All Over by Roy Kesey (Dzanc books, 2007)
Reading Roy Kesey's collection made me happy. Re-reading it soon after made me even happier. This is not because Kesey's stories are hopeful or optimistic. It is because this is a writer so clearly in love with language and rhythm that it is a delight to experience what he does with words – both those we are familiar with and those I suspect he invented.
The 19 stories range in length from one to ten pages. Several were previously published in literary magazines such as McSweeney's and Opium, publications with a reputation for clever, sharp, irreverent writing. While Kesey's work does fit this description, this is not cleverness for the sake of it. In almost all the stories, even those that on the surface appear utterly absurd, he is unearthing the complexities of our world, the messes we make of it, and the small moments of joy.
This is no easy book; Kesey's reader is required to work hard. He strips down to the essentials; there are few names or places here, anything that might anchor us. There were several stories that, however hard I worked at them, I couldn't squeeze any meaning from at all. This doesn't mean I didn't enjoy the wordplay and the flow of language, I just had no idea what I was supposed to understand here. But the struggle to make sense of the worlds he has created is well worth the effort, though, because most of the stories give and carry on giving on each subsequent reading.
In Fontanel, a story I found very moving, what we presume is a fertility doctor or gynaecologist is describing to an unidentified listener the collage of pictures he creates for each and every birth. As he talks about each picture, we slowly realise all is not what it seems. This “collage” contains images not only of the couple about to give birth, their first child, the wife's mother , but “the gas station attendant who is friendly and serviceable and pretends not to notice the wife's screams”, “the taxi driver scrubbing the back seat of his taxi”, “the aneastheologist, resting for a moment in the break room, imagining new sorts of pain”.
Wait begins as the ordinary story of a flight delayed due to fog. The omniscient narrator pans across the departure lounge, dipping in and out of passengers' thoughts. The language throws out clues that here, too, we are not in reality is we know it: “Airline personnel daydream of islands, and speak urgently into handheld radios though this is only for show: the batteries have been on backorder for years”. As the hours pass, disasters accumulate, the passengers form alliances and organize distractions, until the entire situation crumbles.
Kesey's stories often begin with some semblance of order and then descend into chaos, but the endings are by no means uniformly hopeless: they manage to satisfy while also, in many cases, being suprising or shocking. Kesey's characters sometimes get what they want, but not in the way they - or we - may have predicted. There is an allusion to war or some other, larger event in many of the stories, as if to remind reader and protagonists alike that, although we may imagine we are in control, there is always something greater than us.
All Over is the first release from Dzanc Books, a non-profit small press whose stated aim is to “to advance great writing and champion those writers who don't fit neatly into the marketing niches of for-profit presses”. With this book, they have set themselves a high standard. This is an astonishing debut collection by a writer who deftly uses language, rendering it both spare and rich, sentences and paragraphs reverberating long after the book has been put down. Kesey's keen eye slices through pretence and artifice and although we may not always comprehend his writings on the surface, in our bones we know what he writes are truths.
This collection had a profound effect on my writing. Tell me why you should be the one to win it...!