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FICTION: A Liberating Trap

The Book From the Sky
Robert Kelly
North Atlantic Books, 2008

Like any interesting enterprise, Robert Kelly’s The Book from the Sky, a pataphysical novel with the ostensible feel of a made-for-TV sci-fi movie, is iffy. “I’m on my way back,” the preface begins; “I was one of the first they took away. It wasn’t from New Mexico or any desert though I was there later. All of them, your Roswell and your lake of Hali and your Gobi, don’t worry.”

Cover and book design by Paula Morrison.
Cover and book design by Paula Morrison.

On one level, the book is an attempt to combine a cliché—the abduction story—with a system of serious propositions about reality. The abducting aliens speak, and intend to teach their abductee Billy (who the aliens “copy,” creating an earth-bound impostor Billy, in addition to the real Billy) “a language that is, you would say, before and inside all other languages.” This stage of Billy’s instruction is a sort of phenomenological cleansing of the slate; through his education, the book imagines its way through a variety of investigations into the nature of language and reality.

The author uses a science-fiction formula with an intention that goes beyond justifying the inclusion of aliens in his story. Why does the book undermine itself by dabbling in pulp? In doing so, the book clarifies the fact that a story is arbitrary, is in the end a necessity that is somehow beside the point. In the preface, the protagonist claims his task is to “talk to you until you think your words are coming from the core of yourself. Until you think you are thinking.” This book wants to be questionable, and remain so; mistrust of its content is central to its ultimate message.

All abduction fables posit the idea that the world as we know it is too familiar, and that the familiar itself is just as arbitrary and enigmatic as the absurd; in that case the mingling of a questionably obvious science fiction story with cosmological exploration is logical to this book’s argument. It’s also a good way to sabotage not so much the redundant genre of “Science Fiction” (why bother with that?), but the redundant and tired worldview that creates the need for such escapism in the first place. Reality itself, it turns out, can be just as much a cliché as the anonymous, over-lit characters on daytime TV. The Book from the Sky argues that the apparitions through which realness is supposedly mediated amount to so many images hijacking the mind: “A window was there, open on a wonderful landscape. The landscape disappeared and the wind slowly tapered off. What I thought was a window had been just a screen, only one more image.”

An image hard to let go of, but the intention of this author is to, I think, lead the reader to a fruitful re-imagining of the facts that make up experience. The limitations of a known world are most often apparent when some other-worldly world—one systematically kept off the premises of the known—is somehow allowed to invade the world one recognizes. One way to make this happen is to invent a fiction about what you don’t (think you) know, and then see what happens to what you supposedly do know.

Without a doubt, The Book from the Sky traffics in the same shady business of deception and trickery any well-written novel would; at the same time, it breeds a healthy suspicion in the reader. The novel delights in its symptoms and delusions even as it attempts to inspect and clarify them. If the author has taken a risk, the reader has taken one too, and part of the book’s generosity comes from the language itself, not just from the person who supposedly wrote it. Like the abduction—by which the protagonist is ultimately (perhaps even tragically) liberated—this book is a trap. But it is a trap built with empathy, structured in such a way that it can teach you how to free yourself from it.

As they wind their way through a plot including divine aliens, mystery cults and an odd instruction manual for the soul, the two mirrored characters Billy and Jack achieve the annihilation of the book, its overall conceit, and theoretical position. The confusion that remains creates the very opposite of a cathartic conclusion. To allow such turbulence to endure is the book’s ultimate generosity.


Roger Van Voorhees

Roger Van Voorhees is a poet in New York who lives with a young cat named Lillith.


The Brooklyn Rail

SEPT 2009

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