A QUICK COMMENT ABOUT
ALL THE SIMILES (& THE LETTER "N")
IN KEVIN BROCKMEIER’S
THINGS THAT FALL FROM THE SKY
BY THROOP ROEBLING
Other reviews of Kevin Brockmeier’s debut story collection Things That Fall From the Sky will provide detailed opinions, plot synopses, apt quotations, etc. This is not really a review, but more a comment about something in the writing that annoyed me at first, that now actually makes me glad. It was something for which I couldn’t find a reason, and, without reason, it seemed to hurt the stories (repeatedly, blatantly, purposefully). This something needed interpretative support, and once I figured it out, it became the something that ties Brockmeier’s stories together, makes them cohere in a really beautiful way (which I’ll get into before too long). I’d like to let you know about this something so you can keep an eye out for it when you read the book (which you'll do one day because you may have read “The Ceiling” in McSweeney’s #7, and you may have heard it won the 2002 O’Henry Award, etc, and there's a good chance it will get a nice review in The New York Times Book Review and elsewhere etc).
OK. There’s a lot of obvious beauty to deal with: lastly, in the book’s translucent dusk jacket and sky-and-clouds cover (think Magritte, think subtly surrealistic); secondly, in the movement of the images released by the stylistically beautiful sentences; and firstly, in the parallel, the fantastic otherworld, not the one filled with orcs and elves and all, but the one that’s very similar to our own reality: think of the Truman Show’s fabrication or a “Created World” with all real-world references to pop culture and history and identity filtered in such a way that what’s left forms the capital-S in both the words Story and Setting, emphasizing those words and the way the writing works the angle between our world (reality) and the reality presented in the book (fiction/fantasy). The setting in these stories exists and doesn’t exist: call it Storyland, Kafka’s village after the overthrow/collapse of the Castle, a parallel world reached by the diagonal bridge of writing. Now, that last part (“the diagonal bridge of writing”) sounds more than a little bit cheesy. But thinking about it is where I found the most enjoyment, and so . . .
Here comes the something referred to in the first paragraph: At first, I thought why so many goddamn similes? There are a lot of similes in these stories, very good ones, mostly, but they keep coming, over and over, like a like a like a like as if a simile machine spitting tasteful similes were working overtime -- well that’s not really a good simile, but you get the picture. Although most reviews quote representative sections of dialogue or description, this one will simply provide ten randomly selected similes, found throughout the book:
1. tufts of wiry hair like moss in our hollows
2. a clap of sound like the report of a hammer
3. a set of cardboard blocks, red and blue and thick as bread loaves
4. its beam like a long silver road
5. polite applause that sounds like the last few popping kernels in a bag of prebuttered popcorn
6. two sharp white condensation trails, cloven with blue sky, that flared and dwindled like the afterlight of a sparkler
7. Her smile is vibrant but brief, like a bubble that lasts only as long as the air is still.
8. He heard the low mutter of a voice, like residual water draining through a straw.
9. the lights of a thousand streetlamps caught like constellations in its smooth black polish
10. They constructed a fortress with the cushions of a sofa; when bombed with an unabridged dictionary, it collapsed like the huskwood of an old fire.
These were just a few similes, found without too much searching. The first ten I found flipping through the book. They actually weren't as predominate on each page as I thought they would be. (I remember at least ten similes per page.) All I can say is that they announced themselves, asserted themselves, they would say, “Yo, Throop, check me out, that’s right, another simile!” And, because I couldn’t reconcile why I thought all these similes were allowed to live, I was down on the book at one point. Admittedly, there were a few stories in the collection I couldn’t finish, just couldn't read them the day I was reading the book, and when I went back to them, I could not read them again. I couldn’t concentrate on them. I am more to blame than the stories. But the two stories in the collection that made it come together, that provided bridge between text and reader were two toward the middle of the book: (1) “The Jesus Stories,” a fictional anthropological essay about a tribe called the N. who have created thousands of texts about Jesus Christ (“pleocanonical Gospels”) that detail and imaginatively extend small aspects of Jesus’ life, similar to the way Kevin Brockmeier refers to and works from the foundations of various fairy tales, including Rumpelstiltskin, Alice in Wonderland, and Chicken Little; and (2) “Small Degrees,” a 19th-century story about a type founder (font creator). I won’t attempt to summarize these stories, leave that for other reviews. All I want to do is point out the repetition of the letter N, something the other reviews probably won't mention. The “Jesus Stories” tribe is simply called “the N.,” and in “Small Degrees,” when the type setter as a child is asked by his mother what he is reading, he responds, “The letter N.”
What’s it, a symbol?
What’s it stand for?
What should anyone care?
Please look at it for a few seconds:
The letter N consists of two parallel strokes with a connecting diagonal. One thing, an equivalent thing beside it, connected by another oblique, dynamic thing (as opposed to the boring horizontal crossbar of an H – or the overly hierarchical Z, with one thing above another).
N: One thing connecting another thing with something slanting between, taking the indirect route.
In the story “A Day in the Life of Half of Rumpelstiltskin,” Half of Rumpelstitskin receives a Mad-Libs-type letter (Mad-Libs being the only pop item in the collection I remember, by the way) from his other half (the main character is actually one-half of Rumpelstiltskin, the man who tore himself in two) in which blank spaces with parenthetical clues such as “term of derision” appear throughout, so that the two correspond to each other with spaces literally left open to be filled, both working on the same piece: thus, thereby, and therefore, the writing is the connection, the thing that unites them, in an indirect way. And I fear to take the next step, the one about how writing bridges fantasy and reality, the one about how writing works between writer and reader. I fear to take it because it will sound cheesy if I do. But it seems that I’ve already sandwiched the thought between two brief expressions of fear, and so, I should be able to get away with it. Regardless, this commentator thinks that Kevin Brockmeier's collection is one of those books in which "understanding" requires a misproportional intensity of attention to small details, or better yet, it's one of those books that compels overanalyses (like this one) of unintentional coincidences, meaningless trifles, annoying repetitions, etc.
Search and ye shall find, and if ye search along the indirect route, ye, like Rumpelstiltskin, shall find the other half. Like a simile connecting one thing to another.
B R A V E S O U L S R E C E I V E
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