Kevin Brockmeier's writing is like a deep, focusing breath of cool air. Invigorating, steadying, full of feeling — his crystalline prose forces readers to linger over phrases, absorbing every ounce of detail and rhythm, before inching along to the next passage. Pantheon will release his strong new collection of short stories, “The View from the Seventh Layer” (hardcover, $21.95), on March 18. Over the course of 13 stories, the Little Rock author further asserts himself as perhaps the country's leading fabulist, a writer intent on playing with space and time, who's unafraid to introduce elements of fantasy.
Conveyed in quick blips, the plots in the collection sound almost farcical — one tells of a city affected by momentary, wholesale silences, another follows the travails of a succubus-plagued priest, yet another tracks a troubled girl convinced she's been abducted by an Entity from space — but Brockmeier always imbues his characters and the situations in which they find themselves with more than enough real emotion to carry the stories.
There's little dialogue in “View.” Most of the characters live solitary lives, given to aimless walks or laboring alone. Even in more dialogue-driven stories like “The Lady with the Pet Tribble,” a Chekhovian work set in space in the distant future, Brockmeier lets interior concerns propel the narrative, paying special attention to sensory detail so acute it's rarely perceived. The best phrases involve sound: “An icemaker's slow cascade of thumps.” “The scratching of insects on trees.”
Brockmeier's constructs occasionally flirt with preciousness. The collection's longest piece, “The Human Soul as a Rube Goldberg Device,” is a Choose Your Own Adventure, with dozens of mundane options to choose from: “If you decide to do a little grocery shopping, turn to page 156.” “If you decide to clean the bathroom mirror, turn to page 170.” It's a concept that's easy to scoff at, but after a few runs down the rabbit-holes of possibilities, I found myself flipping pages furiously, caught in the subtle shades of the paths on which small decisions take us.
Brockmeier is a mammoth talent, capable of amazing technical dexterity, but even more, a master at imbuing his prose with a deep and gentle compassion. “The View from the Seventh Layer” is his strongest work yet.
Little Rock readers will especially appreciate the references to local people and places he drops in his stories. The allusions seem to be less meaningful than affectionate. I spotted Elton and Betty White, Sufficient Grounds, a character named Lorenzen and a female character named Indy, surely a nod to a longtime WordsWorth bookseller. Who'd I miss?