Sadness is general, as is solipsism. Kevin Brockmeier’s second collection of stories, The View from the Seventh Layer, comprises four “Fables” and nine other morose and mystical fictions. The book confirms that Brockmeier, who moonlights as a writer of children’s books, is as prolific as he is sensitive and sorrowful. Now 35, he has published one previous collection and two novels. His first novel, The Truth about Celia, like many popular national news stories of the past decade, concerned a missing little girl. The Brief History of the Dead, a portion of which appeared in the New Yorker, proceeded from the premise that there is a city where the souls of the deceased dwell for as long as someone alive on earth remembers them; in the course of the novel, the city’s population bulges, then dwindles as the planet is ravaged by a world war and then a plague that threatens to wipe out humanity. Last year, Brockmeier was among the twenty-one fillies and foals corralled in Granta’s Best of the Young American Novelists 2. The pervading mood of that volume, as editor Ian Jack explained, is one of melancholy, brought on by a preoccupation with death. Jack cites Zadie Smith, editor of an earlier volume of young Americans, asking, “Why so sad, people?” Perhaps the answer can be found in Nicole Krauss’s Granta story “My Painter,” wherein the narrator, looking at people outside a hospital, wonders, “Is it possible that sadness can make people graceful?”
Thus sadness is a literary strategy. I have come to think of Brockmeier’s version, so reliant on the tropes of science fiction and fantasy, as Magic Feelism. The stories in View tend toward a common moral: Life inevitably ends in death, which is necessarily sad, yet death may allow us, magically, to perceive the beauty inherent in the most mundane aspects of life and thus, glory beheld, to feel happy. As a whole, this collection conveys the impression of an author who writes out of an impulse to congratulate his characters, his readers, and himself for being pure of heart in a cynical world—or for having emotions at all. It is through the combination of the fantastic and the sentimental that the work may be passed off as “literary.” Without the magic, Brockmeier’s stories would be glum mood pieces in which nothing much happened. And absent the melancholy, they could rightly be labeled genre fiction. The Magic Feelist formula allows the writer to guide the reader through a precisely modulated series of sentiments, alternating between dolefulness and wonder. What matters is not the realist goal of verisimilitude, which supernatural forces at work have anyway suspended, nor the innovation sought by experimental writers, since Brockmeier’s conceits are by and large borrowed. Rather, the sincerity of the experience shared among character, writer, and reader creates a mutually affirming bond. You may close his book with a twinge of sorrow over the pain that accompanies any life, but you can feel good about your own sensitivity to that pain as well as your perception of the world as mysterious and brimming with hope.
View opens with “A Fable Ending in the Sound of a Thousand Parakeets,” Brockmeier’s entry in Granta’s Best (there called just “Parakeets”). “Once there was a city where everyone had the gift of song,” it begins. Sadness enters this happy scene in the form of a solitary mute, who compensates for his silence by being a beloved civic presence and by breeding parakeets, many of whom he gives away to the city’s crooning citizens. When the mute dies, his neighbors enter his house to the sound of his birds: “In a thousand tones, a thousand different inflections, they reproduced all the sounds of the mute’s daily life, from the steady beat of his footsteps to the whistle of his coffeepot to the slow, spreading note of his final breath. It sounded for all the world like a symphony.” In addition to being a cliché, that terminal simile, equating the spontaneous screeching of birds to an intricate musical composition, captures the corrupted attitude toward art underlying Brockmeier’s schematic fictions. This finds near explicit statement on the book’s very first page: “The people of the city did not always sing with great skill,” Brockmeier writes, “but they sang clearly and with a simplicity that made their voices beautiful to hear. And because they loved what they sang, no matter how painful or melancholy, a note of indomitable happiness ran through their voices like a fine silver thread.” Substitute writing for singing in this passage and the author’s approach to language becomes obvious. Make it simple and clear, feel it, love it, and, despite all the pain in the world, you’ll be happy. The audacity of Brockmeier’s anti-literary imperative is capped by that final “fine silver thread,” a cliché he has already forgiven himself for committing to the page.
Brockmeier’s prose is indeed simple and clear. The sentences are clean. Like dishwashing detergent, they have a sterilizing effect, they emit a slightly chemical smell, and they leave your skin feeling soft. Their purpose is to cleanse the conscience and to console. I have so far mentioned one story, but it is a sort of manifesto followed by variations. “The View from the Seventh Layer” and “Andrea Is Changing Her Name” are résumés of sensitivity. They present heroines in various states of depression that may or may not have genuine causes (parents’ divorce; the death of a teenage boyfriend in a skateboarding accident). These—along with “The Lives of the Philosophers,” about a graduate student whose girlfriend has a miscarriage (there is nothing as pure of heart as a dead fetus)—also employ Magic Feelism’s sister strategy, Magic Lifestylism. The narratives are heavily weighted with details of characters’ daily habits—movies seen, foods eaten, clothes bought—that might have been lifted from the pages of the Times Styles sections. Again, the magic covers for the consumerism, and vice versa. The author is not analyzing or transfiguring the way his characters live, merely reveling in it and expecting the reader to do the same. In other stories, like “The Air Is Full of Little Holes,” Brockmeier seems unconsciously to be testing the limits of his sincerity. Can I write convincingly, the author asks himself, in the voice of a female African refugee? No, if you think that such a character, upon finding her youngest child dead in the cradle, could say something like, “I had never forgotten the weariness that overtook me after my parents were killed, nor the savagery of my tears as I walked with my grandmother to the refugee camp, so I was able to meet my grief with a kind of recognition.” This is NGO fiction, animated by white guilt; it conveys to the reader the same sort of satisfaction he might get from donating to Oxfam.
More often Brockmeier’s pity is directed toward white Americans who grew up during the 1980s. The salve of pop cultural nostalgia is always ready at hand. “The Human Soul as a Rube Goldberg Device” adopts the form of the Choose Your Own Adventure books popular during that decade. To think that I always blamed Bright Lights, Big City for the proliferation of narratives in the second-person-singular when I should have been looking at the Young Adult shelf. In Brockmeier’s attempt to revive the form, all paths eventually lead “you”—through options like “If you have ever really been happy, turn to page 158”—to a fatal collapse, followed by the revelation that in “several thousand years” humans will develop technology for recovering memories from corpses and then display the best recollections of the dead in museums. Death for Brockmeier always becomes an opportunity to assuage rather than disquiet.
Brockmeier is also fond of television. “Home Videos” is told by a producer of a show indistinguishable from America’s Funniest Home Videos, who is fired for sneaking edgy pieces of video art onto the air. In the story’s favor, it does contain one of two erections I counted in the collection; mostly Brockmeier glosses over his sexual content with the phrase “making love.” On the other hand, “The Lady with the Pet Tribble,” a flaccid piece of fan fiction, appropriates characters from the realm of Star Trek and puts them through the motions of Anton Chekhov’s “Lady with Pet Dog” (here ensign Pavel Chekov narrates). This serves little end but to turn “Keptin” Kirk, that remorseless interstellar womanizer, into another Brockmeierian milquetoast.
“His minor eccentricities are legion,” reads the author’s biographical note in Granta’s Best, as if it were some sort of qualification. In his fiction, gimmicks and cloying emotional ploys are legion. “A Fable Containing a Reflection the Size of a Match Head in Its Pupil” describes “a city where people did not look one another in the eye.” After six pages among the residents of the city, who are taught from an early age that eye contact damages the soul, the narrative concludes: “Every one of them was like a sealed box with an impenetrable mystery at its center.” Following that muddled simile (not only is the box sealed, but the mystery inside is impenetrable too), there is a one-sentence paragraph: “As are you, and as am I.” And another: “And I do love you, you know.” Here is an author begging for a reader’s affection by proffering his own. Magic Feelism—and Brockmeier is exemplary but not alone in deploying this style—asserts emotions without inspecting them. It is never comic, but it is often cute. Instead of subverting its elements of fantasy and science fiction, it fondles them. It responds to a cynical culture by expelling cynicism from its world. In this way, Magic Feelism is itself a cynical con.