If our lives are lived, as William James claimed, “upon the front edge of an advancing wave-crest” that pulls us blindly into the future, then death is the ultimate and inevitable crash upon the shore. This sudden absence creates a rift, a seeming absurdity, too, as the deceased continues to live on in memory. The questions that arise in death’s wake can be maddening. What became of this person, this life? How can he be here one minute, and then gone forever the next?
Azareen Van der Vliet Oloomi’s first novel, Fra Keeler, begins with this endpoint in mind. Fra Keeler has died, and the unnamed narrator moves into his house to become the self-appointed investigator of Fra Keeler’s death. He considers, in retrospect: “. . . it is the same thought since I left the realtor’s office: some people’s deaths need to be thoroughly investigated, and, Yes, I think then, Yes: I bought this home in order to fully investigate Fra Keeler’s death.” This is no routine investigation, however, as precious few details about the past, characters, and plot are revealed. We know little about the death other than its cause: lung cancer, and location: the Netherlands, and that there’s a discrepancy even in this detail. Of Fra Keeler’s life, we know even less. The narrator’s connection remains a mystery except that he, the narrator, hasn’t been the same since Fra Keeler’s “timely and magnificent” death. But in what way was it timely or magnificent?
In this sense, the novel’s beginnings seem to ascribe to the tenets of the nouveau roman outlined by French author Alain Robbe-Grillet nearly sixty years ago. In his For a New Novel, he grapples with how the novel can remain relevant in an age when “tell[ing] a story has become strictly impossible.” The new novel values the material world of objects and surfaces over psychological depth, and seeks out more relevant structures. Though while the first of these holds true for Fra Keeler—the narrator is unable to piece together a coherent narrative, that is, discover the “truth” about Fra Keeler’s death—this novel is very much concerned with life’s psychological underpinnings, so much so that the majority of action is entrenched within the narrator’s mind.
Fra Keeler falls within its own more contemporary lineage, too, as part of the esteemed catalog of books published by Danielle Dutton’s Dorothy Project, now entering its fifth year. Dorothy Project is dedicated to publishing works of fiction or “near-fiction” written “mostly by women” and that uphold two standards: the books must be “uniquely themselves” and in this uniqueness they must persuade the reader of their inherent wonderfulness. This is very much true of Amina Cain’s Creature, whose stories take form like latticework structures, whose open spaces are filled with imagination and life, as well as of the three books in Renee Gladman’s Ravicka trilogy, concerned with the architectures of space and absence and language. Dutton’s own novel Sprawl (though published by Siglio) must be included in this lineage, too, as it shares this conern for space and for carving out narrative suited to the novel’s internal logic, in this case, stitched-together suburban lawns and sidewalks and houses and hearths and the lives that unfold around and within them.
And this holds true for Fra Keeler, which follows suit in its concern for space and absence, of mapping the space of a mind and grappling with Fra Keeler’s continued presence in memory and perhaps even in his energy, despite his physical absence. Fra Keeler may masquerade as a mystery but it soon reveals its true ambition as the investigation of experience, investigating the action of thoughts, and specifically, a mind on the brink of madness. Fra Keeler’s death becomes an obsession, a noise that bleeds into every crevice of the narrator’s being. His thoughts continually circle back to Fra Keeler: “Fra Keeler, Time and Place of Death, I thought, and the sky clammed up,” and later: “So much noise after a death, so much sound to a death, and it was calling me, the noise of it all . . .” When a mysterious yurt appears just beyond his window, he thinks: “I should go in—there is information to be gathered.” It’s as if Fra Keeler’s death has subsumed the past, and the narrator is still reeling.
His paucity of words, and his stilted interactions all seem to reveal the ways he’s been jarred by this wave’s crash. I say “seem to” because it’s impossible to draw conclusions with any certainty. But just witness: When the phone rings persistently, he answers, hangs up, and it rings again. All the while he assumes it’s the mailman calling, the mailman who had just delivered a package from Ancestry.com: “‘Welcome,’ the voice said, and I felt my mouth fat and milky around my tongue. I thought goats, a thousand goats, walking across my mind, milk the goats, I thought, and they kept walking across my mind. ‘Welcome to Ancestry.com,’ said the voice, and I thought what the hell is this, and I threw the receiver against the wall and then the phone rang, two rings, nothing more. I picked up. ‘Welcome to Ancestry.com,’ the voice said, “Press one.’ I said, ‘You piece of shit mailman,” and heard the words come out of my mouth.” As in Knut Hamsun’s Hunger, all action is filtered through the narrator’s delusional mind. The reader is confined to his vagaries of thought, his obsession with finding connections, his faulty perception. It’s maddening to read, and yet such a pleasure.
Much of the delight and confusion of this book resides in its utter madness, in the way a mind unspools on the page, the way that the reader becomes entrapped within the narrator’s delusions and misled conclusions. There is logic to the madness—a skewed logic—but logic nonetheless. He mutters, “Fra Keeler,” like a constant drip, and he’s preoccupied with retracing events. He’s so caught up in pinpointing the truth that he develops an obsession with fingers and hands—from the realtor’s ugly finger, to the mailman’s fat, boiled hand, to later thinking of the same realtor’s finger as snakelike, which leads to looking for snakes under bushes, followed by spotting a snakelike cloud in the sky. At times his observations are on the verge of brilliance: “in every moment, at the same time that we exist, we also do not exist, because our potential death, and within it our exact death, is right up against us. We are continually disappearing.” In other moments, he seems paranoid: “thoughts get passed from brain to brain,” he deduces, “so that our thoughts are only a repetition of someone else’s thoughts.” At times the world spins, his blood boils, and a yurt appears beyond his window that he’s inexplicably drawn to, and there he surrenders to madness.
His few interactions with others are terse and idiosyncratic, accompanied by an elaborate and often amusing string of commentary within his mind. When the mailman compliments his plants, he thinks, “If that’s what he had wanted to say why had it taken him so long to say it? Maybe he had wanted to say something else, something along the lines of you don’t look so good, Mister, but had regretted it, shoved the thought and all the words that went along with it back into his head and said the thing about the plants instead.” Nothing is as simple as its surface suggests. Every interaction and every point of engagement has an undercurrent of meaning and intent that can only be guessed at.
His methods of investigation are questionable at best, his sources of information erratic. He moves into Fra Keeler’s house to investigate the death more thoroughly, and also the string of “unfriendly” events that have taken place in its wake. When he sits with papers and sorts through details regarding the death, they’re inconsequential. He considers: “Hospital records do not reflect the whole truth, nothing close to it. How is one to make sense of the facts that are listed when the deceased person’s place of birth and death are so distant from one another?” Facts are inadequate when describing the arc of a life, when attempting to approximate its depth, meaning, shape, tenor, tenacity, and energy. From this dead end the investigation turns into a kind of philosophical inquiry.
Whether or not Van der Vliet Oloomi was thinking of William James’ writing on the nature of life and experience, their shared concerns are worth investigating. James writes of the many possible lives that could stretch between the fixed points of birth and death in “A World of Pure Experience”: they constitute a “quasi-chaos through which one can pass out of an initial term in many directions and yet end in the same terminus, moving from next to next by a great many possible paths.”
It’s this quasi-chaos and all of the potentiality that sends Van der Vliet Oloomi’s narrator aflutter. He believes it’s only from the endpoint that the meaning of a life can be discerned: “One event stands in relation to another in the same way that it is in relation to a third event. And a fourth and a fifth as well. So that your whole life is a string of events taking form in a backward manner.” He’s continuously retracing lines backward from a present that’s always slipping, grasping at random details as if every portent might be significant. In contrast to James’s insistence that “we commit ourselves to the current as if the port were sure,” the narrator is always looking back over his shoulder, reevaluating the tenuous connections he’s made, unable to navigate what lies ahead.
He’s paralyzed by mapping the chaos of the potential—all of the potential lives that Fra Keeler might have led, all of the potential deaths that he himself still faces, all of the potential motives behind every action and every word, all of the potential stories in the world. How can anything of importance be discerned when there are endless possibilities? But even he concedes that there is a space where potentiality meets reality. And it seems that when these other potentials become more potent than the real, this is where true madness lies.
And then there is the space that a thought occupies. The phrase “I thought” is a constant refrain. Actions do take place, and some are significant and with consequence, but thought is the action and through line in this novel. In this sense Fra Keeler aligns itself with Clarice Lispector’s Passion According to G.H.,—another book whose advancement relies on the progression of ideas and thoughts running through the narrator’s mind, where it takes nearly two hundred pages for the narrator to cross a room. Plot and action aren’t meant to create narrative momentum. What matters is tracing the movement of the mind while considering the essence of being, passion, life. Privileging thought over action is an argument that its movement is as true as the movement of a body swimming through water. It’s an acknowledgement that every life plays out within the space of a mind.
In Fra Keeler, thoughts often possess physical qualities, words are sometimes objects—as when looking at his plants and thinking of the mailman’s face, the word “sidelong” creeps toward the narrator “like a worm.” Thoughts can be touched and probed, and can have a mind of their own: “they exist before you, I told myself, picking the thought up again, and by some trick of the mind you think it was your thought, and you drag it out, a thread as long as your DNA, and you push it back against your finger and say, ‘Ah, yes: This is my thought,’ and it breathes back against your finger, and you are very satisfied, you and the thought together, you thinking the thought is yours and the thought thinking back at you, right up against your finger.”
What is the line between sanity and madness? In Fra Keeler, it’s a thinner line than we’re generally willing to acknowledge. This narrator falls into the abyss, but the quality of his thoughts offer often overlooked glimpses into the mysteries of existence. When considered in sequence, thoughts accumulate, change direction, diverge, and chart new paths. And if thoughts have material qualities, then they become as real and tangible as the surfaces we encounter in our everyday existence. And so Fra Keeler’s preoccupation with thought isn’t launched as an attempt to plumb depths but rather a way to regard the many-faceted mind.
Williams James also writes of the same preoccupations and mysteries, of time and memory, of moving forward into the future, and of life as an encounter with an ever-shifting reality: “If we do not feel both past and present in one field of feeling, we feel them not at all. We have the same many-in-one in the matter that fills the passing time. The rush of our thought forward through its fringes is the everlasting peculiarity of its life. We realize this life as something always off its balance, something in transition, something that shoots out of a darkness through a dawn into a brightness that we feel to be the dawn fulfilled. In the very midst of the continuity our experience comes as an alteration. ‘Yes,’ we say at the full brightness, ‘this is what I just meant.’ ‘No,’ we feel at the dawning, ‘this is not yet the full meaning, there is more to come.’” It’s uncanny to note that James also experienced a mental breakdown on the heels of the death of his cousin Minny Temple, to whom he was exceedingly close, possibly in love. Maybe the tendency toward madness in the face of a loss results from watching an intimate and seemingly integral part of one’s mental landscape fall away? It also suggests that there’s wisdom to be salvaged from these encounters.
Ultimately, Fra Keeler’s preoccupation with thought and a mind’s unraveling reminds us that we’re each ensconced within our own mind, we’re stationed behind the window of our own perceptions, perhaps never truly knowing anything beyond ourselves. There’s something magical and mad in this. Fra Keeler suggests that losing someone close is like losing part of oneself, breaking with a known reality. In the face of an inconceivable loss, there are no answers to be found, just a cascade of questions. And yet this kind of encounter is also possible within a novel, where a progression of thoughts and interactions play out on the page. That’s the triumph of this novel, to animate the movement of a mind, and in this case, a mind plummeting into the abyss of madness while struggling to maintain its grip. There is mystery within Fra Keeler and it largely remains a mystery—about Fra Keeler, and just where did he die? Isn’t that the way of life? What do we ever truly know beyond our own thoughts and encounters? Who needs the certainty of such details to keep reading when there is so much else to consider?
Anne K. Yoder's fiction and nonfiction have appeared in Fence, Bomb, and Tin House, among other publications. She is a staff writer at The Millions, a member of Meekling Press, and co-editrix of Projecttile. She currently lives in Chicago, where she’s at work on a novel.