Dan Beachy-Quick's debut novel is an impressionistic story about a disillusioned man trying to reconcile a complicated relationship with his father. Actually, that's a description of Terrence Malick's 2011 film “The Tree of Life,” but it similarly applies to “An Impenetrable Screen of Purest Sky.”
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When Coffee House Press publisher Chris Fischbach first encountered the ruminative, nonlinear novel, he quickly saw connections to the Malick movie, noting both works' appealing ambition and "visionary strangeness and beauty." Both, we'd add, are unconventionally told, labyrinthine, preoccupied with the cosmos and operating on their own syntax. Not easy-breezy, in other words, but the best fall releases rarely are.
Beachy-Quick's syntax announces itself on Page 1, in a sentence so long and crammed with subordinate clauses that to read it is to understand you'll probably need to reread it to understand it: "The chair — a man so deeply versed in theory that, caught in the analytic rigor of a minor point in Borges (what kind of shoes the librarians wore …) wouldn't notice that the toothpick he kept twirling had some minutes ago lost its shrimp, which, in his half-agitated foot-tapping, he was grinding into paste on the antique rug ..." and so on.
The toothpick-twirling subject here is a department chairman at a college who gives the novel a whiff of ivory-tower erudition but isn't a key character. The protagonist of this autobiographical novel is Daniel, a teacher at said college, who's consumed with trying to finish his novel — this novel — incorporating fairy tales; literary allusions; a myth-obsessed absentee father; a long-gone sister and mother; Lydia, his down-to-earth physicist lover; a serious Moby Dick obsession; an even more serious tendency toward introspection; memory; the unreliability of memory; and Pearl. We don't know a lot about Pearl, except that she's a little girl who — in more abstract, symbolism-heavy chapters — explores the ocean under her bed. Speaking of symbols, there are many: whales, mirrors, pearls, glass, clocks, books, weaving and the multiverse.
Do you follow? That's OK, Daniel isn't sure he does either, often questioning where the threads of his story are going, if anywhere: "a novel whose taproot (digs) down into fairy tale, but from that root, split(s), rhizome-like, erupting out of the ground in shoots and leaves that seem wholly unconnected to their source." It's a book aware of itself, like Italo Calvino's "If on a winter's night a traveler" or, to use a more recent example, the self-reflexive "Percival Everett by Virgil Russell" by Percival Everett.
Even if you didn't know that Beachy-Quick is a poet (the Chicago-born author has written five collections), there are signs in "An Impenetrable Screen." Like other poets-turned-novelists, he doubts his ability to craft a plot and writes with heightened lyricism, an ear for rhythm and rich sensory detail. When he talks about the weather, you can feel it in your bones: "The night was bitterly cold. No stars. A kind of brittle fog, unique to our landscape, had settled in. The streetlamps with their cloudlike nimbus lit the walkway."
Not every sentence is a Henry James-style epic stuffed with detail (thankfully). But what's apparent throughout — in this story that opens in a library, ends in an academic office and brims with literary allusions — is the author's love of language. There are flashes of poetry, analyses of classic texts and snippets of writing by famous authors folded into the narrative ("But life is elsewhere," Daniel says at one point — a nod to Milan Kundera).
This isn't the first time Beachy-Quick has pursued "Moby-Dick" in his writing. In 2008, he wrote an experimental, philosophical essay collection about the white whale, "A Whaler's Dictionary." At times, the narrative almost drowns in overly obvious symbolism: a character named Ishmael, for instance, and a sea of pearl metaphors. But what's successful about "An Impenetrable Screen" is that it never loses sight of its story, despite its obsessive analysis of storytelling. There are real characters, Lydia being the most fleshed-out among them (the chapters about her are a welcome reprieve from Daniel's hyper-introspection, his mind's hall of mirrors). There is tension and dramatic arc. There is — spoiler alert — a real ending.
When the credits rolled on "The Tree of Life," my friend's mom felt compelled to yell in the theater, "What a piece of garbage!" Some will find "An Impenetrable Screen" similarly impenetrable. Others will appreciate the fact that for a novel about something as heady as the "fiction of the self," its disparate threads — allusive, philosophical, observational or otherwise — are often quite beautiful. Dive in, and beneath Beachy-Quick's carefully sculpted language, you'll find a love story.
Laura Pearson is a Chicago-based journalist specializing in arts and culture reporting.
"An Impenetrable Screen of Purest Sky"
By Dan Beachy-Quick, Coffee House, 232 pages, $15.95