AN IMPENETRABLE SCREEN OF PUREST SKY by Dan Beachy-Quick
Daniel, the narrator of Dan Beachy-Quick's novel, An Impenetrable Screen of Purest Sky (Coffee House Press), waltzes through time like a boy through a crumbling house. That's perhaps, the first, most striking facet of this novel. Initially, it seems to present itself as a series of memories, unified perhaps only by their place, and their sense of loss. Those memories, however, give way into fairy tale, poetry, and what can be coyly described as alternate reality. Next to nothing tethers it to the earth, so much that it constantly feels in danger of floating away. The prose is dreamlike, heavily wrought, and at certain times feels like a kind of chanting, a repetitive drone that, in the novel, indicates that one has entered the underworld.
A less kindly assertion might be to say that the novel is “all over the place.” The myth of Orpheus is brought beside the writing of Ralph Waldo Emerson (from which the novel derives its name), Proust's In Search of Lost Time, Moby Dick, and the short stories of Nathaniel Hawthorne. These are more than allusions. Much of the novel is spent discussing these works explicitly, in a way that I can only think to describe as ekphrastic.
Let's start from the beginning. Here's Daniel, a professor of literature at an unnamed college. Here's Olin, his mercurial colleague and friend. Here's Lydia, a professor of astronomy that becomes his lover. There's Ishmael, the young student whose eyes remind Daniel of his own, whose name seems more important than it can be.
Underpinning all of these is Allan, Daniel's father, whose absence defines Daniel, and whose ravings are echoed throughout the rest of Daniel's life. At first it is impossible to place these people in the geography of Daniel's life. Who knows, at first, how much time has passed between when Lydia loved Daniel, and when Daniel first met Ishmael's eyes during a lecture on Moby Dick. The book is coy with these facts. The novel itself is subdivided into four books, each of which corresponds to a season in a single year. Chapters whisk the reader from one character to the other, with only vague mentions of memory, or tense, to indicate when they take place at all.
This is further complicated by the interspersed fairy tales, children's stories, and parallel narratives that interrupt these passages. The bringing of these disparate periods into focus is perhaps the greatest of the novel's emotional accomplishments. The knowledge of when things take place feels like it can suffocate you in the novel's excellent final act. We're returned over and over again to the letters that Daniel's father sends him from a voyage that mirrors both Orpheus' descent into the underworld and Ahab's trek to find the white whale.
In these letters, the man sounds mad. His ravings offer the greatest clue to the novel's ambition. It is suggested in these letters that somehow, stories are realer than reality. The very act of telling a story is in a very real way creating truth. These ravings are abutted with Lydia's own academic obsession with parallel worlds. We are told that the act of telling the story, hearing the story, and being a part of the story are all the same. The author, audience, and character are just aspects of the same.
This is reflected in a moment towards the end of the novel, where the parallel story, the story of a young girl named Pearl, comes to its close. On a fantastic island that she discovered in a book of fairy tales, she is reunited with her mother, and together they peer downward into the reflection of a pond, wherein they see Daniel, in his classroom, gazing at a Pearl sitting in the middle of a desk. The stories have crashed into one another. Stories-within-stories are everywhere. Throughout, Daniel is working on his first novel, also called An Impenetrable Screen of Purest Sky. But it is not the same novel as the one I dog-eared and scribbled in. Even, in his final act in the book, as he erases the novel and starts over, it remains a different novel.
I wonder what parts of the book I'd just read were deleted, too. This is one of the ways that the book succeeds.
Clearly, this book is wild and ambitious, and at some points it feels like its ambition outpaces the execution. (This review, in attempting to describe the novel, feels like a rant itself.) But this book is aware of that, despises that. It is a book that wants itself to be simpler. Through much of the book, the characters don't feel like characters at all, but more like masks that the reader can place over the faces of the corresponding person in their life. Allen the father-type. Lydia the lover-type. Ishmael the son-type. This is a result of the inward nature of Daniel's personality. This is, perhaps, the way he sees them. And, after all, the fractured narrative, the long asides, the overwrought and sometimes over-the-top prose, are all results of Daniel.
And in the end he deletes it all, disgusted with what he has written. The characters themselves fight to be defined. They want to be chiseled out of the ten feet of hard prose that surrounds them. As mentioned, the title of the novel comes from an Emerson quote that Daniel references, and is presented as a great irony. Emerson saw sky as a sheet hanging over the world. But Lydia, the astronomer, teaches us the truth.
Sky is not impenetrable, not a sheet at all. It is a depth, like the ocean is a depth, and in that depth there are countless worlds. Worlds that could be fiction if they weren't so real. Towards the beginning, Daniel's father tells him the story of a giant who pulled out his own heart. His eyes get smaller and smaller until he can't tell night from day. So the giant lies down and trees and grass and moss grow on top of it, until it's not discernible from an ordinary hill. The people that walk by the hill every day don't know, can't know that the hill is a giant. Only the birds know. At the foot of this hill, the people build a schoolhouse.
He doesn't tell his son the end of the story. “The rest,” he says, “is in your dreams.” And maybe that is true for us, too. We are given an ending, and it is at that moment that the novel feels like it finally collapses in on itself, and lets you see it clearly.
Dan Beachy-Quick is the author of five books of poetry, most recently Circle's Apprentice; two books of prose, A Whaler's Dictionary and Wonderful Investigations; as well as a number of chapbooks and two collaborations, Conversities (with Srikanth Reddy) and Work from Memory (with Matthew Goulish). He teaches in the MFA program at Colorado State University, and lives in Fort Collins, Colorado, with his wife and two daughters.