Thursday, June 29, 2017

Looking Askance

Michael C. Keith, Perspective Drifts Like a Log on a River

In the glory days of the logging industry, tens of thousands of cut trees would float on the rivers of New England and the Northwest to saw mills situated near larger port cities, to be milled and shaped, and transported to markets here and abroad. Thirty years ago I witnessed such a log float in Vermont--a kind of round up, not unlike the cattleman's springtime gathering of the herd--and what struck me above all, aside from the sheer number of oak and pine logs harvested in the northern forests,  was the capriciousness and power with which they moved downstream. When not crowded together at bends in the river, the logs surged ahead, spinning and toppling over one another, again, not unlike (I imagine) the massive buffalo herds that trampled the Great Plains, as irresistible as an avalanche or tsunami.

I mention log floats in search of a metaphor to describe one of the fundamental dilemmas faced by writers and their readers today--how to capture the fragmented nature of experience without capitulating to the disorder inherent in fragments. It isn't enough to justify the production of gibberish by asserting that it mirrors the noise around us--art is charged with making order, however random and capricious that order might be. The great modernists, having been informed of the existence of the unconscious, apprised of the imprecision of language, and divested of any lingering faith in old- fashioned truths, sought new literary forms, apart from the realistic novel and the rhyming couplet,  to express their view of human experience. In doing so, the great modernist writers like Joyce and Woolf  expanded the range of possibilities available to the poet and novelist.

But the conundrum we now face is more serious--in a world divested not only of meaning but even of the presumed existence of facts themselves--where a kind of joyous, apocalyptic destruction of language has overtaken politics, the media, the arts, and even ordinary human discourse--where lying isn't lying but one's preferred version of events (individualism run amok!), what is the writer to do? The options appear to be a self-conscious reversion to older forms of expression, with a wink and a nod toward the reader, as if to say, "yeah right," or the embrace of the kind of sickening irony that makes a mockery of art--"I don't believe in what I'm writing, and you don't believe in what you're reading, but so what?"

But lots of writers, many occupying the edges of fiction--writers who aren't fashionable--have continued to search for authentic ways of expressing their vision of the world. Michael Keith is one such writer. Over the course of a long career--fifteen books of stories and one remarkable memoir--Keith has experimented with a wide range of voices, styles, subject matters, and vernaculars. His early stories were macabre--eerie and menacing tales heavily influenced by Poe and H.P. Lovecraft. Their vision of the world was dark--nothing much could be trusted to be what it seemed...I often thought of Rod Sterling as I read the stories collected in  And Through the Trembling Air and Hoage's Object. In those early books, Keith's Everyman was a regular Joe who had underestimated the animosity of those around him--and the dangers of the world at large. Think of the Coen Brothers' films, of John Goodman cold-cocking  George Clooney in "Oh Brother"--the kind of world where it is folly to trust too much or to believe the ground is granite and not quicksand.

But Keith had other things he wanted to express--life isn't all quicksand. His deeply affecting 2003 memoir The Next Better Place--the story of his wanderings with his father--had already demonstrated another side of Keith's sensibility, and in particular his interest in character studies. The feckless Joe of the earlier books became, in later collections, a multi-faceted figure who, though still battered about by the forces that batter us all (other people!), operated with greater free will and to greater effect (see, for example, the stories in The Near Enough, 2015). I also note that in collections like Bits, Crumbs, Specks, Flecks, Keith was beginning to move toward greater compression, stripping away conventional narrative elements in favor of powerful psychological portraits of a society torn apart by irreconcilable forces.  I wasn't surprised to learn, in reading Keith's newest book--Perspective Drifts Like a Log on a River, that he had been reading Lydia Davis and Joy Williams--two masters of what I think of as the story of implication, that is, the story that invites the reader to fill in the blanks (a slice of a slice of reality).

Under their influence, and deploying his own mordant wit to good effect, Keith has produced one of his strongest books, not only of micro-stories, but of meditations on stories, or thoughts about bits of life that might become stories. A writer's notebook. There is flash fiction and micro-fiction--how much meaning can be packed into how few words--and what Keith has done in this beautifully produced book is to use both modes interchangeably, often in pursuit of the same themes.

"After finishing ninety-nine stories of God, I phone the author and ask why she gave the book that title since most of the pieces in it don't even mention God. When I sense she is about to say something, the line goes dead." Disappointment, hopes raised then dashed, an agenda uncovered, a feeling of failure momentarily exchanged for a (fleeting) sense of success. Like logs on a river, each of the 200 plus stories/observations/thoughts bumps against its fellows. The overall effect is of a writer looking askance at the world, not in mockery (though there is self-mockery in much of what Keith writes) or what I think of as destructive irony, but with a healthy appreciation of the many ways we fail to understand what is right there in front of us.Reading Keith is like having a cool drink of water on a hot day--not only is he refreshing, but his wry sensibility keeps one healthy.

For Perspective and the other books mentioned here, see

George Ovitt (6/28/17)

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