Fra Keeler by Azareen Van der Vliet Oloomi
Fra Keeler is the story of a man who buys a house on the edge of a canyon. The former owner of the house, Fra Keeler, is dead. That death seems to haunt the man, or, perhaps it's better to say, it itches at him, an internal itch that draws his attention over and over, just as Fra Keeler's name is repeated throughout the text.
The man, our narrator, is mentally myopic. His skewed reality fills the page, while outside perspectives push through the narrator's churning thoughts to come at the reader sideways. At first, it seems like the narrator's thoughts are an attempt to make sense of Fra Keeler's death and the "unfriendly events" that have followed that death. But the sense the narrator puts together is not about Fra Keeler, though he starts with the contradiction between a piece of paper saying that Fra Keeler died in Palma de Mallorca and another saying he died in the Netherlands. From there, his thoughts spiral, moving forward while repeating, carrying the reader down pathways that are simultaneously logical and impossible, pathways that dead-end in unexpected and unintended conclusions. He considers the nature of cause and effect, the movement of time, and tries to make sense, or rather, "to make senselessness," which "is sense at its peak." The house's dusty skylight, for example, occupies his thoughts as steadily as any clue in a murder mystery. Here he his looking up at it:
...[T]he next person to notice is a few lineages down, or not at all, I thought, because you'll never know if that person will stop to look up at the same surface, and if he does there would be no guarantee that he would have the same thought. But then thoughts get passed around from brain to brain, so that our thoughts are only ever a repetition of someone else's thoughts. A thought that came before us and planted itself in our brain as though it belonged to us, inextricable from our being. And that is exactly what the skylight is, I thought: inextricable.
The mystery of Fra Keeler's death drives the narrator forward, while the narrator's thoughts, endlessly circling, spooling out and back in, drive the reader.
The plot is marked by solid objects, rather than by events. There's a yurt, a mailman, a ringing phone, a skylight, a neighbor, a club, and a canyon. The chains of cause and effect are loosened, unmooring the present moment from the past and future. Sometimes, time flows as expected: the narrator leaves his kitchen and walks to the yurt. He opens the door and goes inside. Sometimes, time comes undone: he stands inside the yurt and says, "Fra Keeler." Immediately, he is amid the trees, with no memory of leaving the yurt. In other instances, moments are lashed together through the narrator's assumptions of cause and effect: a mailman delivers a package and later the phone rings. The narrator is certain it's the mailman who is calling. Each time, the narrator tries to fit the events into a pattern, searching through his thoughts for an explanation.
Though difficult to describe, the book is a pleasure to read. Rather than constructing an argument, the narrator's thoughts accumulate and accrue, pooling around the yurt, the skylight, Fra Keeler, and other people and objects. Azareen Van der Vliet Oloomi makes use of the narrator's logical wanderings to engage in word- and thought-play that is both delightful and, as the narrative continues, vaguely threatening. The narrator gently shifts from considering what appears to be an actual death, the death of Fra Keeler, to considering the potential deaths that exist in every moment of living, and these thoughts about death jostle with thoughts about shattered telephones reforming themselves and tables chopped up and then made anew. Images, objects, and thoughts recur and acquire urgency. They become increasingly important to the narrator, leading him down a path he can't predict, urging him to take action, some kind of action. Slowly, it becomes apparent that his mental gymnastics are too pointed for comfort. He makes connections between a skylight and Fra Keeler, between a package and a neighbor, and the reader follows. He looks at that dusty skylight, that inextricable skylight, and thinks, "nothing should be inextricable," his previous thought emerging as a threat.
Even as events cohere, the narrative dances amid the surreal, frustrating attempts to impose sense on the narrator's senselessness. But senselessness shouldn't be confused with a lack of meaning. Just as the word- and thought-play is both delightful and menacing, the narrator's logic chains are both convincing and impossible, like the patterns we all make out of everyday life. And as comforting as those patterns are, they can go too far.
Fra Keeler by Azareen Van der Vliet Oloomi
Dorothy, a publishing project