The Chronicler of Obsession: Jaime Clarke’s Minor Characters
(Roundabout Press, 2021)
Jaime Clarke has been one of our foremost chroniclers of obsession since his debut novel, We’re So Famous, appeared in 2001. The novel is a wild, kinetic ride that involves pop music and murder, notoriety and celebrity (and the line between the two). In a review of the novel Entertainment Weekly wrote:
Daisy, Paque, and Stella want. They want to be actresses. They want to be in a band. They want to be models. They want to be famous, damn it … Clarke doesn’t hate his antiheroes … He just views them as by-products of the culture: glitter-eyed, vacant, and cruel. … The satire works, sliding down as silvery and toxic as liquid mercury.
This restless and relentless wanting, and the way we are warped by the wants of the surrounding culture, would go on to become hallmarks of Clarke’s work.
In an introduction to a recent reissue of We’re So Famous, Clarke writes: “It seems naive to claim that back in the late 1990s, celebrity culture was a relatively new phenomenon, but fame for fame’s sake seemed new and curious to me.” This curiosity has endured for Clarke, but it has also evolved, with the themes of fame and identity brought to new life in Clarke’s trilogy of novels starring Charlie Martens: Vernon Downs, World Gone Water, and Garden Lakes. In that same introduction Clarke notes that he was, at the start of his career, compelled by a desire to “emulate my hero F. Scott Fitzgerald, attracted to and influenced as I was by his narratives about sad young men, a thread I’d pick up later for my trilogy about Charlie Martens.” What happens when these sad young men collide with a fame-hungry culture, one that often rewards vapidness and fakery? What are the consequences, for themselves and for others?
We first meet Charlie Martens in Vernon Downs. In an attempt to repair his relationship with his girlfriend, Olivia, Charlie, an aspiring writer, sets out on a mission to befriend Olivia’s favorite writer, the titular Vernon Downs. Downs bears a striking resemblance to the novelist Bret Easton Ellis, whose work has been a significant touchstone for Clarke. In an interview Clarke once observed that “Ellis captured something timeless, which is the feeling of being displaced. All the characters in his books are living in a world they don’t comprehend, or feel uncomfortable in.” The layers of Charlie’s own displacement, the ways in which he finds the world incomprehensible, are central to all three novels.
Before long Charlie’s project to insinuate himself into Downs’s life begins to take unexpected turns. First, Charlie turns out to be uniquely gifted at fakery. At one point he poses as a journalist on assignment to profile Downs; later in the novel he begins to pose as Downs himself, answering fans’ emails and allowing a case of mistaken identity to go uncorrected. Before long he’s not posing as a journalist—but meeting an actual journalist while posing as Downs. Is Charlie really going to these lengths to save his relationship with Olivia, or has he awakened in himself his true gift—not for creating art, but for impersonating creators? And what does it mean to be a person, let alone an artist, in a world so obsessed with surfaces that a fake passes easily for the real?
In this world, celebrity and obsession operate like a contagion. As Charlie’s impersonation of Vernon Downs escalates, he ends up in the sights of one Shannon Hamilton, a writer determined to stalk Vernon Downs until he agrees to help her with her career.
About Charlie Martens, Clarke has said that “Charlie’s impersonation in Vernon Downs begins benignly enough, and he quickly realizes how seductive and freeing it is to become something other than yourself. But the other half of the impersonation is how readily people are willing to accept the fact, or how little attention we pay to the details of our own lives.” In time we come to understand that Charlie’s fascination with fame is not only shaped by the surrounding celebrity-obsessed culture, but is also rooted in childhood losses that set him on a path of loneliness and isolation. For Charlie, to be famous is, or appears to be, a corrective for his deepest pain. To be famous is to be seen. He, too, wants.
Charlie Martens has proven to be a vital figure in Clarke’s work, going on to star in two other novels, World Gone Water and Garden Lakes.
World Gone Water unfolds seven years before the events of Vernon Downs.
Charlie, after being named a person of interest in a sexual assault investigation in Florida, is concluding a stay at the Sonoran Rehabilitation Center. In the opening he tells us, “I am not a good person. I don’t need anyone to tell me that I am not a model citizen. People can always improve and I want to be a better person. I want what better people have.” Once again Charlie wants.
Through an exploration of Charlie’s past romantic entanglements—including his formative high school relationship with Jenny, which leads to Charlie joining the Mormon Church as an act of “romantic sacrifice”—readers come to understand the deeper origins of his obsessive and toxic approach to relationships. Journal entries and essays draw us deeper into the more difficult corridors of Charlie’s psychology, including the truth about what happened with his accuser in Florida, Karine, or Charlie’s version of it at least (most readers are likely to come away from those passages with a different conclusion than the one Charlie himself draws). This version of Charlie Martens is rawer, creepier, and more disturbed; he has not yet acquired the cool veneer of the burgeoning literary con artist we meet in Vernon Downs.
The final novel in the trilogy, Garden Lakes, explores Charlie’s past, namely a summer fellowship program he attends as a student, in the high heat of summer. Despite the promise of the fellowship—“Historically, Garden Lakes fellows had gone on to good colleges or to celebrated careers”—the place has an uncanny vibe from the get-go:
From above, Garden Lakes looked like a sophisticated crop circle, composed of two paved roads—an outer and inner loop—with a wide river of dirt flowing between the loops, the brick community center bridging the two loops at their southernmost convex. The man-made lake at the center of the development yawned like an open maw that had only its top teeth.
The Garden Lakes chapters incorporate both a collective point of view and Charlie’s first-person narration, which allows Charlie to be at once hidden and exposed, a choice that seems powerfully suggestive of the life of incognito and deception that awaits him.
Garden Lakes also introduces us to an adult Charlie, now a journalist in Arizona and feeling, at 37, as though he’s “already lived forever” and with a “nervous and guilt-ridden conscience.” He finds himself dialing back to the distant past, namely that seminal summer at Garden Lakes. At first Garden Lakes operates like some combination of a construction work-study scholarship and a summer camp, but when tensions and the summer heat (and snakes!) escalate, the structure starts to fray. The menace is conveyed artfully in the landscape itself, through the experience of one boy: “He looked back in the direction of Garden Lakes, the shadowy points of the Grove obscuring his view, isolating him from the development. The carbon-copy houses appeared fake, a front meant to shake off the cops. He scoured the perimeter, feeling like he’d been lured by the javelinas into a sinister trap.” When abandoned by their supervisors, the boys attempt to keep order intact: “It was agreed that, in order to argue successfully for full credit for our fellowship, the schedule would remain intact, as would all the rules and regulations—including the reinstatement of curfew.” But, inevitably, life at Garden Lakes begins to spiral. Kidnapping, among other events, ensues.
During this summer Charlie has a powerful reckoning about his place in the world, at his high school and beyond: “The price of lying seemed affordable then. All I desired in exchange was friendship, to break free of my transfer-student status, to find acceptance among some faction of my new peers.” Throughout the Garden Lakes passages, flash-forwards foretell the fates of the other boys—some of whom go on to live lives marred by violence and corruption—and indeed, by the novel’s end it’s clear Charlie has been transformed as well: “Or maybe that’s just a story I tell myself to ameliorate the regret for my original sin, which has only led to a life of prevarication and an alienating superiority that has haunted me since.”
When asked about the chronology of the Charlie Martens books in an interview, Clarke observed:
As a reader, filmgoer, citizen—whatever—I prefer narratives that I have to piece together. Possibly all writers feel that way, though some are inclined to take the jumble of life and present it linearly. Linear narratives are less interesting to me personally. So within each book, the reader has to do some work to piece together what’s going on and then each book itself is another piece in the overall picture of Charlie Martens and how he learns to navigate the world.
The collection you hold in your hands, Minor Characters, will expand upon this overall picture. Now many of the characters in Charlie’s orbit will get their turn to stand in the center of the stage, will get their 15 minutes.