Kevin Brockmeier: “The Human Soul as a Rube Goldberg Device” (Madras Press, 2012; originally from Words and Images and The View From The Seventh Layer)

You have a pet theory, one you have been turning over for years, that life itself is a kind of Rube Goldberg device, an extremely complicated machine designed to carry out the extremely simple task of constructing your soul. You imagine yourself tumbling into the world like a marble, rolling with an easy momentum over the chutes and ramps of your childhood… then flying like a shot from the cannon of your adolescence and landing with an ungoverned bounce on the other side, where you progress through all the vacuum tubes and trampolines and merry-go-rounds of your adulthood… and all the while changing, changing at every moment, because of the decisions you make and those that fate makes for you, until faintly, with your dying breath, you emerge from the mouth of the machine and roll to a stop, as motionless as you were before you began, but scarred and colored and burnished now with the markings you will carry with you through an eternity.

Hello, I am Zin, and I get to do the comments on this story because it is a Zin story! And a Second Person story!

The first thing you need to do is plan how you are going to approach this teeny-tiny book. Because it is special! It is a Choose Your Own Adventure style book! I have somehow managed to avoid these all my life! When I was doing The Second Person Study (I am going to include this book with those because it is of course second person), my primary sources Professors Richardson and Fludernik kept referring to CYOA books as archetypes of second person literature – and now I finally read one! And I love it!

No matter what – whether you walk in the woods or go to a coffeehouse or McDonalds or call a friend or simply spend a quiet day at home – you will end up on Page 73: You will die. How would you like your memories of your last few hours to play out? Because:

It will be several thousand years before the human race develops a procedure to retrieve the memories of the dead from their bodies. By then the age in which you lived will be recollected as a time of barbarism and brute physical destruction, of interest to only historians of cultural degradation. But in the name of scientific research, a few sample bodies from your century will be exhumed for memory reclamation, and among those selected will by your own.

To the surprise of everyone involved, you will prove to be a very popular exhibit. People will wait for hours to get a glimpse of you, some of them returning many times.

You will come to be regarded as a sort of cult phenomenon. There are days when the line to your gallery will reach all the way through the entrance hall and across the courtyard, fading like a plume of smoke into the broken red skies of the city.

Now, your decision as a reader of this book is, how will you approach it? It contains maybe 30 sections, 2-3 pages each, which become 14 story lines with six “chapters” each (and one orphan section, partly quoted above, which belongs to none and to all). At the end of each section, you decide. Sometimes it is a simple action decision: go for a walk or stay home? Go right or left? Sometimes it is more involved: If you have ever really been happy, or if you have not? If you would like to go out and test the air, if you are comfortable where you are? These join with the second person voice to put the reader into the story more than most stories!

And it is a very interactive book! I suppose you could just read from page 1 to page 131 (do not worry, it is a teeny-tiny book so they are teeny-tiny pages) but what would the fun of that be?

So, if you are like me, you start at the first page and then make a decision on page 3 to go to page 21, then on page 23 you go to page 45, etc etc. And when you finish that set of “chapters” you go back to page 3 and jump to page 89 instead, and go where that leads you! It took me about two hours to read this, because I kept trying to put little notes and pictures on the pages to show where I had come from and how many jumps I had made. And then I went back to see if I had missed anything, which is a good thing, because otherwise, I would not have realized there was an orphan section! And a very important one!

And no matter what, every story line ends up at page 73. Now, I have to say: Margaret Atwood covered similar territory a lot more quickly, in her flash fiction “Happy Endings”:

The only authentic ending is the one provided here:
John and Mary die. John and Mary die. John and Mary die.

But this book is not just about “whatever you do, you die.” It is, as the opening quote says, about how you build your soul! Is that not a cool thing? We learn a lot about the “you” of the story, who obviously is not “you” and thus does that whole subversive thing Richardson likes to talk about a lot. It does keep you – uh oh, it keeps the reader off-balance. And I think some people might become annoyed by this. But I enjoyed it! I love weird techniques! But the thing is, there is a character here, with a childhood, an adolescence, a past we learn something about, and in the present are specific events that are sometimes repeated in the story lines: kids playing soccer, an ambulance, the fall air. Whether “you” is home to take the phone call from the guy who dialed the wrong number, or whether “you” merely hear his answering machine message later, or whether “you” are out all day so never know about it, this is an event that happened! So “you” is a real character! We get to know this character, and I came to like him/her (I assumed he was male for some reason, probably because the author is male, but I am pretty sure he could be female as well, though I will have to check). All the while it is, well, “you”!

I forgot how much I love playing with second person!

Sprinkled into the story, in every arc, are wonderful little gems. “You” muses that the best SF writers “practice literature as a form of nostalgia” – and this is in a book designed to remind us of books from our childhood! Is that clever or what? When “you” sees a girl with a T-shirt that says “Life Is A Bedtime Story” “you” want to ask her: “If life is a bedtime story, then what kind of story is death….? A horror story? Or simply a mystery?” This, in a story about dying!

Then we have this:

How often, you wonder, has the direction of your life been shaped by such misunderstandings?…Sometimes you imagine that everything could have been different for you, that if only you had gone right one day when you chose to go left, you would be living a life you could never have anticipated. But at other times, you think there was no other way forward…It is as if some invisible giant has taken control of your existence, setting his hands down like walls on either side of you. He has changed your course with each bend of his fingers.”

And is that not exactly what the reader is doing, literally and physically, with the story? This kind of character-reader interaction reminds me a little of the very end of Sophie’s World (not to be confused with Sophie’s Choice which is a very VERY different thing!) except that there I think the writer was controlling the characters (I have not read that book in a long time, maybe it is time for another round, it is another wonderful fun book!)

I so enjoyed this! I first read Kevin Brockmeier about a year ago when “Ryan Shifrin” from The Illumination was in Tin House; I ran out and bought the book immediately – and it is still waiting, so patiently, to be read, because I foolishly used a stack instead of a queue (only computer science nerds will know what I mean, do not worry about it) so I have now moved it to my rucksack and have begun reading it on the bus – I think I will need to check out his collections as well. This story is in his second collection, The View From the Seventh Layer, but I suspect it was easier to manipulate the teeny-tiny Madras Press edition what with all the page-flipping and back and forth! In any event I am glad to have discovered it!

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One response to “Kevin Brockmeier: “The Human Soul as a Rube Goldberg Device” (Madras Press, 2012; originally from Words and Images and The View From The Seventh Layer)

  1. Pingback: Kevin Brockmeier: The Illumination (Pantheon, 2011) « A Just Recompense

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