Thirteen years after his debut, We’re So Famous (2001), Jaime Clarke has a new novel. Vernon Downs draws inspiration from Clarke’s own life as a twenty-something living in New York City. Then, Clarke belonged to an entourage of young writers that Bret Easton Ellis fostered, and the title character shares many similarities. Clarke was joined by his friend Charles Bock to discuss the book at the Center for Fiction. Bock is the author of Beautiful Children (2008), a novel set in Las Vegas tracing two parallel narratives that stem from the disappearance of a twelve-year-old boy.
Both Clarke and Bock attended the creative writing program at Bennington College in Vermont. Bret Easton Ellis attended the same school while writing Less Than Zero, the debut novel he published at the age of twenty-one. Clarke admits he partly sought out Bennington because he was a fan of Ellis.
Charles Bock begins with an anecdote set in the winter of 1995 when he and Clarke were on campus together. The writer Bob Schacochis, then an instructor at the school, arrived from his home in Florida with loads of fireworks. He set out looking for two misfits willing to set them off during the graduation ceremony. He chose Bock and Clarke who then promptly lost the fireworks somewhere in the snow.
Clarke completed a first draft of Vernon Downs more than a decade ago and it was scheduled to be published in 2005, shortly after the publication of We’re So Famous. But the small press that planned on publishing the book ended up going out of business. Clarke says now that the bankruptcy might have been the best thing for the novel. It simply wasn’t ready then.
Time passed. Clarke, who had left New York City, married and opened a bookshop in Newtonville, Massachusetts. Eventually, a bookstore customer, Dan Pope, would decide to launch a new press for American fiction. He approached Clarke. Vernon Downs received a rewrite, something Clarke thinks it very much needed.
The novel’s protagonist, Charlie, travels to New York City because of a girl. The girl he likes has lost her student visa, and Charlie thinks if he can impress her favorite writer, Vernon Downs, she might think of an excuse to return. Charlie is from a small midwestern town and moved around a lot, not unlike Clarke, who says Charlie mostly does dumb things and sometimes gets bail out.
Vernon serves as double for Bret Easton Ellis, though Clarke assures the audience the character is fictionalized. Recently, Clarke was in Los Angeles and had dinner with Ellis. Many years had passed since they last saw each other. “He is a very polarizing person, but he’s really a shy, big-hearted guy,” Clarke says, adding, “I’m a nobody from nowhere.” Ellis read a draft of the novel and observed that Vernon wasn’t nearly as much as a “douchebag.”
Bock asks Clarke how many demons were exorcised by the writing of the novel.
People say its really sad, that the book is fetishizing sadness, Clarke says. But that was just what it felt like to be in New York City in his 20s. “It was kind of lonely.”
“I’m glad not to be in late my late 20s living in New York,” he says.
Throughout the novel, many of the characters have doubles. At one point, Charlie, while apartment-sitting for Vernon, allows a girl to believe that he is actually Vernon. The girl, meanwhile, relates narratives about her own life that are actually taken straight from Vernon’s books. Confused identities is something Clarke says he enjoys working with, much in the way that his characters are blurred versions of Bret Easton Ellis and himself.
“You want the book to start immediately, but you have to lay in the back story,” Clarke says. Sometimes he felt it was difficult to keep track of events and plot through the different versions, partly because the narrative was based on people he really knew. He says it can be tough working on something so close.
“Sometimes you get caught up in your autobiography,” Clarke says. But for Ellis fans and readers who lived through the era, there are plenty of references. “It was sort of an archeological dig,” he says.
Bret Easton Ellis remains something of a mythical figure. Bock says that Jonathan Lethem has compare Ellis to a Warhol-like figure, and that the students he teaches at NYU feel anxiety about publishing before they are twenty-one, as Ellis did.
A few contemporary young authors possess that combination of talent and celebrity. Bock points to Justin Taylor, author of Everything Here Is the Best Thing Ever, who was in attendence as one example. Bock also cites Tao Lin as taking on an Ellis-like quality to his publicity. Bock has once harshly reviewed Lin’s Richard Yates, but also looks to Lin’s internet presence as a kind of pseudo-celebrity.
Clarke reiterates that he is mostly just an ordinary fan, and the novel is a fictional work, not a memoir. Clarke has two more books in the works, and hopefully they will be published in less than thirteen years.