Fra Keeler by Azareen Van Der Vliet Oloomi. Dorothy. 128pp., $16.00.
Azareen Van Der Vliet Oloomi’s first novel, Fra Keeler, arrives in an unassuming package, its 128 nearly square pages housing five well-spaced chapters. The narrator buys Fra Keeler’s house and investigates Keeler’s death, but seemingly boring events waylay his investigation. A mailman visits. The man gets a package from Ancestry.com. A representative of the website visits him. He looks at his house’s skylight, hangs out in a yurt, and walks around in a canyon. Blink blink blink and the novel could be finished just like that, consumed in less time than it took to ship from Amazon’s fulfillment center to your doorstep.
But Oloomi’s novel is not about consuming action or plot. At least, not entirely. Much like Pynchon’s The Crying of Lot 49, the book bottles a paranoiac atmosphere. In Pynchon’s novel, paranoia seeps into the protagonist’s consciousness through an investigation of the narrative reality occurring around her. It forces a reader to wonder about the correspondence between two worlds—one of perception and one of reality. In the formalist jargon, The Crying of Lot 49 inquires about the relationship between fabula (narrative event) and syuzhet (a narrator’s perception). But Oloomi’s novel lodges us in the head of a paranoid lunatic and thus uncorks for us a different set of concerns. We glimpse this lunacy in the novel’s very first sentence: “‘It’s on the edge of a canyon,’ the realtor said, raising his eyebrows when I offered to buy the home without having looked at it first.” This inaugurating dismissal of a voice of reason places the narrator squarely in the “not sane” camp. The course of Fra Keeler’s progression, if it is progression at all, is not that of descent into paranoia but a struggle to ascend up the canyon wall of a consciousness known immediately as crazy. Thus, Oloomi’s novel takes the long-established conflict between reality and perception found in contemporary fiction much deeper. Paranoia, here, is a given. In place of a dualistic conflict—like the metaxis between reality and perception Pynchon forces on the reader—Oloomi investigates a tripartite relationship between perception, reality, and textuality.
Oloomi wastes no time in battering us with the conflict between perception and reality. Once the realtor vanishes from the narrator’s thoughts, we have nothing to hold onto. Along with this disappearance, the narrator’s announcement that “Fra Keeler’s death raises questions unanswered by hospital records” implicitly begs the reader to forego any type of objective reality and to go along with him. From here, the narrator jumps straight to a question of identifying a grand schemer, asking himself, “but who, I keep thinking, would want to undertake such massive coordination, who would want to hide Fra Keeler’s connection to the unfriendly events?” By filling the void of unanswered questions with this one, the narrator points the reader toward the direction he faces. In less than a few minutes we are suspicious; we are paranoid like the narrator.
Yes, this feels like a very basic attempt at encouraging intrigue, but the novel gets narratologically more complex within the same page. In no time, the narrator makes a simple, fabulous confession—“I lied.”—which increases our paranoia because it shatters our already shaky belief in the narrator. Conceptually speaking, we have nothing left, either in the world of the narrative’s fabula or its syuzhet. The events are not to be trusted and neither is the entity relaying those events to us.
In an attempt to gain some footing in this novel’s slippery slope, I counted the occurrences of forms of thought or think. I counted 475. That equates to an average of about four occurrences per page. But Oloomi’s narrator doesn’t spread on the “thoughts” or the “thinking” evenly. We find them globbed on some pages and disappeared on others. The passages in which “thought” or “think” occur gesture toward a conceptual schematic of the relationship between reality, perception, and textuality (or language’s combined definition and indefinition).
Moments after his fabulous confession, the narrator granulates our confidence in his narration when he tells us, “I found the truth in the drawer. I opened the drawer and it was simply there, a sheet of paper like any other sheet of paper.” But this paper does not contain what we expect. Nothing on the sheet is clearly written; all is smeared, forcing the narrator to extrapolate it for himself and for us. Instead of “the truth,” the narrator’s reading only produces a truth. The narrator refuses to grant us access to a narrative comprehension of the why and how of Keeler’s death, and language becomes an immovable, transparent membrane between “event” and “thought.”
It is no mistake, then, that Oloomi’s narrator realizes that the skylight in Keeler’s home is “inextricable” (like language, or the thought it precedes) and that he must break it. As he is about to club the skylight, he announces that “The duplicity of things is unbearable,” and we understand that he wants to break open this symbol of textuality in order to unify event with thought. But something interrupts this momentous action. Actually, two things. First, the narrator gets self-conscious. He thinks himself out of breaking the skylight—“what madness is this?”—only to think himself back into it. But after finally having convinced himself to do it, a representative of Ancestry.com is standing in the driveway. It becomes an event. He lets the representative inside, they quizzically chat, and then he starts thinking again, leaving his beef with the skylight for a while, effectively quelling the wave of “madness” in him.
And, what’s more, the narrator understands these disruptions as essential to his struggle to comprehend how Keeler died. While waiting at the door of the old woman next door, whom he has deemed to be masterminding “the massive coordination” surrounding the death, the narrator meditates on the way the novel’s events have been unfriendly to his cerebral investigation:
Events—I paced back and forth by her front door—get in the way of knowledge, wedge themselves intrusively between oneself and one’s knowledge, and not just that, I thought, pacing very rapidly back and forth. New events introduce themselves, become involved with other events. So that one morning you wake up and find yourself tangled up in them.
The first sentence of this extended thought is a microcosm of the novel’s major theme: thought disrupts action; it disrupts the event of the narrator’s pacing back and force. This passage hints at what is already very clear—that language, or textuality, serves as the playground for the problematics of relating or differentiating event from thought, reality from perception, and fabula from syuzhet. Without syntax, the definition of these concepts and their relationships would not be possible. But because of syntax, these concepts interrupt each other. Thus, syntax makes possible definition, disruption, and irresolution.
The narrative itself knows that we want to see the inextricable, anxiety-ridden duality of language broken, for it is clearly our antagonist. So the narrator, unable to enter the old lady’s house through the front door, returns with the same club in his hand, standing over her skylight. He tells us he is there simply to “spy into her house through the skylight on her roof,” but his lunacy shows up quickly in the fixated tone of his self-reminder: “That is what I’ll do, I said to myself, maintaining a line of thought: I will climb directly onto her roof.” And yet, once he is there, standing on the roof, he does not do what he says he will do. He does not spy on her. Instead, he fixates on the skylight. Then, of course, he breaks it. It is a causal event we glimpse only through effects because it occurs in the ellipsis of a page break. Afterwards, the narrator becomes a detached observer of what he’s done, and it’s through his observations that we discover he has killed the old lady. But the narrator starts to ask himself a set of questions similar to those elicited in earlier paranoiac works: “Was it real? I thought, and looked down at my hands,” or “Couldn’t I have imagined it?” By breaking the skylight, the symbol of textuality, the narrator thinks he will finally locate knowledge about the situation. But instead, all he finds is detachment from events and more questions about what he perceives.
Our narrator, getting pistol-whipped in an interrogation room toward the end of the novel, feels he hears his own death and equates it with being in a large body of liquid. That is, our narrator, after symbolically smashing language, symbolically enters oblivion. And oblivion is the only result of a shattering of language. Thus, by taking paranoia as a founding conceptual assumption, Oloomi’s novel pushes us forward into the problems associated with “knowing.” The novel’s symbolic fission of literature’s fundamental building blocks helps us see textuality as both evil and necessary. Evil because it is the cause of nerve-wracking duplicity and doubt, and necessary because, without it, knowledge is merely an oblivion.
D.H. Varma perpetually wakes up in Memphis, TN. His fiction has been published in A Clean, Well-Lighted Place and The Oxford American.
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