The View from the Seventh Layer
by Kevin Brockmeier
The Year
(click here)
Reviewed by Ted Gioia

Several of the short stories included in Kevin Brockmeier's
The View from the Seventh Layer are labeled by the
author as 'fables'. It's a peculiar choice of labels—my handy
reference book tells me that a fable is a short story designed to
teach a moral lesson to children.  But Brockmeier is a peculiar
writer, and the odd titles of his tales are very much aligned with
their equally unconventional content.

In truth, the fable has always been much
more than a children's tale. The translators
of the King James Bible used the term
'fable' where, nowadays we might refer to
'myth'.  In the second epistle of Peter, we
read of "cunningly devised fables," and
the implication is that these kinds of
stories are not just fanciful, but also
dangerous and deceptively beguiling.  
A host of influential modern authors—
George Orwell, José Saramago, Italo
Calvino, Franz Kafka—have either
implicitly or explicitly drawn on fabulistic
techniques in crafting tales that are
anything but child's play.  The fable, in
other words, need not be restricted to
The Book of Virtues, and
might even have more in common with books of vice.

The fables in Brockmeier's collection are populated by two types
of individuals: those who perceive the magical and transcendent
world that surrounds them, and those who go through their day-to-
day routines oblivious to it—unaware, apparently, that there is
anything 'fabulous' (from the Latin
fabulosus, of mythical
proportions) in their purview.  "Once there was a city where
people did not look one another in the eye," begins Brockmeier's
story "A Fable Containing a Reflection the Size of a Match Head
in its Pupil."  Here citizens walk with heads cast downward, and
when they pose for photos they look off to the side.  But even in
this culture of isolation and avoidance, a few daring souls will risk
furtive gazes at a loved one or even engage in forbidden staring

In Brockmeier’s "A Fable Ending in the Sound of a Thousand
Parakeets" a mute suffers because he can never express his
innate gift for song.  Instead he focuses his passion into raising
parakeets, song-loving creatures who chirrup happily in a
way he can not.  He finds endless joy and solace in the birds,
and eager to share his enthusiasm, he shows up at all festive
occasions—weddings, birthdays, graduations, and other such
affairs—with a parakeet in a bamboo cage to offer as a gift. Here,
in typical Brockmeier fashion, only a few recipients appreciate the
wondrous quality of the gift, while others "had little interest in
keeping a pet, but were too polite to tell him so. They stowed the
parakeets away in a dimly-lit corner of their spare bedroom, or
even set them loose in the woods at the edge of town."  The
fabulous, like beauty, is in the eye (and ear) of the beholder.

In the longest and most ambitious story in this collection,
Brockmeier takes this insight to its perhaps less-than-obvious
conclusion, and decides to let readers construct their own
preferred narrative out of 33 story fragments.  In this novella,
entitled "The Human Soul as a Rube Goldberg Device," the
reader must choose between two options at the end of every
two pages.  The tale is continued on a different page, and
proceeds in a different manner, depending on which alternative
is selected.  Consider this as the fictional equivalent of Robert
Frost's "The Road Not Taken," but with the advantage of allowing
readers to go back later and see where different decisions might
have brought them.

But here Brockmeier gets the last laugh.  The reader's freedom
to choose is an illusion.  No matter which options are selected,
every reader ends up at the same less-than-desirable end point.   
To add to the fun, Brockmeier does insert one dead end in the
middle of his story fragments, but like a secret chamber in a
maze, only the most perceptive readers will find their way to it.  
Apparently Brockmeier's readers, much like his characters, either
will see the fabulous that is plain sight, or continue onward unaware
of what they've just missed.  

Brockmeier is part of a larger movement in contemporary fiction
that is rebelling against the dictates of 'realism' that have so long
dominated highbrow literature.  Like others of this persuasion—
such as
Haruki Murakami, Jonathan Lethem, Steven Millhauser,
Téa Obreht, David Mitchell, Hari Kunzru, Audrey Niffenegger, and
others—he refuses to recognize the boundary lines that separate
genre from literary fiction.  In the course of
The View from the
Seventh Layer
, you will encounter elements of fantasy, science
fiction, ghost stories, magical realism, and other non-realist or
anti-realist categories.  Much of the fun of this work comes from
its author’s willingness to trample on the rules taught in MFA
creative writing programs.

Brockmeier even embraces that lowliest genre of all genres,
namely fan fiction.  In "The Lady with the Pet Tribble," he
constructs a mid-life crisis story built around characters from
the TV show
Star Trek. In a move that could kill the reputation of
a lesser author, Brockmeier pulls off the unthinkable, and not only
delivers a tale of great warmth and psychological depth, but does
so via the persona of Captain James Kirk.  I won’t give away
details, but suffice to say that you will never look at William
Shatner the same way again.

If Brockmeier can salvage shallow TV characters, there’s no
telling what he might not do with more promising material.  I
have a hunch that this writer, only 35 years old when this
collection was released, merely hints at, in these pages, his
full potential.   Under any circumstances, he would be an author
to keep tabs on, but especially so, given the shifts underway in
contemporary fiction.  If, as I suspect, the arbiters of taste on the
current day literary scene are (finally!) grasping that the fantastic
and phantasmagorical aren't just for kids, they owe it to them-
selves to take heed of this visionary storyteller, who has already
made the leap into the absolutely fabulous.

Published: December 12, 2012

Ted Gioia writes on music, literature, and popular culture. His
newest book is
The Jazz Standards: A Guide to the Repertoire.
Click on image to purchase
conceptual fiction
Exploring the Non-Realist Tradition in Fiction
Welcome to my year of magical
reading.  Each week during the
course of 2012,  I will explore an
important work of fiction that
incorporates elements of magic,
fantasy or the surreal.  My choices
will cross conventional boundary
lines of genre, style and historical
period—indeed, one of my intentions
in this project is to show how the
conventional labels applied to these
works have become constraining,
deadening and misleading.

In its earliest days, storytelling almost
always partook of the magical. Only
in recent years have we segregated
works arising from this venerable
tradition into publishing industry
categories such as "magical realism"
or "paranormal" or "fantasy" or some
other 'genre' pigeonhole. These
labels are not without their value, but
too often they have blinded us to the
rich and multidimensional heritage
beyond category that these works

This larger heritage is mimicked in
our individual lives: most of us first
experienced the joys of narrative
fiction through stories of myth and
magic, the fanciful and
phantasmagorical; but only a very
few retain into adulthood this sense
of the kind of enchantment possible
only through storytelling.  As such,
revisiting this stream of fiction from a
mature, literate perspective both
broadens our horizons and allows us
to recapture some of that magic in
our imaginative lives.

The Year of Magical Reading:

Week 1:
Midnight's Children by
Salman Rushdie

Week 2:  The House of the Spirits by
Isabel Allende

Week 3:  The Witches of Eastwick
John Updike

Week 4:  Magic for Beginners by
Kelly Link

Week 5:  The Tin Drum by Günter

Week 6:  The Golden Ass by

Week 7:  The Tiger's Wife by Téa

Week 8:  One Hundred Years of
Solitude  by Gabriel García Márquez

Week 9:  The Book of Laughter and
Forgetting by Milan Kundera

Week 10: Gargantua and Pantagruel
François Rabelais

Week 11: The Famished Road by
Ben Okri

Week 12: Like Water for Chocolate
Laura Esquivel

Week 13: Winter's Tale by Mark

Week 14: Dhalgren by Samuel R.

Week 15:  Johnathan Strange & Mr.
Norrell by Susanna Clarke

Week 16:  The Master and
Margarita by Mikhail Bulgakov

Week 17:  Dangerous Laughter by
Steven Millhauser

Week 18:  Conjure Wife by Fritz

Week 19:  1Q84 by Haruki Murakami

Week 20:  The Hobbit by J.R.R.

Week 21:  Aura by Carlos Fuentes

Week 22:  Dr. Faustus by Thomas

Week 23:  Orlando by Virginia Woolf

Week 24:  Little, Big by John Crowley

Week 25:  The White Hotel by D.M.

Week 26:  Neverwhere by Neil

Week 27:  Alice's Adventures in
Wonderland by Lewis Carroll

Week 28:  Fifth Business by
Robertson Davies

Week 29:  The Kingdom of This
World by Alejo Carpentier

Week 30:  The Bear Comes Home
by R
afi Zabor

Week 31:  The Color of Magic by
Terry Pratchett

Week 32:  Ficciones by Jorge Luis

Week 33:  Beloved by Toni Morrison

Week 34:  Dona Flor and Her Two
Husbands by Jorge Amado

Week 35:  Hard-Boiled Wonderland
and the End of the World by Haruki

Week 36:  What Dreams May Come
by Richard Matheson

Week 37:  Practical Magic by Alice

Week 38:  Blindess by José

Week 39:  The Fortress of Solitude
by J
onathan Lethem

Week 40:  The Magicians by Lev

Week 41:  Suddenly, A Knock at the
Door by Etgar Keret

Week 42:  Cloudstreet by Tim Winton

Week 43:  The Obscene Bird of
NIght by José Donoso

Week 44:  The Fifty Year Sword by
Mark Z. Danielewski

Week 45:  Gulliver's Travels by
Jonathan Swift

Week 46:  Harry Potter and the
Sorcerer's Stone by J.K. Rowling

Week 47:  The End of the Affair by
Graham Greene

Week 48:  The Chronicles of Narnia
by C
.S. Lewis

Week 49:  Hieroglyphic Tales by
Horace Walpole

Week 50:  The View from the
Seventh Layer by Kevin Brockmeier

Week 51:  Gods Without Men by
Hari Kunzru

Week 52:  At Swim-Two-Birds by
Flann O'Brien
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Conceptual Fiction:
A Reading List
(with links to essays on each work)

Home Page

Abbott, Edwin A.

Adams, Douglas
The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy

Aldiss, Brian
Barefoot in the Head

Aldiss, Brian

Aldiss, Brian
Report on Probability A

Allende, Isabel
The House of the Spirits

Amado, Jorge
Dona Flor and Her Two Husbands

Amis, Martin
Time's Arrow

The Golden Ass

Asimov, Isaac
The Foundation Trilogy

Asimov, Isaac
I, Robot

Atwood, Margaret
The Handmaid's Tale

Banks, Iain M.
The State of the Art

Ballard, J.G.
The Atrocity Exhibition

Ballard, J.G.

Ballard, J.G.
The Crystal World

Ballard, J.G.
The Drowned World

Barth, John
Giles Goat-Boy

Bester, Alfred
The Demolished Man

Blish, James
A Case of Conscience

Borges, Jorge Luis

Bradbury, Ray
Dandelion Wine

Bradbury, Ray
Fahrenheit 451

Bradbury, Ray
The Illustrated Man

Bradbury, Ray
The Martian Chronicles

Bradbury, Ray
Something Wicked This Way Comes

Brockmeier, Kevin
The View from the Seventh Layer

Bulgakov, Mikhail
The Master and Margarita

Bunch, David R.

Burgess, Anthony
A Clockwork Orange

Card, Orson Scott
Ender's Game

Carpentier, Alejo
The Kingdom of This World

Carroll, Lewis
Alice's Adventures in Wonderland

Chabon, Michael
The Yiddish Policemen's Union

Chiang, Ted
Stories of Your Life and Others

Clarke, Arthur C.
Childhood's End

Clarke, Arthur C.
A Fall of Moondust

Clarke, Arthur C.
2001: A Space Odyssey

Clarke, Susanna
Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell

Crowley, John
Little, Big

Danielewski, Mark Z.
The Fifty Year Sword

Danielewski, Mark Z.
House of Leaves

Davies, Robertson
Fifth Business

Delany, Samuel R.

Delany, Samuel R.

Delany, Samuel R.
The Einstein Intersection

Delany, Samuel R.

Dick, Philip K.
Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?

Dick, Philip K.
Flow My Tears, the Policeman Said

Dick, Philip K.
The Man in the High Castle

Dick, Philip K.

Dick, Philip K.

Disch, Thomas M.
Camp Concentration

Disch, Thomas M.
The Genocides

Doctorow, Cory
Down and Out in the Magic Kingdom

Donoso, José
The Obscene Bird of Night

Ellison, Harlan (editor)
Dangerous Visions

Ellison, Harlan
I Have No Mouth & I Must Scream

Esquivel, Laura
Like Water for Chocolate

Farmer, Philip José
To Your Scattered Bodies Go

Fuentes, Carlos

Gaiman, Neil
American Gods

Gaiman, Neil

Gibson, William
Burning Chrome

Gibson, William

Grass, Günter
The Tin Drum

Greene, Graham
The End of the Affair

Grossman, Lev
The Magicians

Haldeman, Joe
The Forever War

Hall, Steven
The Raw Shark Texts

Harrison, M. John
The Centauri Device

Harrison, M. John

Heinlein, Robert
The Moon is a Harsh Mistress

Heinlein, Robert:
Stranger in a Strange Land

Heinlein, Robert
Time Enough for Love

Helprin, Mark
Winter's Tale

Herbert, Frank

Hoffman, Alice
Practical Magic

Huxley, Aldous
Brave New World

Keret, Etgar
Suddenly, A Knock at the Door

Keyes, Daniel
Flowers for Algernon

Kundera, Milan
The Book of Laughter and Forgetting

Kunzru, Hari
Gods Without Men

Lafferty, R.A.
Nine Hundred Grandmothers

Le Guin, Ursula K.
The Dispossessed

Le Guin, Ursula K.
The Lathe of Heaven

Le Guin, Ursula K.
The Left Hand of Darkness

Leiber, Fritz
The Big Time

Leiber, Fritz
Conjure Wife

Leiber, Fritz
Swords & Deviltry

Leiber, Fritz
The Wanderer

Lem, Stanislaw
His Master's Voice

Lem, Stanislaw

Lethem, Jonathan
The Fortress of Solitude

Lewis, C. S.
The Chronicles of Narnia

Link, Kelly
Magic for Beginners

Malzberg, Barry N.
Herovit's World

Mann, Thomas
Doctor Faustus

Márquez, Gabriel García
100 Years of Solitude

Markson, David
Wittgenstein's Mistress

Matheson, Richard
Hell House

Matheson, Richard
What Dreams May Come

McCarthy, Cormac
The Road

Miéville, China
Perdido Street Station

Miller, Jr., Walter M.
A Canticle for Leibowitz

Millhauser, Steven
Dangerous Laughter

Mitchell, David
Cloud Atlas

Moorcock, Michael
Behold the Man

Moorcock, Michael
The Final Programme

Morrison, Toni

Murakami, Haruki

Murakami, Haruki
Hard-Boiled Wonderland and the
End of the World

Nabokov, Vladimir
Ada, or Ardor

Niffenegger, Audrey
The Time Traveler's Wife

Niven, Larry

Noon, Jeff

Obreht, Téa
The Tiger's Wife

O'Brien, Flann
At Swim-Two-Birds

Okri, Ben
The Famished Road

Percy, Walker
Love in the Ruins

Pohl, Frederik

Pratchett, Terry
The Color of Magic

Pynchon, Thomas
Gravity's Rainbow

Rabelais, François
Gargantua and Pantagruel

Robinson, Kim Stanley
Red Mars

Rowling, J.K.
Harry Potter & the Sorcerer's Stone

Rushdie, Salman
Midnight's Children

Russ, Joanna
The Female Man

Saramago, José

Sheckley, Robert
Dimension of Miracles

Sheckley, Robert

Sheckley, Robert
Store of the Worlds

Shelley, Mary

Silverberg, Robert
Dying  Inside

Silverberg, Robert

Silverberg, Robert
The World Inside

Simak, Clifford

Simak, Clifford
The Trouble with Tycho

Smith, Cordwainer

Smith, Cordwainer
The Rediscovery of Man

Stephenson, Neal
Snow Crash

Spinrad, Norman
Bug Jack Barron

Stross, Charles

Sturgeon, Theodore
More Than Human

Sturgeon, Theodore
Some of Your Blood

Swift, Jonathan
Gulliver's Travels

Thomas, D.M.
The White Hotel

Tiptree, Jr., James
Warm Worlds and Otherwise

Tolkien, J.R.R.
The Hobbit

Updike, John
The Witches of Eastwick

Van Vogt, A.E.
The Mixed Men

Van Vogt, A.E.

Van Vogt, A.E.
The Voyage of the Space Beagle

Van Vogt, A.E.
The World of Null A

Vance, Jack

Verne, Jules
Around the Moon

Verne, Jules
From the Earth to the Moon

Verne, Jules:
Journey to the Center of the Earth

Vonnegut, Kurt
Cat's Cradle

Vonnegut, Kurt
The Sirens of Titan

Vonnegut, Kurt

Wallace, David Foster
Infinite Jest

Walpole, Horace
Hieroglyphic Tales

Wells, H.G.
The First Men in the Moon

Wells, H.G.
The Island of Dr. Moreau

Wells, H.G.
The Time Machine

Wilson, Robert Anton & Robert Shea
The Illuminatus! Trilogy

Winton, Tim

Woolf, Virginia

Zabor, Rafi
The Bear Comes Home

Zelazny, Roger
Lord of Light

Zelazny, Roger
This Immortal

Special Features
Notes on Conceptual Fiction
When Science Fiction Grew Up
Ray Bradbury: A Tribute
The Year of Magical Reading
Remembering Fritz Leiber
A Tribute to Richard Matheson
Samuel Delany's 70th birthday
The Sci-Fi of Kurt Vonnegut
Curse You, Neil Armstrong!
Robert Heinlein at 100
A.E, van Vogt Tribute
The Puzzling Case of Robert Sheckley
The Avant-Garde Sci-Fi of Brian Aldiss
Science Fiction 1958-1975: A Reading List

Links to related sites
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Great Books Guide
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The Millions
Big Dumb Object
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The Misread City
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