Philosophers of a certain analytic stripe traditionally conceive the human subject as a sealed-off punctual ego exercising rational control over whatever comes before it, including itself. Cognition and action define its distinctive operations, and judgment is the seat from which these spring. European thinkers since (at least) Nietzsche have scoffed at this picture, citing a rich literature extending back to Greek tragedy in which human beings are porous creatures exposed to forces of derangement and ecstasy that invade them at every turn. Even Socrates has his daimon.
Descartes famously tried to ward off the demons of history (and of his senses) by figuring himself as a pure act of thinking, free of any incarnation that would implicate him in the world’s contingencies. But now imagine, as Nietzsche might, a Cartesian turned inside out, exposed to his own thinking:
Thoughts, you walk through them, 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 at it with your finger and you 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 an idiotic thing to think about, I thought….
Thus the narrator of Fra Keeler, a first novel by Azareen Van der Vliet Oloomi—if “narrator” is the word for an anonymous figure who finds himself besieged by words, images, and events that, if not entirely random or disconnected, are under no logical control (“What a miserable wretch—a miserable wretch I had been, thinking endlessly, one thought after another, because thoughts, I remembered I had been thinking, bleed into each other”).
There is, in any case, little or no backstory. The narrator buys (sight unseen) a house that once belonged to someone named Fra Keeler, ostensibly to retrace the events that led up to Fra Keeler’s death. But the temporality this narrator inhabits is made almost entirely of “unfriendly events” that are, mysteriously (and incoherently), “still forming…still taking shape.” Some of these seem at first mundane—a mailman appears with a package requiring a signature, the phone rings (“persistently”), the narrator explores his new property, parts of which are by turns intriguing or nagging: a taut or makeshift cabin in the yard, a dusty skylight, an elderly neighbor whose face merges with the image of his disfigured mother, to whom the narrator may or may not have set fire, depending on how one reads one of his dreams. But the boundary between reality and the imaginary, like every object or moment in this novel, comes and goes as it pleases, like the club the narrator happens across:
I bounced the club around from hand to hand a few times. I practiced my swing. Certain objects are interminable, I thought. Because just as you can take legs off a table, I thought, as I found my grip, you can put them back on again. Or chop the table up, use the wood to make a new table, altogether new and exact in an entirely different way. Certainly a person cannot be made from a chopped up person, I thought, and released the imaginary club.
Like the gun on stage that must be fired before the curtain falls, the club must be wielded, which in due course it is—whether in the mind’s world or the body’s seems hardly to matter. As the narrator reminds us: “to attempt to make sense in regards to all of this is senseless.”
You ask: What sort of fiction are we reading here? Anticipating just this question, on her “Acknowledgments” page, Azareen Oloomi provides a checklist of books and films that, as she says, made Fra Keeler “possible”: works by César Aira, Thomas Bernhard, Luis Buñuel, Nikolai...