BOOK REVIEW: The Unauthorised Biography of Ezra Maas by Daniel James

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Who is Ezra Maas? Is he Daniel James the author of this ambitious fiction (or is it non-fiction?)? Is he a real artist? Is it a fake name that a group of artists hide behind? Or did James make him up for this book? These are some of the questions that’ll follow you as you delve into James debut novel. The Unauthorised Biography of Ezra Maas is a twisty, mind-bending, maze feat of amazing storytelling.

Everything is up for questioning. What is true and what is false will nag at you as you plunge into James’ account of events that lead to his writing of this book. This might make your head spin at first, but you’ll soon get into the rhythm of the story and find yourself becoming as much of a detective as James is.

The first big thing we have to tackle is who is Ezra Maas. Is he a real person or just a character? This might seem like a funny thing to ask, but trust me when I say it’ll only take a few pages for you to wonder if he really is a made up character.

If he is or isn’t real, we do have some puzzle pieces we can claim to be true. We know that there are pieces of artwork that have Ezra Maas’ signature style. We know that there is an Ezra Maas Foundation. And we know that there is a person named Daniel James that was charged with writing Maas’ biography by an unknown voice over the phone. After that it is all up in the air.

James breaks the story up into multiple parts, giving us all angles of who Maas is as well as how James researched him. We get snippets of articles, emails, phone calls, and an oral history from friends, lovers, enemies, teachers, and followers of Maas. Then there are the sections of James’ actual biography of Maas, that were saved and delivered to an anonymous person. And finally there are the autobiographical sections that follow James as he tries to uncover who Maas is. The jumping back and forth between each of these sections adds tension to the mystery of what happened to James and Maas.

Strung throughout the novel is the fact that no one really knows who Maas is. Our best real world comparison is Banksy, which according to James, took a lot of inspiration from Maas. Which, if want to extrapolate from what we know of Banksy, means Maas could be multiple artists, or could be a fake name for someone else. James uses this mystery, while throwing in real world names, places, and incidents to build you into the narrative as a detective sifting through the facts.

I was so convinced that Maas was real that I tried to find his artwork online. I did find some websites, including a Maas Foundation website, and some articles about an author trying to write a biography on Maas, but I couldn’t find any of his art. Which, as you dig deeper are soon to discover that the Maas Foundation has been systematically removing all of Maas’ artwork from the internet. Does this mean Maas is really out there or did James create a really fun game of interactive fiction?

I found James’ autobiographical journey into writing the biography of Maas extremely enjoyable. Right from the start we are introduced to an anonymous person that was friends with James and through mysterious means received all of James’ notes and finished biography. This plays out like a noir novel with all the tropes of that genre (our anonymous person points out this fact multiple times throughout the story). James also throws in a bit of Hunter S. Thompson’s gonzo style of storytelling into the mix. James has a huge self-destruction streak that bleeds into the biography. This all allows James to stretch and play with mystery plots, biographies, and what it means to be an artist.

The chapters focusing on Ezra Maas come across as the weakest of the parts. They are interesting, adding some color and hints to the mystery, but quickly get a bit too predictable. We get that Maas is a heady artist that is perfect at everything he does, that he knew everybody, that he is a genius. So many names are thrown around that they eventually become noise. There is also a point that the sections become so fantastical that they lose the feeling of being a biography and stray a bit too far into fiction, which doesn’t help making us believe he is real.

However, we do have James’ alibis. There are notes from the anonymous person repeatedly pointing out sections of the biography and autobiography that James might have embellished to increase the noir feeling of the narrative. It’s genius. He gives himself a way out. As long as this voice keeps chiming in, mirroring our own thoughts, we can assume it was done intentionally. There are also paragraphs and chapters there were either missing or censored. We are even lead to believe that the Maas Foundation had gotten ahold of the biography. Layers upon layers.

Overall, I thought this was a well thought out experiment in fiction writing. We are constantly questioning what is real and what isn’t, what’s been tampered with and what has been embellished, who is and who isn’t who they say they are. And these questions push us deeper into the story, turning each page looking for a clue that might give us a grasp on reality.

Maybe Maas is real? Maybe he is out there right now reading this and laughing at the ultimate trick he’s pulled on me. Maybe I’m Maas and I’ve been writing reviews for STORGY for a year to get myself ingrained into your psyche, so that when I review this biography you’ll be compelled to believe I’m telling you the truth. There really is only one way for you to figure that out, and that’s for you to read the book.

The Unauthorised Biography of Ezra Maas is published by Dead Ink and is available here.

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Daniel James

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Daniel James was born and raised in Newcastle upon Tyne and still calls the city his home. A journalist for a decade, Daniel was a finalist for Young News Writer of theYear in the UK Press Gazette awards. This is his debut novel.

Reviewed  by Matthew Brandenburg

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