It wasn’t until college that I learned the word denouement, although as my friend Kirk never tires of reminding me, I originally thought it was pronounced something like “da NOW ment.” Although I might have struggled with the phonetics, as a concept denouement was immediately appealing, in that it is my favorite part of any book, the point when everything is a collapse of whatever narrative elements have been woven together to form a plot. In fact, I prefer books where the plot to denouement ratio is as skewed as possible to the latter. This is one thing I like about Azareen van der Vliet Oloomi’s first novel, Fra Keeler.
But perhaps I should offer some caveats. (1) Azareen (whose full name is like an incantation and whose nickname is Azie) and I have known each other for years, although I have not seen her in a long, long time. (2) This is not my first time reading Fra Keeler because I read a manuscript version years ago when Azie (as I will continue to call her because using her surname feels disingenuous and impersonal) was at Brown and had just finished a draft of her novella. Although reading a manuscript on 8.5 by 11 white paper has its charms (primarily of exclusivity) I quite like the look and feel of the Project Dorothy Press instantiation, which is small and pretty. (3) In re-reading the book, I did not read it in order. I instead picked my way through randomly, having my memory jolted with phrases and snippets from reading it several years ago, in Providence, during the winter. It is a book that lends itself to faithlessness in linearity.
In Fra Keeler, the unnamed protagonist buys a house and is then obsessed with its deceased former owner, Fra Keeler (whose name is also like an incantation). That is pretty much it as far as the plot goes, and as I mentioned, this appeals to me because I like getting the plot of a book over with as quickly as possible so that I can settle into the task of unspooling characterizations. The book’s narrative voice is creepy and hypnotic. The tone is a shared feature of a particular family of books that depict people who are borderline crazy, so when I say the voice is hypnotic, what I really mean is that I come to question whether I might not also be a little crazy if I read such books for sustained periods of time. Take, for instance, a sentence like this:
“They really do accomplish their objectives,” I said to myself, those trees, and his name crept up, because the leaves on the branches are good to look at, bristling in the breeze, shivering – giving a small shudder and then staying still – and his name crept up, and I remembered the butter knife and grabbed it and walked back over to the package and pressed the knife against the tape just like I had wanted to, and sliced the tape through and the flaps opened and I pushed them down, wings of an underdeveloped bird, I thought, and his name crept up.
Throughout the text, the narrator’s thoughts are frequently described as thoughts, as in the above example of “wings of an underdeveloped bird, I thought, and his name crept up.” This is instead of just saying “wings of an underdeveloped bird, and his name crept up.” It is persistent a narrative tic that initially irked me (both times that I read the text), but eventually settles into a sort of pulsing neuroses that underscores the extent to which the book documents the unraveling and re-raveling of a monologue that is both irrational and hyper-analytical.
My favorite passage of the book involves a walk through a canyon:
An honest slice of bread and a walk in the canyon must be among the greatest of morning rituals! And If not now, then when? I poured myself a glass of milk and dipped my bread in it. “But what must I think about while I walk through the canyon?” I asked out loud, because I wanted to hear the question take form between myself and the bread, the bread and the walls, the wall and the garden and the trees at the far end.
The image of walking through a canyon with an honest piece of bread has haunted me ever since I first read the book, which is quasi-existential, quasi-murder mystery, quasi-Kaftkaesque. The book is poetic and philosophical and I’m not sure the book’s tone or interiority could sustain a longer format, but that is perhaps part of its strength. Novellas have to be confident in their brevity, and Fra Keeler is a confident little book, the kind of confidence that is maybe not actually confidence so much as an insistence on a performance of something irrational and unreal, and told as something other than what it is, like a ghost story sung as a lullaby, perhaps. I would like to think that I could return to the book in a few more years, and still find it haunting and hypnotic and something that makes me feel a little unhinged.