|Jan/Feb 2009 Book Reviews|
Dzanc Books. 2007. 145 pp.
The stories are, just as the title promises, all over. After the first one, "Invunche y Voladora," the tale of a couple's strange yet genuine and most of all sad honeymoon, the themes grow increasingly wild, with each story surpassing the former in oddness and surrealism. In "Instituto," Stanley becomes acquainted with a strange and hard-to-find institute promising to perfect his life, one step at a time. Unfortunately, the institute's program differs from Stanley's own. Worse still, once completed, it appears to have missed the point altogether. In "Blazonry," we follow Wayne as he waits for the perfect moment to open a mysterious package—and watches his entire life fall apart.
Less sci-fi but no less peculiar is "Wait," the story of an international flight so delayed, flying Delta seems pleasant in comparison. At once amusing, scary, heartbreaking and annoying, it captures the spirit of an airport terminal while at the same time it completely fails to remind me of one. In "Triangulation," the chronology and motivations of some awful deeds dawn on the reader slowly over time, whereas in "Hat," there appears to be no real story at all. The same goes for "At the Pizza Hut," and "The Girls Build Their Towers," which has neither a point nor any real reminiscence of teenagers.
While some stories are just plain out there, like "Martin," featuring a homeless man suffering from the illusion that he is a guitar string (he is actually so convincing that the psychiatrist narrator believes him) and "Strike," an almost-impossible-to-grasp illustration of New York City, there are also those that portray life in its most down-to-earth forms. "Fontanel" is an example of such a story. By drawing a collage of a birth and the people involved in it, stopping to detail and color each face, Kesey creates a set of characters that are part self-obsessed, part amazing, and part next-door-neighbors to whom we can all relate.
This is where the author's greatest strength lies: in giving life to regular people who do regular things. "Fontanel" and "Wait" topped my list in this collection, although "Triangulation" would have been up there too, had I not been too offended and grossed out to fairly criticize a story centered around cruelty toward animals. I have to hand it to him, though: it was extremely effective.
Roy Kesey's voice is truly unique, and beautiful in an unexpected way. The language is brainy, fast yet detailed, and has its very own rhythm. I've never heard anything even remotely similar before. Sharp, cold, gray—with lots of spunk.
Further adding to the list of positives, the stories were all surprising, unique, and just as the language like nothing I have ever read before. I have always been drawn toward the eccentric, so I enjoyed the mishmash of odd characters and occurrences. Mr. Kesey is also very skilled at jumping between different point of views, tenses, styles, and story telling techniques. "Sheephead Something Something" starts out with a biological description of a species, then expands to apply the description to humans, spinning out into a scene that brought me closer to the characters than I had thought possible in such few words. In "Interview", the strangest details are brought to light when you read between the lines of a one-sided job interview (and what a job interview!). "Strike" is told from a first person plural point of view, we, as Chantal's mate share his most intimate, heart-warming and poignant memories next to the dead body.
The span of themes, settings and situations captured between the covers blew me away. It is clear that Mr. Kesey has been around the world, seen it all, had experiences that far surpass those of the average person, and met a wide variety of people. His wisdom slips through on every page and it is obvious that he is open-minded, likeable, and most of all very intelligent. Yet he doesn't write down to his readers. He just shows us places we've never been and situations we've never experienced—and hopefully never will.
The collection does, however, have a few drawbacks; drawbacks that made me sigh with relief when I finally reached the end. Almost every story lacks a hook, a plot, or a satisfying ending. Because of this, I found it hard to finish the collection—and I am normally a readaholic. As ending after ending fell short, I found it increasingly difficult to stay motivated; to dive into each new story with unfazed enthusiasm even without a hook. I also found it increasingly difficult to convince myself that the action would pick up later, because most of the time it didn't, and when it did it was tossed in as little segments amongst a lot of fluff, details and information that didn't feel relevant.
Don't get me wrong here. The stories are not bad by any means. They are clearly the result of great inspiration and dedication—of effort and genius, of courage and precision. But they felt to me a bit like gray pavement. The characters, while ranging from ordinary to way out there, all busting with potential, somehow managed to come across as cardboard. True, it isn't and never has been easy to craft three-dimensional characters in short stories, but many writers do it, every day. In
I enjoy a lot of literary fiction, and especially anything touching the bizarre. And I did enjoy Roy Kesey's distinguished, hip, techno voice. But no matter how you look at it, unique language and bizarre detours can not make up for missing plots.