I met the other Elizabeth Bartels at a family reunion in New Jersey when I was in middle school. I had long been used to sharing my first name with classmates – in the fourth grade there had been enough Elizabeths to need to distinguish between us using our last initials. Quickly, though, my teacher shortened “Elizabeth B.” to “E.B.” when calling morning attendance and it stuck. Even though I was Elizabeth A. Bartels, I started going by E.B. Bartels, and when I was accused of having a redundant name (“Your name isn’t Elizabeth Bartels Bartels!”) I said that “E.B.” simply stood for “Elizabeth” cut in half: Eliza. Beth.
But then I met the other Elizabeth Bartels, the daughter of my dad’s first cousin: Elizabeth B. Bartels. Even though she was a few years younger than me – I reassured myself that I had been Elizabeth Bartels first – I felt threatened. This was the real E.B. Bartels. She didn’t have to use some clever justification to go by those initials if she wanted to.
I say “the” other Elizabeth Bartels because I have yet to meet another. Bartels is not the most common of last names. Occasionally I will meet a Bartel or Bartles or a Bartell. A couple times I have met or heard of another individual who goes by E.B., though those initials seem to be much more rare than D.J. or A.J. or K.T.. But never have I run into another E.B. Bartels.
So I often wonder what it would like to meet someone else with my exact name. Do you feel connected or inferior? Do you get a little thrill every time you see those letters in print? Or does it become stale out of context? Do you feel threatened, like I did when I met the other Elizabeth Bartels, but on a permanent basis?
Chris Eaton, a writer with a name more common than my own, explores that idea in his most recent book, Chris Eaton, a Biography: A Novel by Chris Eaton. While the book is fictional, it is based on a very real event, something that we all do at some point: we Google our own name.
Chris Eaton took his findings and created the most obsessively detailed, wholly original, and unusual novel I have read in a long time. Eaton’s book is not for the impatient or lovers of a straightforward plotline. Reading Chris Eaton, a Biography is a lot like playing the game Set: looking for pairs of matching patterns and colors, but this time in interwoven, philosophical vignettes that Chris Eaton created based on the other Chris Eatons he discovered – Chris Eaton the child, the teenager, the musician, the painter, the closeted homosexual, the politician, the lonely graduate student. The physical appearance of each Chris Eaton is never mentioned. Even the gender of each Chris Eaton becomes blurry as the stories slide into each other, and it is easy to blend the narratives together as they move from birth through childhood, adolescence, and adulthood to love, loss, sickness, and death.
One Chris Eaton has a lover named Jules, while another has a baby with a Julie. Another Chris Eaton is a swimmer, while one almost drowned as a child. Many of the characters not named Chris Eaton have names that are anagrams of Chris Eaton. Within the book itself, Chris Eatons often learn about the existence of other Chris Eatons and they react with amusement, affection, or obsessive stalking. There’s a Chris Eaton who gets a job at Tower Records because an employee there named Chris Eaton quit the day before. One father of a Chris Eaton tries to predict earthquakes based on the number of times he comes across people with his own name. A Chris Eaton hangs up a campaign poster by a politician named Chris Eaton in his dorm room. One Chris Eaton becomes attached to an unrelated Julie Eaton on the news, just because they share the same last name. A teenager named Chris Eaton paints his own self-portrait on the same canvas every day for a year, one image on top of the other so that “At any given moment, all you saw was one Chris Eaton. But all the rest of them were always there. As one.” That is exactly how Chris Eaton, the author, has layered the many histories of this multitude of individuals.
As Chris Eaton writes, “The patterns are there. The question is merely whether or not our interpretations of the patterns are correct. And would the patterns exist without us to perceive them? Do we make the story, or does the story make us?” Many of the characters in Chris Eaton, a Biography dwell on conspiracy theories and coincidences: the numbers nine and eleven, the date July 4th, the Lincoln and Kennedy assassinations, government cover-ups, a virus epidemic, the Illuminati, time travel, murder. In the same way I want to return to Chris Eaton’s novel again and again, with color-coded pens and sticky notes, to develop charts, make links, track numbers and repetition. Chris Eaton is a talented, detail-oriented writer – he spent eight years working on this project – and so I am certain the patterns are there. Or would I just be seeing the patterns that I want to see? Therein lies the question. “A coincidence involves two unrelated events that appear to be planned. But how many ‘unrelated events’ does it take before a real pattern emerges?”
Looking for meaning in randomness is exactly what you’re doing when you search for something using Google, and the book itself reflects the results an Internet search: a complete excess of overly detailed and sometimes tangential information. Chris Eaton spirals off into rich digressions: whole pages on the biography of the grandfather of the grade school friend of one particular Chris Eaton or the life story and mysterious death of another Chris Eaton’s favorite pop singer. But with his lush language and enthusiastic recounting, Chris Eaton, the author, makes you feel that every single story is crucial. Reading Chris Eaton, a Biography felt like studying a collection of marbles – getting distracted by the patterns of one, jumping over to look at another, returning to the first, mixing them around in your hands and forgetting which is which, getting sucked into the intricate world contained inside each glass sphere. Chris Eaton gives you the chance to peer into dozens of worlds that collide and blend. Maybe these different people are not actually separate. As Chris Eaton writes, “Does [our identity] exist after us, before us, or does it even matter? Are we any different from one another?”
Finishing Chris Eaton, a Biography, my head was full of questions, but the one thing I was certain of is all people are more similar to each other than they would like to believe. Chris Eaton writes, “Each horrible event in our lives makes us realize that anything is possible. Probable. Has actually happened. Is actually happening. In fact, our imaginations are just a link to a collective unconscious, so that the thoughts we happen to stumble across… are really just pinhole exposures into actual events somewhere else on the planet. Stylized. Washed out. Blurred at the edges.”
When I finished reading Chris Eaton, a Biography, I did the next natural thing: I Googled Chris Eaton. In the results, I saw glimpses of the Chris Eatons that appeared in the novel: a musician, a senator, a composer, a marketing director, a photographer, a writer. Concrete realities speckle the prose, but even the things that Chris Eaton invented could be true. The world is full of so many individuals with an overwhelming number of specific details. One teenage Chris Eaton writes a report for English class on the Greek god of disguise and indecision, Anchorites, and it feels to me that every character in Chris Eaton, a Biography is a Chris Eaton in disguise, even if he or she is named something else. In the end, it doesn’t matter. Regardless of whether your name is Chris Eaton or not, we all share the same experiences: birth, growth, love, sickness, loss, and death. Chris Eaton, the author, sums it up best: “We’re all in the same boat.”
– E.B. Bartels is a native of the Boston area, currently living in New York City. Her nonfiction has appeared in Agave Magazine, Vitamin W, The Wellesley Review, and the anthology The Places We’ve Been: Field Reports from Travelers Under 35. She is a regular contributor to Wellesley Underground, and her piece “Just a Trim” was a nonfiction honorable mention in New Millennium Writings 36th Competition. http://www.ebbartels.com