By Evan Dara

Illinois State University Press. 476 pp. $21.95

FOUR hundred pages into William Gaddis's The Recognitions, probably the most difficult American novel of the last 50 years, a disembodied voice says of the author, "Your friend is writing for a rather small audience." Nabokov said he wrote for his wife, son and himself. Although readers took years to clear the bar set by these two grandfathers of contemporary fiction, their novels did train an audience for the next generation, writers such as Joseph McElroy and Thomas Pynchon, and the new generation, writers like William Vollmann and Richard Powers. Vollmann selected The Lost Scrapbook as the winning entry in Fiction Collective Two's annual novel contest, and the book's flap bears fulsome praise from Powers. This first novel resembles the ambitious debuts of McElroy (A Smuggler's Bible) and Pynchon (V), but author Evan Dara pushes the bar back upward toward Recognitions-height. With The Lost Scrapbook Dara asks readers to vault into an insistently bookish book, a dangerous and courageous request in an age of Web browsers and Net servers.

If you're thinking about reducing the audience of this review along about now, please give Dara one more paragraph. I'd hate to see The Lost Scrapbook lost for 30 years, as The Recognitions went unrecognized, because Dara is a consummate ventriloquist of our time's voices and a remarkable ringmaster of our culture's circus acts. These two kinds of live performer are a little dated and so are scrapbooks, but Dara is not deterred from imitating them. The pleasure of oral communication and bound-together lives are qualities, he suggests, we're now missing. There is also a missing book within the novel, but the actual meaning of Dara's title is "scrapbook of the lost."

And to be completely honest, The Lost Scrapbook is not really a novel. In place of conflicting characters and plot, Dara gives us numerous yarning narrators and multiple variations on his theme of loss. A stand-in for the author suggests the way the book itself accumulates as he pushes himself through weight-lifting repetitions by reciting variations on "hard": "hard-wired and hard sell, and hard ball; and hard-bitten, and hard news, and hard knocks."

"All hard loss, no plot?" you say, wetting your finger to turn the page. Not quite. After 300 pages of conditioning, we get a 180-page novel about Isaura, a Missouri town destroyed by Love Canal-like chemical pollution. The story of lsaura has only a few named characters and is told like a multi-track oral history, voices cutting into and cutting off other voices, but the town's losses have narrative development and the concretely accented voices engage us with their fear, denial and rage. Dara is so adept at mimicking public health officials, industry flacks, sweetheart pols and company-town serfs that I went looking for Isaura on a Missouri map. The fall of Isaura is eco-fiction at its best

Patient readers will discover in Dara's final pages that the voices in the extremely discontinuous first two-thirds of The Lost Scrapbook are refugees, literal and figurative, from Isaura. Having lost homes and friends, the speakers wander America searching for listeners, attempting to monologue their way to communication, displacing or repeating their original loss. Looped back into---either reconsidered or reread---Dara's first 300 pages exert both intellectual and emotional force. But readers not already buffed by Gaddis's exhaustive collection of "recognitions" or Pynchon's x-number of V's should begin on Dara's page 327, where he says, "Our displays of failure are perfect, and permanent," thus referring backward to the losses in his book and forward to soil and aquifer contamination.

"Mm" is the frequent response of Dara's listeners to his early narrators. This meditative hum is often enough for readers because the speakers voice crackpot schemes or goofy obsessions. A radio-station employee searches for the precise point at which the signal is lost (and there runs into a pantheist who might be Thoreau or the author). An amateur moviemaker tries to create a galaxy of lightning bugs by filming one over and over. A follower of Chomsky sees the famed linguist speechless and turns to investigating Piaget's childhood "object loss." But since readers---this reader anyway---don't realize what Dara's eccentrics have lost, the speakers can seem forced together by the author rather than dispersed from Isaura by the owners of OzChemicals. It takes some work to look back at The Lost Scrapbook and say, "Aha, so that's how all those parts fit together," and then "Aaah," which signifies satisfaction or, with a different spelling, awe.

Fortunately for readers, Dara's art includes comic situations, Nabokovian word play, and a long stretch of open-form poetry. Even when he is entertaining, though, he seems compelled by his structure to explain. A performance artist runs through a series of acts, amusing fans and readers until someone in the audience stands up and raves "BECAUSE WHAT IS LOST {is} NOT TO BE RE {covered} BECAUSE IT IS BURIED . . . IN MY BLOOD." After learning about Isaura, reader understand that this raver is a victim of contamination. If ecology had preceded psychology in The Lost Scrapbook, much of Dara's self-consciousness would have been unnecessary. The raver knows his loss and how that loss is carried forward in his genetic scrapbook, but to fully appreciate how pollution spreads from water to blood to head and hands, from generation to generation, readers need more substantial and earlier help than the author provides.

BOOKS ARE lost, fiction has become screenplay. This is Sven Birkerts' elegiac conclusion to printing, and perhaps one reason for the hardships Dara imposes on himself and his readers. At the end of the line, at the beginning of on-line, perhaps serious novels can no longer imitate magazines or movies or even those invisibly bookish realist fictions that still sell. To have authority and gain respect, future novels may need to simulate those books we have to heft and weigh, texts such as anthologies, manuals and encyclopedias. Or maybe not books at all but other performances such as magic acts and circuses, or even repositories of medieval manuscripts and oral histories, archives and museums. At the end of The Recognitions a composer finally plays his own music in a cathedral, hits a very difficult note, and brings the cathedral down on his head. Dara has taken a similar risk with his Beethoven-influenced novel of variations. Readers who wish to see books preserved will want to have this one, but you'll probably need to look hard to find it. In our literary hard times, only a small press like Illinois State University will risk loss and publish The Lost Scrapbook. Tom LeClair teaches at the University of Cincinnati and is the author of "The Art of Excess" and a forthcoming novel, "Passing Off.