Eco Chamber

Out of all the tricks and games attempted in Anthony Walsh's debut novel Eco's Echoes, he proves most successful at failure

“I realized that the poet’s work had lain not in the poetry but in the invention of reasons for accounting the poetry admirable”   – Jorge Luis Borges, "The Aleph"

“I do not intend to construct a typology of my relationship with Borges.” – Umberto Eco, "Borges and My Anxiety of Influence"

There is a small but certain subgenre of literary works whose titles contain the names of real historical thinkers and philosophers. Dante and the Lobster by Samuel Beckett, Shakespeare’s Memory by Jorge Luis Borges and The Newton Letter by John Banville are all 20th-century examples, but the tradition goes at least as far back as Plato’s The Trial of Socrates. There are no necessary connections or affinities linking the content of these works; some describe the titular thinker’s life, some try to develop upon certain strands of their thought, while others have it in mind simply to play. Out of the three, Anthony Walsh’s debut novel, Eco’s Echoes, falls firmly in the play category. It is a novel of ludicrous subtleties.

Told in the supposedly omniscient tones of a third-person narrator, Eco’s Echoes opens with a notice announcing that its American protagonist, Kenneth Baker, has just been awarded a postgraduate scholarship by the University College Dublin. With his fees now covered and a small but certain income ensured, he sets out to read all those books he claimed already to have read in his successful proposal to write a PhD thesis entitled “Lawn and Order: Horticultural Praxis in the Literature of the Americas.” Using examples from American literature and film, Baker plans to demonstrate that the so-called “democratic vistas” of America’s unfenced suburban lawns work at once as a symbol of freedom and active agent against freedom. To strengthen his case, Baker included supporting quotations from as wide a range of sources as the Bible, Cicero, Voltaire, and Umberto Eco, all of which he had hastily drawn from the same quotations website the day before he submitted his proposal.

As he makes his way through each text, he finds that context often imposes upon these quotations a meaning completely unsuited to his argument. So, for instance, the discovery that Voltaire’s call to “cultivate our garden” was not entirely in earnest comes as a blow to Baker, who, based on this quote alone, had set aside an entire chapter of his thesis in order to link the values of the Enlightenment to the insular rationalism of the contemporary bourgeoisie. Worse still, the quotation he attributed to Umberto Eco in his proposal, the lynchpin of his entire argument, is nowhere to be found in any of the Italian semiotician’s essays. Profoundly discouraged, Baker begins to give up on his idea altogether. In desperation, he rereads Eco’s On Literature, this time with much greater care, and although again he fails to recover the elusive quotation, he notices the Italian critic make three suggestions for further academic research – on the aphorism; on theories of hypotyposis; and on the power of falsehood – which, without much deliberation, Baker decides to pursue.

“My experiment is purely exploratory of course, and aims to encourage (and why not?) someone to do a thesis that will take the research to a systematic conclusion.” – Umberto Eco, "Wilde: Paradox and Aphorism"
Baker’s attempt to collect, collate and analyze the literary aphorism soon begins to falter; that he abandons the project in favor of the bearded Italian’s second suggestion seems a mere matter of course for readers who by now have grown accustomed to the rudimentary grammar of Baker’s attention span. On the subject of hypotyposis, he has even less success because he has no idea what it is exactly. In the hope of gaining some foothold of understanding, this “would-be Menard” is reduced to transcribing the
“It is not my intention to exhaust within the limits of such a brief paper the inexhaustible typologies of hypotyposis. I will suggest only some directions for research.”  – Umberto Eco, "Les Sémaphores sous la Pluie"
Italian’s entire essay on the subject – to no avail. Somehow he convinces his supervisor to let him to make one final change of direction. Following Eco’s lead, Baker will attempt to demonstrate how falsehood – in the guise of myth, religion, fraudulence or just plain error – has acted as the engine of so many world-historical events. He throws himself into his work with greater enthusiasm than ever, spending most of his time in the library familiarizing himself with the academic discourse surrounding Saint Jerome, the patron saint of translators whose
“Naturally I do not intend for this paper to be considered in any way comprehensive; I mention it only so that some budding scholar might one day endeavour to carry out a full analysis of the power of falsehood.’’ – Umberto Eco, "The Power of Falsehood"
studious likeness he now begins to assume. He completes the first chapter of his thesis in under a month, triumphantly presenting it to his supervisor who gives it a ringing endorsement. Six months later, the piece appears in The American Journal of Classical Philology. At long last, Baker enjoys a small but certain success.

Within days, Baker’s supervisor receives a letter from an expert on Saint Jerome. He claims that the passage Baker accuses Jerome of inventing and inserting into his translation of the Bible appears in none – not even apocryphal editions – of Saint Jerome’s work. Stunned, Baker explains that this was rather the whole point. “‘It’s an essay on the power of falsehood–,’ the aspiring academic stammers. ‘Can’t you see this is form imitating content? I presumed you already knew.’” The narrator takes clear and somewhat longwinded delight in scolding Baker for thinking it acceptable to commit such a sleight. With academia still reeling after the Sokal hoax, the university takes firm action. Baker is expelled and blacklisted. In disgrace, he returns to his family home in Iowa. “A simple fabrication managed to do what a world of incompetence could not,” says the narrator. “Such is the power of falsehood.”

This style of smugness runs through the narrator’s entire commentary, which is varyingly confrontational, self-righteous, pretentious, and pedantic. The narrator tries to outdo the protagonist’s intellectual efforts, to say more about the given topic than Baker is ever able to muster. So, for example, the chapter in which Baker attempts to collect and write about aphorisms is itself written in prose that obviously aspires to the aphoristic. (“The difference between a Professor and an Asst. Professor is a question for proctology.”) By the same measure, the chapter that sees Baker struggle with hypotyposis attempts to carry out several techniques of spatial expression – denotation, detailed description, lists, accumulation, etc. To make the text’s form outdo its content is a clever idea, but the narrator is obviously unequipped for the job. Most of his avowedly aphoristic prose resembles a long series of missed punchlines and cack-handed clichés. (“Most academics are too unqualified to teach; the rest, too unchaste”; “The only difference between studying in a university and teaching in a university is the letters in your name. Studying, you’re a student; teaching, you’re a stud”; etc., etc.) Even discounting the terrible aphorisms, the writing is everywhere littered with carelessly repeated phrases (“small but certain” appears five times in 10 pages) and truly laughable instances of the elegant variation. Umberto Eco is variously referred to as “the Italian,” “the Italian critic,” “the Italian semiotician,” “the Italian academic,” “the bearded Italian” and, most confusingly, “the philosopher of Alessandria.” Based on this evidence, it is by no means clear that the narrator is any sharper than Baker. He intends for the narrative to subtextually develop on the Italian academic’s ideas. That he fails in this endeavor is clear, but it doesn’t necessarily imply that Eco’s Echoes is itself a failure. A text is a text only if at first glance it hides the law of its composition.

Eco’s Echoes is introduced with two instructional epigraphs. One is a line taken from Eco’s On Literature, which reads: “Whoever appreciates its wink establishes a privileged relationship with the text.” The other is from Borges’s “Averroes’ Search”: “I wanted to narrate the process of failure. I felt, from the first page, that to do so my story had to be a symbol of that very process.” In other words, Walsh seems to intend for the narrator to fail, just as Baker failed before him. In this sense, the narrative echoes the academic efforts of its protagonist. Walsh has chosen Umberto Eco as the novel’s titular thinker as much for his name’s potential for wordplay than any guidance he may have offered up to fledgling academics in the past. After all, almost all scholarly work is filled with suggestions for future research, while a cursory look through On Literature reveals that although the philosopher of Alessandria did indeed deliver two of the invitations to further research, he makes no such overture in his essay on “The Power of Falsehood.” That one, it turns out, was the invention of the narrator – echoing Baker’s invention on behalf of Saint Jerome. In its content, in its form, even in its title, Eco’s Echoes is an echo chamber of a novel.

What this means is that every criticism the narrator levels at Baker – every sarcastic put-down, every mocking remark – is, unbeknownst to the narrator, self-directed. His derision toward Baker’s forged Saint Jerome passage derides the narrator’s own Umberto Eco forgery. His repeated condemnation of Baker’s work as derivative of Eco comes secretly installed with a condemnation that the narrative is derivative of Eco’s fiction. The narrator’s criticism of Baker’s prose (which he calls “the antonym of style”) is another barb that turns treasonously in on itself. The echoing effect constantly at play here allows the narrative to become completely self-obsessed, and then reveals it to be so.

“obsessed”: origin 1495–1505;  < Latin obsessus,  past participle of obsid?re: to besiege – “self-obsess”: to besiege oneself
The manner in which the author turns the narrator against himself is an act of considerable violence; it serves to demonstrate that discourse of this kind invariably places one figure above the other. In this sense, Eco’s Echoes is a work about narrative power structures. Power seems to switch hands several times throughout its course, but the law of the novel’s internal play confirms that it is always already entrenched, hierarchized, and disguised – in much the same way as, according to Baker’s early project, the ideological power of the unfenced suburban lawn is entrenched and disguised.

Baker abandoned his work on the American lawn very early on, but it remains a constant, symbolically charged motif out of which almost everything in Eco’s Echoes grows. On one of the few occasions we see Baker socializing, for instance, he rather gauchely recites a few verses by the Irish poet Seamus Heaney.

My grandfather cut more turf in a day

Than any other man on Toner’s bog.

Once I carried him milk in a bottle

Corked sloppily with paper. He straightened up

To drink it, then fell to right away.

Nicking and slicing neatly, heaving sods

Over his shoulder, going down and down

For the food turf. Digging.

The cold smell of potato mould, the squelch and slap

Of soggy peat, the curt cuts of an edge

Through living roots awaken in my head.

But I’ve no spade to follow men like them.

Between my finger and my thumb

The squat pen rests.

I’ll dig with it.

Here, Walsh uses Heaney’s poem to present the act of digging as something visceral, utilitarian, authentic. He makes it stand in sharp counterpoint to the pristine cultivation practiced by owners of suburban lawns (as described by Fitzgerald) and the petty neighborhood politics it invariably entails (as described by Updike). Heaney’s poem draws a conclusive link between digging and writing; by reciting it, Baker announces his rejection of the reigning bourgeois ideology, which he will escape by a life of writing. Occurring early in the novel, it makes for a rather touching moment of seeming empowerment. But no writer is truly empowered; all are subject to the systematic discipline of the dominant ideological discourse. By the same measure, it soon becomes obvious that Baker is pliably subject to the systematic discipline of the narrator-author complex. Since the plot seems to rely on his attempts to write, the only way he will transcend the novel’s system of domination is to put down his squat pen. “Stop digging!” we find ourselves urging this splendid underdog. As it will soon become clear, however, ceasing to dig will only throw Baker back into the grip of another system of control. The sub-subtext of Eco’s Echoes is an expertly delineated portrait of power and its workings. It is perhaps the most impressive aspect of the novel.

All this wizardry notwithstanding, Eco’s Echoes contains a number of shortcomings that seem to have found their way into the text without the author’s intention. Most glaringly, the book’s characters are all poorly developed. As there seems to be no parallel in the work of its protagonist, nor implied self-criticism by its narrator, we can only assume this to be an inadvertent failure. The portrayal of Baker is never really convincing. His thoughts on his own failings are insufficiently drawn and often seem perfunctory. (“Baker was sad that he had not written anything;” “he was sad not to have found good aphorisms;” “leaving Ireland in disgrace, Baker felt sad,” etc.) As a result of such cursory emotional brushwork, the depression Baker is later said to have fallen into seems striking only in its superficiality. The novel’s portrayal of Baker’s unnamed supervisor is similarly superficial, always closer to caricature than characterization. When, for example, he describes Umberto Eco’s Misreadings as “just so fucking funny,” he is said to do so with “characteristic profanity.” He curses again when describing Baker’s work as “well-fucking-worthy of publication,” but apart from this, there are no further expletives on his part – not even when he discovers that his student has forged the work of Saint Jerome in public, presumably doing significant damage to his own academic reputation in the process. To call his profanity “characteristic” is simply not true. On the contrary, it seems like a mere affectation, slapped on by the author in the second-draft upon realizing what a one-dimensional character he had created in the first. This is a fig leaf of personality: worn to cover up a bareness of character, it actually draws further attention to it.

Stranger still is the complete absence of women from the entire narrative. When Baker socializes, it is with a large group of men. When he talks to his family, it is with his father. Of the great multitude of quotations dropped into the novel, not one is by a female author or thinker. Not only are no women heard, no women are even heard of. There is not a single female name in the course of the entire narrative, no mention of a mother, a sister, or a girlfriend, much less a female friend, colleague or (heaven forbid) a superior. It would be unduly generous to put this down as another act of mimesis. The fact is that, although Eco’s Echoes has a great deal to say about bourgeois ideology, its necessarily patriarchal elements never come up. The absence of women from both the narrative and the narrative’s own implicit statements about itself reinforces the conception that the world of academia and abstract intellectual games is a domain reserved exclusively for serious men. This very much tows with previous suspicions about Walsh, a book critic of very limited talents, who very rarely reviews the work of female authors. That his novel with so much to say about power and its workings should tacitly accept and endorse the workings of academic patriarchy must go down as its greatest failure.

And so we must ask: what does it mean for a novel of advertent failure to fail inadvertently? As Lars Iyer put it recently: “Literary writing can allow you to capitalise on failure – how strange!” The thing is, though, Walsh’s particular disguise fails to cover up his unacknowledged or accidental failures. Those do not belong to the narrator, they are his own. The curtain slips, and behind it we find no masterful wizard but a rather pedestrian young author, who has been using a lot of elaborate tricks and props to make himself seem great and powerful and good.

Quite simply he fails, just as his narrator failed before him, and his protagonist before him still. Consequently, his failures may well be the most authentic, and authentically mimetic, aspects of the entire novel. Here we have text imitating form imitating content. The novel has outgrown its author. Its textuality transgresses even it own implicit statements about itself. And although this might look like a case of the “death of the author,” wherein the writer is cast outside his own text and told to run along, it is in fact something a lot more significant: the “subjectification of the author.” Walsh is now cast inside his own text as one of three main characters: the protagonist, the narrator, and now the author himself. Walsh spends most of Eco’s Echoes carefully following his own labyrinthine formula to turn failure into success, yet it is only when some rogue elements of unadulterated failure accidentally find their way into his concoction that the novel’s strange, extra-textual success comes out.

The novel’s final chapter seems literary in the worst sense of the word – here, the master has taken up his position behind the curtain once more. Unconvincingly depressed, Baker has spent most of the last three months doing nothing much at all. Ordered by his father to find work and to help out around the house, Baker is online looking for jobs in advertising when his father asks him to tend to the front garden, which is revealed, rather predictably, to be an unfenced suburban lawn. In his hunkered attempts to start the lawnmower, he lets a scrap of paper fall from his pocket. He unfolds it and finds scrawled in his own hand that never-sourced Umberto Eco quote. “They deny the animals’ freedom,” it reads, “only the more completely by keeping the boundaries invisible, the sight of which would inflame the longing for open spaces.” The novel ends with the narrator’s cruel revelation: “It is not by Umberto Eco, but by Theodor Adorno. This, Kenneth Baker will never know.”

Eco’s Echoes final shift towards well-structured plotting in the shape of its resonant, satisfying conclusion represents an appeal to bourgeois literary taste, and is intended to echo Baker’s return to the services industry, to the suburb, and to the lawn he had once planned to argue was the purest symbol of bourgeois insularity and entrapment. This is a clever conceit on Walsh’s part. He has structured his ending in such a way that those who read it without a particularly critical eye will appreciate it on a narrative level, while those reading more critically will draw satisfaction from it on a formal level. Like those democratic vistas of the unfenced American lawn, Walsh is trying to have it both ways. In a sense, he has been trying to have it both ways from the very beginning. His small but certain talents have forged a large and unstable work of art. Variously its sovereign and its subject, Walsh is by far its most interesting character.