It’s a complex novel after all.
I’m not sure about Vernon Downs’ structure: The mood it develops for 150 pages suggests John Fowles’ literary thrillers or Patricia Highsmith’s Ripley novel, but it ends as something much less sinister. I think I understand the purpose—Clarke’s thriller-y construction is another way he tricks the reader into thinking the book isn’t very complex, maybe—but the end feels abrupt, as if Clarke wrote half of a suspense novel and then got bored. As such, interesting narrative threads disappear (chief among them: a reporter named Kline and a fan named Shannon), and nothing much comes of Charlie’s obsession with Olivia. This novel feels controlled, yet somehow still incomplete.
Vernon Downs’s finest quality is how it refrains from overt judgment of Downs himself and his lifestyle. If you’re curious enough about contemporary literature to read a book from an independent publisher (or, you know, to read this review on Three Guys One Book), then you know about Bret Easton Ellis (the obvious inspiration for Downs)—and if you know about Ellis, you have plenty of opinions about him and everything he represents. But Clarke doesn’t intend to change any minds. I finished Vernon Downs unsure of what even Clarke thinks of his character.
Though I do wonder: Why write this novel now? Who in contemporary literature inspires the same level of fascination that Ellis did in the 90s? Even Franzen is considered more “harmless grump” than “deviant troublemaker.” A novel about this kind of literary celebrity seems old-fashioned—perhaps even a little past its due date. But maybe this is Clarke’s way of gesturing toward a new kind of literary celebrity: those who make their names through their provocative online personalities, less than through the quality of their writing.
If this is the case, I can’t help but feel that the real hero of Vernon Downs might be a minor character named Robert Holanda, an author/professor who has come to a Barnes & Noble to give a reading to a very small audience, his new novel blurbed by his fellow academics. Charlie imagines that Holanda would kill to have a blurb from Downs, but Holanda speaks his mind: “Downs is a really terrible writer.” Holanda isn’t famous, but he does his duty, writing books, traveling to New York City for small readings, graciously signing some store copies that will likely remain un-bought. Probably he publishes his work in wonderful literary journals like the one Jaime Clarke edits, Post Road (which would be way too small a venue for Vernon Downs).
Charlie Martens thinks Holanda is a loser, but I think Holanda and writers like him form the backbone of contemporary fiction. I suspect Jaime Clarke may agree.