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Archive for Sunday, May 11, 2008

Review: Fairy-tale fables mingle the real with the imaginary

May 11, 2008

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Kevin Brockmeier writes fairy tales for adults. His last book, 2006's "The Brief History of the Dead," fancifully imagined a city where people go after death, a way station of sorts where they go until the last person on Earth who remembers them has died. Then ... who knows?

In his new book of short stories, "The View From the Seventh Layer" (Pantheon, $21.95), Brockmeier takes his fantasist style even further, labeling several tales as "fables" and starting them with "Once there was," his version of "Once upon a time."

The first story in the collection, "A Fable Ending in the Sound of a Thousand Parakeets," sets the tone: somber, hopeful, full of alienation and reaching out, of human beings desperately trying to just get along.

In the title story, a shy young woman named Olivia takes trips through layers of time, space and reality accompanied by an entity who may or may not be God. "It gave her water in a smooth silver cup, and it spoke to her without moving its lips, and the gentleness in its eyes nearly blew her heart out."

Brockmeier has a similar tenderness in his prose; he's a writer who knows how to make a cogent point without metaphorically sticking it in the reader's eye.

God appears frequently in "Seventh Layer," typically in a sideways-glance. In "A Fable With White Slips of Paper Spilling From the Pockets," a man buys God's overcoat from a thrift store, then finds himself inundated with prayers, darting in as fortune-cookie-esque bits of paper.

The author also plays around with pop culture, presenting a whimsical prequel to the tribble story from "Star Trek" and a bittersweet "what happened next" take on the Afghan girl with the searing green eyes who appeared on a 1985 National Geographic cover.

One of the book's high points is "The Human Soul as a Rube Goldberg Device: A Choose-Your-Own Adventure Story." At the end of each section, readers are given a choice; depending on one's answer, the story plays out in different ways. It's tempting to go back and reread every choice, but somehow more satisfying to know that your first choice is your own version of reality, of the truth.

And that's really the theme of Brockmeier's work. Sure, we're all in this together. But what, exactly, is this?

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