The dedication of Lee Klein’s The Shimmering Go-Between, published this August by Atticus Press, is to “everyone who has ever suffered from disbelief,” which gives a hint that the book that will lope baldly through the unbelievable.
As in, the story starts with an immaculate conception by a 12-year-old, moves into a plot about gelatinous little people who appear in a man’s facial hair after he has sex, and then enters an afterlife where people live in a town inside the man with the gummy-bear beard, committing recreational suicide by hot-air-balloon.
It’s so inventive that it almost works—or is an interesting failure, at least.
Klein has a unique voice, a combination of surreal and twee that’s not quite like anything else I’ve read. He bestows strange adventures on ordinary young office workers, denizens of minor cities. He brilliantly inhabits a space between pretty and icky. Here, for example, is our hero, Wilson Amon, eating one of the little ladies who appear in his beard:
“One of the larger women, her features more defined, was stunning, really beautiful. Before he realized what was happening, he had her on his fingertip, admiring her beneath a desk lamp. A gorgeous creature. A living pearl with womanly curves. There was something perfect about her size, her proportions: she was only hours old, a newborn, yet already looked like a woman, no larger than the digit on which she stood. He wondered what she’d taste like. He popped her in his mouth. Just by pressing his tongue to her, he savored a delicate milky flavor. Like white chocolate. Or a thin slice of mozzarella.”
With voice alone Klein is changing the rules. Once you have a person with a “delicate milky flavor” like “white chocolate” or “a thin slice mozzarella,” and you’re ok with that person getting eaten…. you have no earthly idea where you are. And there’s good tension is in wanting to know. I was ready to absorb book-logic, and not let my expectations on murder or cannibalism disturb the narrative.
That was especially true once The Internet entered the picture, in the third chapter, with a website called autofellator.com (run by Wilson, who can suck his own dick and does so on web-cam, strangely chastely). We moderns are used to spending time in the worlds of the unreal online. I was willing to link up Klein’s fantasia with virtual reality, and to read the “world” within Wilson where the dead people live as metaphor for the Internet. The mystery of the little women—something strange that propagates indirectly with sexual connection—felt fruitful.
There are many lovely turns of phrase—an ugly chandelier is “an eternally airborne octopus of ice;” the women long to “transform into a marble, and collapse into rose-smelling mist.” But The Shimmering Go-Between is poorly written. The problem with “anything can happen” is that nothing matters when it does, and when a writer takes those risks, he or she needs exceptional scruple in other areas to keep the reader interested. Klein simply can’t get away with a narration that’s tell-not-show, or with the endless explanation and re-explanation of the plot. It’s bad writing on the craft level. Here’s a typical piece of heavy-handed plot-summary-as-dialog that should be indicative of the problems:
“So you slept with one of those mysterious naked women and then melded consciousness with Wilson and assumed control of his body and then slept with a woman named Delores and then ate some tiny women and then returned here to swallow a goop-covered marble that had been the woman you’d slept with just a little while ago?” asked Rue. “Have I got that right?”
The reader does not have it right. With all the people living inside other people, possessing other people, and using more than one name for various characters, by the end of the book I’d forgotten or maybe never knew the identity of the first-person narrator. I think it’s the nameless goop-covered marble, from inside “Brad Pitt” from inside Wilson, but I’m not sure. Passages like the following do nothing to clear it up:
“Being in Rue, wasn’t nearly as wonderful as being in Wilson or even in Brad Pitt. A lot of it probably had to do with the fact that Rue was dead. Plus, this was also around the time she’d stopped tutoring Brad Pitt, and it was clear his carousing caused her some pain. … Plus, what also detracted from my experience within her was that each time I returned to her body she seemed to have lost some elasticity, and this, as she tried to reason her way through her chronically exacerbated brittleness—combined with envious tension—made Rue much less fun, in terms of controlling, than Wilson or Brad Pitt.”
The internal state being described, from “chronically exacerbated brittleness” to “envious tension” just makes no sense. the writing is chewy, the “plus”s add up ominously, and we have no idea who is describing their experience or why we care.
I stuck it through to the end hoping for an ah-ha moment that never came. The echos of characters longing for their own annihilation (women who want to be eaten, people who suck their own cocks, people who jump from balloons….) feel relevant, but the author doesn’t seem to know what to do with them.
Klein’s wrap-up is a typically explain-y passage declaring that Wilson “felt like his capacity for affection had been caught up in his computer monitor, like a runaway puppy found frozen in a lake…. It became clear he needed to turn himself toward something outside the screen, someone beyond the confines of self.”
At that point I just woefully laughed at the cliché that we can turn away from the screen, and that good old hetero affection is the cure of over-mediation…. Like, this is an insight we can get from women’s magazines or New York Times editorials. Surely I didn’t read this whole book for this?