September 2013

Gemma Alexander

fiction

Liliane's Balcony by Kelcey Parker

The cantilevered balconies of Frank Lloyd Wright's landscape-hugging house, Fallingwater, redefined domestic architecture. A literary mirror image to the house, Liliane's Balcony, a novella by Kelcey Parker, provides a new paradigm for structuring domestic tragedy. Unlike the plodding, maudlin weepies of 1950s cinema, Liliane's Balcony delivers wry, ironic prose in flash. Using multiple voices, blending historical documents and supernatural fiction, deliberately echoing the structure in which the story is set, Liliane's Balcony is a hybrid on many levels. Whether the form follows function or interferes with it may ultimately depend on your taste -- how do you feel about modern architecture?

When a book plays with its shape as much as Liliane's Balcony does, it is tempting to focus on form. But like the house in which it is set, Parker's novella-in-flash contains a genuinely touching human story -- several, actually -- equally deserving of attention. At its core is the lifelong failed marriage between Edgar and Liliane Kaufmann, who commissioned Fallingwater as a weekend house. Parker incorporates documented events and actual letters written by Edgar to Liliane into an intimate fictional vision of Liliane's lonely life in her dream house over the water. Cantilevered off of this central narrative is a collection of vignettes in the voices of contemporary tourists viewing the house.

As she did in her collection of short stories, For Sale By Owner, Parker shows the reader bland Middle-American characters and then cracks them open to reveal complexity and pain beneath the surface. We meet Janie, who is more preoccupied with her fertility than architecture; Amanda, mourning by turns her deceased father and the boyfriend who stood her up on their first weekend getaway; the teenage daughter who can see Liliane's ghost; and the redneck Harley Davidson rider who is only there because he didn't want to seem too poor to pay the hefty admission price when he rode up to the gate; and, of course, Vikings, although these are not given a speaking role. Parker lets us inside each person's authentic, all-too-human head, where thoughts read like internal monologue instead of literature. The monologues are brilliantly the characters' own, and never Parker's. Clever characters make witty connections between events in their lives and elements of Fallingwater; the less bright hammer ceaselessly on one or two ideas. Every one of them is profoundly affected by the architectural masterpiece. But, caught up in their own problems, they each respond to the house differently.

The hybrid structure and artistic, historical subject mark Liliane's Balcony as serious literature. Such a book could easily have been an unbalanced, self-conscious bore, toppling under its own weight. In heavier hands it might have done so. But Parker's wry observance of human foibles and playful use of language lightens tone so that the book instead flows as easily as (forgive me) falling water. Parker mines gold out of the tourists' unique voices, self-perceptions, and views of each other. The Harley guy thinks of himself as a man of high culture. Inspired by the portrait of Edgar Kaufmann, he determines to have his portrait painted for his girlfriend. The daughter sees him as "the ponytail man," and determines to be an architect when she grows up. Amanda seeks nothing less than the meaning of life, or failing that, a glass of bourbon. The tall Norse tourists, alas, must content themselves with their stylish good looks as they provide everyone else with comic relief. The daughter calls them Vikings; they are the four Norsemen of the apocalypse to the Harley guy. Even by Frank Lloyd Wright himself gets in on the action when the tour guide informs them he referred to tall people as "weeds."

Parker crams a lot into this novella, both stylistically and in terms of story. But the flash format seems to give each element its own space, creating a cellular, organic feeling that is once again, an echo of Parker's architectural muse. Not every vignette within the novella is successful, but each combines into an interesting form that also fulfills the function of every good story -- making the reader believe in and care about the characters.

Liliane's Balcony by Kelcey Parker
Rose Metal Press
ISBN: 978-0988764538
216 pages