Our reviewer delves into the ‘complicated’ and ‘compelling’ work The Unauthorised Biography of Ezra Maas, the debut novel from Newcastle based writer Daniel James.
Postmodernism is notoriously difficult to define. After spending nearly seven years in the academy, I listened to dozens of the country’s smartest people explain this slippery concept, and, in their own unique ways, every one of them failed. Maybe it’s because so much of postmodern theory is predicated on the absence of things; namely, the absence of stable referents like nature and god and history that underpinned previous epochs. So no wonder my tutors failed. After all, how do you describe something that isn’t there? How do you speak about silence? Well, as far as Daniel James is concerned, you write a debut-novel called The Unauthorised Biography of Ezra Maas. You start with the words “This book is dangerous” and then proceed to work through every postmodern trope before ending on the most disturbing idea of all: the dissolution of the ‘I’.
That ‘I’ is also called Daniel James, the narcissistic journalist and professional outrage merchant tasked with writing the story of Ezra Maas, a kind of post-modern renaissance man who disappeared without a trace while working on his final masterpiece. In just one of the many nods to the hard-boiled detective genre, the narrative begins with a phone call in the dead of night. During his quest to uncover the truth behind Maas and his final work, James stumbles across a dead body floating in a pool, is outwitted by femme-fatales and mysterious widows, gets beaten to a pulp by nameless goons, and downs enough hard liquor to give Phillip Marlowe the shakes. Just don’t expect any nice neat endings. James stumbles across plenty of clues, but the world of Ezra Maas is one where the more you learn, the less you understand.
The Unauthorised Biography of Ezra Maas is a different kind of detective story, one that poses philosophical questions about identity, subjective experience, language, and the very nature of truth. It’s part of a rarified sub-genre that has fascinated some of the true greats of modern fiction, including Kafka, Nabakov, Auster, and Delillo. And like the most compelling characters who populate this unique genre, James’s obsession with uncovering the truth soon descends into madness and despair.
Like much postmodern fiction, James focuses on the artifice of narrative and, by extension, the artifice of meaning. However, like the very best postmodern fiction, he goes one step further. He applies the same logic to the idea of self, which, when reduced to just another ‘concept’, disappears from underneath his narrator’s feet – and with disastrous consequences. At the end of the novel, the narrator Daniel James, a self-confessed ‘man of letters’, shatters into a million tiny pieces. His inverted epiphany that words are only words means he is lost forever in silence, leaving the reader to contemplate their own ‘existence’ (or even ‘non-existence’) within the tangled web of language and signs. The Unauthorised Biography of Ezra Maas follows a strand of postmodern theory to its logical endpoint; but be warned, this particular thought experiment is especially unsettling.
However, it is also oddly exhilarating. Closing the book for the last time reminded me of that glorious moment when the mind begins to reorder itself after an intense psychedelic trip. You breathe a sigh of relief, thankful that you’ve made it back to reality. But in the next blink of the eye, you realise that the world you’ve returned to is ever so slightly different from the one you left. It’s as if an extra layer of meaning has revealed itself, a new dimension of experience where silence is the only language. And isn’t this, in the end, what all great books are supposed to do?
The Unauthorised biography of Ezra Maas is a complicated, compelling, and highly accomplished debut. It’s essential reading for anyone interested in fiction that explores the deepest and most disturbing aspects of what it means to be a “modern” human being.
The Unauthorised Biography of Ezra Maas is published by Dead Ink Books, available to purchase here.