Review

The View From the Seventh Layer

by

In a
recent interview, Kevin Brockmeier described his approach to
fiction in a way that could serve well as an apt summary of the
contents of his captivating new short story collection: “I
suppose I navigate the tension between the realistic and the
fantastic largely by failing to recognize it,” he observed,
“though I don't know whether I would call this a working
method or a blind spot. Typically, when I sit down to write, any
fantasy I turn my mind to very quickly begins to seem stitched
through with realism.” By any measure, reality and fantasy
mingle inextricably and with apparent ease in these 13 memorable
stories.

THE VIEW FROM THE SEVENTH LAYER contains four stories explicitly
labeled “fables” that are among the most affecting in
the collection. From a mute in a city where “everyone had the
gift of song,” who raises a collection of parakeets to share
the sounds of his life (“A Fable Ending in the Sound of a
Thousand Parakeets”), to a man who “happened to buy
God’s overcoat,” only to discover the myriad prayers of
humanity it housed (“A Fable With Slips of White Paper
Spilling From the Pockets”), these stories boast the charm of
a children’s tale (not surprising, considering Brockmeier has
authored two children’s books) and yet are rich with mature
emotion.

The most strikingly original story in the collection is “The
Human Soul as a Rube Goldberg Device: A Choose Your Own Adventure
Story.” It begins with the simple act of a man returning milk
to a refrigerator. At the end of that two-page scene, the reader in
effect becomes the protagonist of the tale, offered a choice
between putting his “shoes on and going out for a walk”
or “spending a quiet morning at home.” Depending on
that choice, and one made at the end of each subsequent scene, the
reader is moved forward or back through the text until all choices
eventually lead to the same ending, encompassing a heartbreaking
tableau, “fading like a plume of smoke into the broken red
skies of the city.” Although the full piece covers 60 pages
of text, the unique stories ensuing after each choice are much
shorter, and the permutations of the tale feel infinite, inviting
rereading in a spirit of experimentation and fresh discovery.

Several of Brockmeier’s stories are sharp and perceptive
character studies. In the title story he introduces Olivia, a
reclusive young woman who sells maps on a lush tropical island, her
life the encapsulation of loneliness. “She would not been
surprised,” Brockmeier writes, “to learn that she had
become invisible.” Olivia categorizes people by the types of
books they read, removes insects from the home of the widow who
lives next door, and dreams of someone she calls “The
Entity,” who she imagines someday will come to claim her and
end her emotional isolation.

Another moving story is “Father John Melby and the Ghost of
Amy Elizabeth.” In it, a priest whose sermons are noteworthy
principally for the yawns they induce in his congregants is visited
by the spirit of a young woman who confesses, “I’ve
wasted my life.” For a time, her presence inexplicably
inspires him to heights of spellbinding preaching, but when he
rejects her presence he reverts to his former self, “damned
by the purity of his devotion.”

Not all of the stories here dabble in the fantastic. “Andrea
Is Changing Her Name” is a wistful story of unrequited love,
while “The Lives of the Philosophers” presents Jacob, a
young professor struggling to complete his Ph.D. thesis on Thomas
Aquinas and Friedrich Nietzsche at the same time as he tries to
come to terms with the pregnancy of his girlfriend.

While not overt in his comic sensibility, Brockmeier demonstrates
some startling flashes of humor. Most notably, in “The Lady
With the Pet Tribble,” he pays homage to the venerable
Chekhov short story, at the same time crafting an ingenious plot
that will appeal to the most ardent fans of “Star
Trek.”

In the end, a gentle, ruminative quality unifies all of the stories
in this book. There’s an incandescent beauty to
Brockmeier’s prose, one excerpt of which, from the story
“The Air Is Full of Little Holes,” offers a fitting
benediction to this abundantly satisfying work: “But
occasionally, by the grace of God, the world turns its face to us,
uncovering its perfection, and though the glimpse we are given
never lasts longer than an instant, we remember it for the rest of
our lives.”

Reviewed by Harvey Freedenberg (mwn52@aol.com) on January 24, 2011

The View From the Seventh Layer
by

  • Publication Date: March 18, 2008
  • Genres: Fiction, Short Stories
  • Hardcover: 288 pages
  • Publisher: Pantheon
  • ISBN-10: 0375425306
  • ISBN-13: 9780375425301