Wednesday, April 20, 2011

You Should Read Kevin Brockmeier

Romance (n): A mysterious or fascinating quality or appeal, as of something adventurous, heroic, or strangely beautiful.
Here’s one I’ve quoted (partially) at Sweet before:
The waiters there know you well, but there are days when you enjoy being recognized and days when you don’t, when you want nothing more than the simple curt reactiveness of a stranger.
- The Human Soul as a Rube Goldberg Device
The next step in “The Human Soul as a Rube Goldberg Device,” a short story from View from the Seventh Layer, is deciding whether to go to an anonymous chain or where everybody knows your name.  It’s a Choose Your Own Adventure Story both like and unlike the ones you grew up with, where there were dozens of outcomes but only one “winning” one.  In “The Human Soul as a Rube Goldbeg Device,” every choice leads to one ending which makes you... well, I don’t want to spoil it, but it’s enlightening, entertaining, and surprisingly liberating.  

If you haven’t read Kevin Brockmeier, you should treat yourself.  He’s a writer who deserves a wider audience.  Consider some more tidbits from View from the Seventh Layer:    
People who read Tolstoy find it difficult to be alive because they are reasonable, while people who read Dostoyevsky find it difficult to be alive because they are not.
- The View from the Seventh Layer
“I’m having problems with the change machine."
She gives the words an unusual emphasis, hovering over them with her voice like a flyswatter before falling dramatically on the final syllable.  The change machine?  Jacob pictures something straight out of a science fiction novel, an immense apparatus of hatches, levers, and conveyors belts that allows you to step in as one human being and step out as another, in which atheists change into Christians, stock car drivers change into politicians, great beauties change into wallflowers.
- The Lives of the Philosophers
It is one of the curiosities of life that putting on a smile can make you happy, just as putting on a scowl can make you angry and putting on tears can make you sad, and in much the same way, adopting the postures of modesty had made the people who would not look one another in the eye uncommonly reserved and timid.  They found it difficult to begin romances and just as difficult to end them.  Words such as love and need and miss came slowly to their lips, however quickly they came to their hearts.  Long after their youthful friendships had hardened and died, they would continue carrying them across their shoulders like laborers hauling sacks of gravel.  They cringed at the thought of bringing hurt to one another, no matter how unwittingly, and often they would lie awake at night silently chastising themselves for some tiny slip of manners they feared might have wounded someone.
And so it went on, with the years laying their winters down flat upon their summers, and everyone passing within inches of one another, and everyone looking away . . . 
-A Fable Containing a Reflection
There is no form to this story because it is true, or at least as close to true as I have been able to make it.
- Andrea is Changing Her Name

The way David Mitchell’s third novel Cloud Atlas broke him into a new level critically and commercially, Brief History of the Dead felt like Brockmeier’s first novel, his breakthrough novel, the one which would build a groundswell of bookseller recommendations into a wave of book club readers, and finally into a bestseller.  The book takes place mostly in The City, where people stay after they die, until they are completely forgotten.  The City suddenly swells, then begins shrinking, which can only mean that the living world is ending. 

It didn’t become huge, but when you ask someone who has read Brief History of the Dead what she thought, you’ll see her eyes take on a faraway look.  She’s stopped seeing the room.  Her face takes on the cast of one recalling a cherished moment with a fond love.
There are worse legacies for a writer.  

There are also worse places to start a love affair with a writer than with Brockmeier’s latest, The Illumination.  In the best movie poster fashion, the copy on this one asks, “What if our pain was the most beautiful thing about us?”  I have another question; what if the central conceit of a novel - that people’s injuries give off light - had very little to do with what that novel's beating heart?
Illumination is a love story, an examination of the human condition, a character-driven page-turner, and just damned beautifully written.  The illumination (and by that I mean the light in the novel, not the novel itself) is a frame used to hang a series of unique, charming garments, like trying on different skins instead of different clothes.  The copy could just as easily been about a notebook that touches different people’s lives, but Nicole Krauss’ desk traveling through Great House took the wind out of those sails.      
What I’m saying is, don’t mistake Brockmeier for a gimmicky writer.  His work is firmly centered in reality, but his reality is mysterious and fascinating, his stories adventurous, heroic, and strangely beautiful.
Do yourself a favor and check him out.


  1. Damn you for the ever increasing list of must reads! It also doesn't help that the books you recommend are usually great. Curses!

  2. Thanks! In this case, "curses" is good.