“Sometimes you have to tell the truth about some of the stuff that you’ve done so that people will believe you when you tell them the truth about other stuff you haven’t done.”
I read Frederick Exley’s A Fan’s Notes my freshman semester of college at the recommendation of a friendly book dealer. I loved it. After reading Clarke’s “Note From the Author” at the end of Exley, there’s really no wonder. Similar to Clarke (to a lesser, younger extent) who was similar to Exley (to a lesser, younger extent), I was living at home with my parents (treating their couch like a davenport) and “attending classes at SUNY Albany.” I was for two weeks. And then I was driving to SUNY’s campus every day and skipping classes and reading/napping in the library from 9-3pm. For those of you that have not read A Fan’s Notes, read it; it is a true American masterpiece. In fact, Brock Clarke’s Exley sometimes feels like more of an endorsement of its subtext than a novel of its own.
Exley, set fittingly in Frederick Exley’s hometown of Watertown, NY, is the story of an intelligent, young boy, Miller Le Ray, who has purposely deluded himself into surreality after his parents’ separation. Miller, who is a textbook unreliable narrator, attempts to reconnect with his [possibly] hospitalized father (unclear for the majority of the novel) by going on a quest to find Frederick Exley (deceased since 1992), author of his father’s favorite book: A Fan’s Notes. Half of the narration is told from the perspective of Miller’s “mental health professional” in the form of Dr.’s notes. Although the first time I saw “Doctor’s Notes” I thought, “Shit, more post-modern ‘novel’ reinvention,” it really does end up working as the novel plays out.
The first fifty pages are a bit of a turn-off. The too-smart-for-his-own-good/age narrator in Miller (or M.) and missing father immediately call Foer’s Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close to mind and Exley takes place in the much less sexy setting of Watertown, NY. Past that, the character development is successful and the novel becomes increasingly readable (I finished the majority of it in two sittings). The evolution/devolution of the Dr. character adds a comic backbone to the story which is otherwise darkly funny. The meta-fictive aspect of the novel is most interesting, of which I particularly liked the nonchalant reference to both Nabokov and Pale Fire in “Exley’s Favorite People.” Unfortunately, the novel falls prey to the fact that, or at least I would have to assume, those who have not read A Fan’s Notes will not appreciate it nearly as much.
Although A Fan’s Notes is not a pre-requisite to Exley, read A Fan’s Notes, then pick up Exley.