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Wednesday, March 26, 2008

Fantastic Fiction

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Whether exploring the constructs of an overwrought imagination or the disorienting results of an alien visitation, the fantastical collides with the mundane in the works of two young writers coming to Milwaukee this week. View From the Seventh Layer is a new collection of solemn and often beautiful short stories by award-winning writer Kevin Brockmeier. Like much of his work, it straddles the boundary between fantasy and literary fiction. “My perspective is that the best of science fantasy and fiction has every bit as much complexity and character depth as the best literary fiction does,” Brockmeier says. “It’s never seemed obvious to me that there needs to be a hard and fast divide between the two forms of writing.”

The title story concerns a young woman who clings lightly and somewhat reverentially to an increasingly slippery present. We are offered little snatches of a more rooted existence she enjoyed prior to a visitation she received from an unknown entity. In “The Year of Silence,” Brockmeier’s words tread almost as lightly as the characters seeking to cocoon themselves in the strange swaths of silence that befall them. In the last story, a character inadvertently acquires God’s overcoat and is surprised to find slips of paper in the pockets, each carrying a prayer. “There was a tone of quiet intimacy to the notes, a starkness,” the narrator says. The same might easily be applied to Brockmeier’s own slender and solemn prose. Meanwhile, Tod Wodicka’s debut novel couldn’t be more removed from Brockmeier’s hushed tones. The munificently titled All Shall Be Well; and All Shall Be Well; and All Manner of Things Shall Be Well is named after a chant uttered by a medieval mystic, Julian of Norwich, and captures the deluded and desperate optimism of the main character, Burt Hecker, who bears an uncommon vice: He increasingly seeks to disengage himself from his 20th-century present in favor a medieval past.

“I wanted to write about a medieval re-enactor…and basically rip apart 20th-century America through the eyes of someone who doesn’t belong,” Wodicka says about the initial impulse behind his novel. However, as the character develops, he gradually becomes as tragic as he is ridiculous, imposing his elaborate rituals on his family and gradually alienating them entirely as he seeks solace in the past.

“I can identify with that quite a lot—kind of an American rootlessness … where I grew up, I felt a real disconnect, and no sense of history at all,” Wodicka explains. He says that the displacement suffered by his characters is endemic to contemporary American society.

“We’re all stuck in a weird present,” Wodicka says. “Everyone tries to form their own niche, to hold onto something, and people can get lost in that.” Both Wodicka and Brockmeier will be coming to Harry W. Schwartz Bookshop on Downer Avenue, March 27, at 7 p.m. You can read interviews with both of the authors at www.expressmilwaukee.com—just click on the Books tab in the Arts and Entertainment section and scroll down to Author Interviews.
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