BOOK REVIEW: The View from the Seventh Layer 

Stories about Stories: Kevin Brockmeier’s new story collection retells (relatively) new tales

The View from the Seventh Layer [Buy Now]
By Kevin Brockmeier
Pantheon, 267 pages, $25

What I like about Kevin Brockmeier is that he writes about what he knows. If his new collection of short stories is any indication, what he knows is a lot about stories.

Each of the 13 stories in The View from the Seventh Layer is some ingenius variation of narrative genre — there are four fables, a ghost story, an alien abduction story, a fantasy, a science-fiction romance, a situation comedy of sorts, and even a Choose-Your-Own-Adventure story.

Only a few of these breezy and sometimes elegant stories subscribe to that 20th-century dogma of short-story writing that Michael Chabon has called — in the tongue-and-cheek introduction to McSweeney’s Mammoth Treasury of Thrilling Tales — the “contemporary, quotidian, plotless, moment-of-truth revelatory story.”

Think John Cheever, John Updike, and any of the myriad fiction writers appearing in The New Yorker and you’ll know what he’s talking about.

But even these plotless, moment-of-truth stories have something fantastical about them, something magical, at least something magical imposing itself on the evidently real, no matter how hard that realism might resist.

These are the delightful and charming qualities that have earned Brockmeier wide attention over the past few years for his two children’s books and his latest well-received novel, The Brief History of the Dead.

Take “The Lives of the Philosophers” for instance, one of three plotless stories. It’s about a dreamy graduate student whose girlfriend, Audrey, has become pregnant. Jacob is paralyzed by his fate, but continues to vacillate about what he can do or should do, if anything, which is hugely annoying to Audrey. She just wants him to make up his mind, come to some kind of conclusion, be decisive for once in his life.

He can’t, though, so he escapes to his research. One night, while in his office pouring over books attempting to unlock the reasons why Thomas Aquinas and Friedrich Nietzsche each abandoned their work at middle age, he is visited by a woman he calls “the gypsy.” She’s having problems with the change machine. It ate her dollar. Jacob is so engrossed in his studies that for a moment he thinks she means “something straight out of a science fiction novel, an immense apparatus of hatches, levers, and conveyor belts that allows you to step in as one human being and step out as another ...”

Nice, huh? Jacob gives her some money for the bus. In gratitude, the gypsy reads his palm, tells his fortune. Unlike most people’s lives, in which change is inevitable, Jacob’s life, the gypsy concludes somewhat ominously, has been determined from the beginning: “You were born to be a certain kind of person, and you’re going to die a certain kind of person. Sorry, man.” Even when the story is about something as ordinary as one man’s indecision about what to do about The Big Problem, Brockmeier finds the extraordinary. He does this throughout Seventh Layer. Characters must often face enigmatic powers beyond them and their control.

Sometimes those powers are in metaphysical form, as in “Father John Melby and the Ghost of Amy Elizabeth.” Sometimes they are in narrative form, in which we the readers are in control, as in “The Human Soul as a Rube Goldberg Device: A Choose-Your-Own-Adventure Story. Sometimes, they are in metaphorical form, as in “The Lives of the Philosophers,” in which Jacob’s fate unfolds with or without him.

Brockmeier cleverly exploits familiar stories from pop culture much to the delight of readers who are products of television, movies, and all manner of 1980s mass media. Perhaps he does this in the hope of finding something new, but what’s suggested most, in his ease of pace and his clarity and ripeness of language, is that he’s having a good time.

“The Lady with the Pet Tribble” is a retelling of a momentous sexual escapade by the captain of the starship Endeavor, who goes only by James, but whose story is recounted in the indistinguishable Eastern European accent of the narrator, Pavel Chekov, who calls James simply “The Keptin.”

“Home Videos” is about a production assistant who works behind the scenes at a popular TV show called The Painfully Familiar Video Hour, a thinly veiled reference to America’s Funniest Home Videos. The narrator tells a story of dealing with the show’s cranky host, “the Second Goofy Man,” who is the successor to hosts “the Ken and the Barbie,” who were themselves succeeded “The First Goofy Man.”

And “The Air Is Full of Little Holes” is about the life of the real-life Sharbat Gula, the iconic Afghan girl and war refugee with the fiery green eyes, who was immortalized, in the U.S. at least, on the cover of National Geographic in the 1980s.

One might argue that Brockmeier, in borrowing familiar figures and stories from TV and mass media, might be attempting to elevate pop culture, treating them the way writers have always treated familiar heroes, myths, legends, and fables passed down for the ages.

That would be overstating it. Most stories fizzle out. Some just stop. You might call them underdeveloped. I would.

But what’s rewarding about spending time with Seventh Layer is not so much the psychological depths he plumbs — remember the clear lack of moments-of-truth a la John Cheever, Updike, et al. — but the skill and ease with which he weaves these stories about stories with cleverness, wit, and a sense of fun. Perhaps these aren’t fully formed works, but they are good and familiar company.


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