‘Chris Eaton, a Biography’ by Chris Eaton

Book Reviews

Chris Eaton coverReviewed by Josh Rioux  (originally posted June 25, 2013)

Chris Eaton, a Biography, the fourth volume by novelist and sometime Rock Plaza Central mastermind Chris Eaton, has a great premise. Google your name and, assuming you aren’t the only Tigger out there, you’re instantly confronted with a chattering horde of complete strangers claiming little patches of Internet in the name of you, only not you. Freaky, right? You’ve maybe played this game with the good old phone book if you’re of a certain age and once lived in a good-sized city, only then all you could know without some awkward cold calling was what neighbourhood those doubles had landed in.

Depending on your temperament, the experience of Googling yourself and finding others can be random and zany in that special Internet way (the most famous me is a ‘roided-out bodybuilder!), or sort of disturbing, in I guess that other special Internet way, the one that lurks like the regretted past anytime you find yourself latched onto your chosen screen past midnight, all hollowed-out and spiritually vulnerable, because, honestly, what better vantage from which to really chew on the suspicion that you’re just one more infinitely-reproducible replicant affixed remora-like to a vast ill-comprehended beast that can register your existence but never your humanity?

Which way you lean probably has something to do with how concerned you are about these proverbially interesting times we find ourselves in, vis-à-vis the Internet and its new starting position on the state/corporate hegemony dream team. Given recent events, it’s easy to forget the utopian flavour the Internet had as recently as a few years ago, when the mushrooming of social networks seemed almost like the birth of a new social ecology, a sort of unmediated mass community where people were going to freely interact in spaces that transcended the old, corrupted public spheres of The Time Before. Remember the Global Village?

Chris Eaton, A Biography is in many ways a product of that Internet, the nice one, where we encountered the personal blog of a Haligonian ferret enthusiast with our name and, instead of thinking about how blogspot is a Google domain and Google has turned this gentleman with his daily musings on the emotional capabilities of the animals in his life into data points to be harvested for marketing purposes or enhancing drone targeting algorithms or God knows what else, we could ruminate on the equally true and infinitely more uplifting notion that even though we would appear to have nothing in common with the man, we have everything in common with him, because we’re both people, and where it counts we people are all the same.

Inspired by the richness and variety of lives led by Chris Eatons the Internet over, Chris Eaton the author has crafted a sort of photo-negative biography, where he explores the dramas of an individual life not through the charting of one, but the collation of many which, at least on the surface, have nothing in common but their name. It’s a clever conceit, and a sort of beautiful one, too; here instead of the usual exploration of the semi-autobiographical ego, we get men, women, Canadians, Americans, Brits, gays, their stories and dramas all bleeding together like multiple exposures. They live at different times and in different places, and we watch them grow up, struggle, fall in and out of bed, pursue obsessions, age, reassess, repeat.

The stories are arranged as vignettes, grouped together roughly by age, so the first sections deal with roots, then childhood, adolescence, etc. It’s an interesting experiment, but the experience of reading it is a kind of lurching, as you just get going with one character before you’re suddenly handed another, and another, and of course with only one name to them all it gets confusing, which, though intentional, crosses the line into annoyance whenever you feel like you’re reading a character you should recognize from before, but can’t be sure. It’s work, in other words, but Eaton’s language is so good, managing that easygoing poetry that feels made from the thoughts of people who don’t know they’re being written, that you forgive him for it. Check out this description of a three-year-old circling a pool:

He was still young enough to change form at will, and that day he was full of potential energy, with an imagination unrestricted by shame. Or knowledge. Or impossibility. He was the first seconds of an igniting lightbulb filament, he was a falling chestnut, he was a blade of grass in the rain.

Chris Eaton is threaded with so much of this kind of silver that it feels like he must just open the tap and let it pour, and for big sections of the book, it’s enough.

Where things start to go wrong for me, though, has to do with that great premise itself. I mentioned a collage of characters. I referred to the theme of our essential human oneness. What if I made up a little summary right now, something like “a series of interconnected lives,” or “interwoven narratives exploring the ways we’re all the same”? Do you suddenly picture the movie poster for Magnolia? Or Babel, or even — shudder —Crash?

Now, OK, maybe that sounds a little cynical, and believe me, I feel literally ashamed to be the guy with my arms crossed doing the whole “What else ya got?” thing when what we’re talking about is not merely the font of all religion but just maybe the psychic underpinning of empathy itself, but for all the full-hearted truth of a concept like our essential human oneness, we’ve heard this one a lot, and there’s nothing like being manipulated one too many times by a Hollywood script committee to spoil a truism for an entire generation.

And to make matters worse, Eaton can’t seem to stop himself from underlining it for us every few pages. For instance, on page 56,

It was like everyone was the same person, and only the details were different; and the details, which were what really distinguished them, were unimportant.

 and only seven pages after that,

 …he felt he might, through the minutiae of one particular subject, capture what it meant to be human in a more general way…


…the idea that one work of art could, through the inclusion of as many seemingly unrelated elements as possible, contain an entirety, that through many specific details one could achieve universal truth.

It’s like he’s hoping that by weaving these little winks and nudges into the text that they’ll do the thematic heavy lifting the story itself should be providing. But instead of really hammering home the raw fucking wonder of the fact that we’re all here together on this planet with the gift of consciousness and the language to tell each other just how blown our minds are by it all, what he ends up doing is creating the vibe of a really carefully managed honours thesis. This is aggravated by the fact that, for the vast majority of the book, his main storytelling move is a kind of caffeinated summary, wherein whole episodes of people’s lives are deposited in breathless info dumps one after another, as though we’re defined by facts rather than the individual experience of living those facts.

Eaton’s too obviously clever for this to not be intentional; my theory is that he’s using the technique as a way of playing off that idea of his that our details are all that distinguish us, and yet what’s truly important is the commonality of the human experience those details supply, in which case the details are intended as a kind of noise — albeit noise he intends to be quirky and funny and interesting. But if that’s the case it’s a miscalculation, because for all the novelty of his approach, what Eaton has taken on here is actually the basic task of all fiction: to show life so truly we can’t help but see ourselves in it. That’s how we know we’re the same.

The best fiction welds us to characters through feelings we know, so that arc becomes what happens to us.  It’s a ritual, and when done right it leaves a scar. By mistaking summarized experience for the thing itself, that arc turns out to be pretty flat, and the ritual is something you’re watching through binoculars, just a bunch of strangers jostling around before it gets too dark to see.

BookThug | 328 pages |  $25.00 | paper | ISBN # 978-1927040645

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Josh Rioux

Josh Rioux lives on Vancouver Island. His work has appeared in Crumbs and The Renegade Review.