Tuesday
Feb042014

An Impenetrable Screen of Purest Sky

By Dan Beachy-Quick


 

Coffee House Press
September 2013
978-1566893411

 

Reviewed by Dan Lopez


 

A mother's early death. A father's grief and his subsequent abandonment. A book of fables written in a language that defies attempts at translation. These are among the layers of metaphysical sediment that coalesce into the pearl that is Dan Beachy-Quick's debut novel An Impenetrable Screen of Purest Sky. Beachy-Quick is better known as a poet than a novelist—his ear for verse lends the prose here an ethereal, buoyant quality that floats it above an often grim and desolate emotional landscape—but he certainly possesses the storyteller's chops.

Daniel—the protagonist of the tale, though not dissimilar to Dan, the author—is a professor of literature at an unnamed university. We're told he's a devotee of Moby-Dick, though he no longer teaches Melville's masterpiece because the text's expansive possibility overwhelms him:

[A]t some point, it became too much for me to bear, repeatedly entering into the same pages, my old copy with marginalia in different colors filling the margins, the same thoughts worded differently across the years, always reaching the same conclusion, Ahab and the white whale, yes, but even more so Ishmael, orphan Ishmael, who saved himself by putting his arms around his friend's empty coffin, a coffin engraved with the tattoos that covered his friend's body, […] a whole epistemology, on the working mystery of the universe. No one can read it. 

Aside from his existential panic, Daniel lives a quiet life, one largely the product of a grief-stricken childhood. His mother dies giving birth to a baby sister who outlives her mother by only a few days. His father, unable to cope with the losses, escapes into esoterica to deal with his grief. He is never much of a father to young Daniel, and, eventually, he too passes. Despite his emotional baggage, or perhaps because of it, Daniel's life is successful in many external ways. His job is fulfilling (or at least was at one time), providing stimulating relationships with colleagues and students alike; he's hard at work on a novel, an enterprise that brings with it all the attendant pitfalls and rewards of creative output; but perhaps his greatest success is a romantic affiliation with Lydia, a physicist working on a paper about inflationary theory, the study of the moment of the Big Bang, and the theory of the multiverse, the belief that there exist many universes besides our own, each with its own unique reality. Daniel is very happy with her, but the ghosts from his past won't be so easily dispelled, and before long, Daniel makes a decision that changes the course of both their lives.

The decision itself is irrelevant. That is to say the circumstances of Daniel's romantic life serve as a convenient widget—a MacGuffin, in Hitchcockian parlance—for a larger question. Beachy-Quick is after a much more fundamental choice here, the choice between recovery and defeat. The circumstances of Daniel's life have always been beyond his control—he had no choice, for instance, in whether or not his mother would die or his father would abandon his remaining offspring. But as trite or new-agey as it may sound, Daniel can choose how he will react to the circumstances in his life. He can choose to heal, to recover, and to find happiness at the end of his long journey of ruin and despair. To put it in terms of the novel, that choice is the grain of sand, the irritant, that compels the oyster to produce a pearl: "A single grain of sand. In the oyster's mouth—whose whole body is mouth—it becomes a pearl. The bivalve's irritant becomes the lady's jewel."

And maybe there's something of Lydia's multiverse (and Melville's transcendentalism) here as well. The book feels like a wedge propping open a heavy door between realities. Reading it, one gets the sense that Daniel has the ability—if he can only just complete his novel, or finish translating the Gordian Knot-like book of fairytales that was his father's life work, or do right by Lydia—to pull some salvation from the deep, to perhaps even change the past. There are shades of Orpheus here; indeed, Daniel confesses to Lydia that his father was obsessed with the legendary Greek:

"I think he thought everyone was Orpheus. Or that Orpheus was some unrealized potential in us all. To be a singer. To sing a song that opened a door into another world. He thought of words as passages, not meanings; doorways, not definitions. He thought words kept open the wall between the living and the dead. I think he thought one could escape through a word. And enter. If he could sing the right words in the right order, sing them in the right way, some kind of multiplying melody, then he could sing his way into death and bring home my mother and sister. He was convinced, you know. He was absolutely convinced. He thought Orpheus wasn't a man but a symbol, a type of us all. Orpheus was who one could be—" I stopped, aghast to sound so much like him.

And there's the key: "I stopped, aghast to sound so much like him." In his grief, Daniel has become the avatar of his father's grief, the same compulsive, the same neurotic substituting distraction for coping. So maybe Lydia can help, or maybe she can't, but one thing is certain: Daniel must choose whether he prefers life or death.

There's another thread weaving the metaphysical tapestry of this book, and it concerns itself with the membrane between fiction and fact. Daniel is working on a novel inspired by Lydia's work on the multiverse. It's a novel, but it's a kind of autobiography as well, a palimpsest of fact and fiction. On the night when they first sleep together, Lydia calls the book "a theory; an experiment," something that "will prove you to yourself. […] It's these pages that are the telescope looking inside itself." Reading this, one gets the sense that this is as much Dan as Daniel commenting on the transformative power of fiction. There's an old saw much referenced in creative writing communities. It holds that emotional truth trumps facts, and, indeed, many writers (this reviewer included) hold fast to the belief that what's on the page is somehow the more authentic reality, the barest of truths. By that measure, it's not just Daniel who's saving himself on the page, but Dan as well. By extension, perhaps, the reader too.

An Impenetrable Screen of Purest Sky is a quiet book packed with a lot of baggage, but the weight of its meaning, the questions it raises, is made lighter by the beauty of the language and the subtle evolutions it contains. It's a bit like watching the stars' determined journey across the sky on a clear night, the very thing that would've entranced Melville's Ishmael.