Lee Klein’s The Shimmering Go-Between asks for no spoilers on the jacket copy. A piece of paper lodged in the review copy almost demands it. Mostly I’d argue that all plots have been seen before (this argument in itself is simply a rehash of one made many times before by other, more scholarly people, who probably used sources like Shakespeare and the Bible and not simple conjecture), and that most story-weathered readers (or TV viewers) can guess the direction of any given plot. Klein’s novel, though, is a bit different. It takes on the id, ego, and super-ego all at once, as head on as one can when one’s head has spiraled around to consume the tail. Every time I thought there was enough for the rest of the book to unravel, there was another level to go down, each one a bit weirder than the last.
What can I talk about, then? I can’t spoil voice, right? It’s straight-forward and rings with clarity, which is a nice choice given the twisting situations that pile up. Lots of short declaratives. Is setting spoilable? New Jersey, specifically shown through an unsanitary city’s lens, mostly following a woman’s life from childhood into her 30s, as well as the occasional Magic School Bus-like jaunt inside the human body. How about the characters? Males and females, critter-wary civilians, saddled with sexual secrets. The author? Is he fair game? Will Barthes curse me out if I comment on him? I’m familiar with Klein from his online rag Eyeshot (plus—full stop for disclosure purposes, if this is even disclosure-worthy?—we follow each other on Twitter, live in the same city, and I once bummed him a Pall Mall after a reading), and I became familiar because he’s a master of hand-to-hand combat in his rejection of writers’ work, pushing against the drone warfare of form letters. The Shimmering Go-Between reads like Eyeshot’s ideal submission, at least in terms of inventiveness.
Of course, while I was working on this review, Klein, acting as a reviewer himself, pulled a Twitter-fury firing pin by reviewing reviews. Some found it offensive, his examples cherry-picked. Others poignant in how it put words to what they’d already been thinking in some way or another. I felt my not-yet-written commentary deficient while reading his review and the subsequent reaction. Do I have to enter this conversation? And, oh jeez, am I only reviewing books in hopes that I one day sell a book and all these people come eagerly to hoist me above their heads so I can share in the glory of published authordom (which seems obviously disappointing for anyone expecting an increase in fame, fortune, or carnal encounters)? For years I kept a journal on each book I’d read. During grad school, I lost my missionary discipline but, still, I can flip back and see what I thought about a book that my bad memory would have otherwise erased entirely. Writing reviews seems to me an extension of that. Something an engaged adult interested in community and conversation might do? Not that I haven’t had my suspicions about contemporary literature and how bottle-necked the world sometimes seems, but, like cigarettes bummed in a bar where Tom Waits would feel comfortable, I don’t think a review, positive or negative, necessitates reciprocity (retweets are another thing altogether—“RTs do not equal endorsements”), and I think that most times work stands for itself even if the literary landscape has yet to become a true meritocracy.
First off, assuming the role of a literary citizen, I would never say that my reading of a book is a universal one. Not equipped with a luminary’s acumen, I’m easily distracted, average intelligence- and insight-wise. Like Klein admitted in his review, I, too, have my literary leanings. As mostly a reader of ‘literary fiction’ nowadays, I’m a little fairy reticent. This book, with everything it asks the readers to believe or at least suspend disbelief for, isn’t my normal cup of tea. This seems to me like a fine, responsible thing to admit to in a review, and it certainly doesn’t mean I can’t enjoy something that’s not by Yates or McCarthy.
Really, though, I don’t know much about book reviews. I get tired just thinking about reading them. In my little notebook, I could write about how the book I’d finished related to my writing, my life. I definitely don’t know how to review reviews, or reviewers. I don’t even know how much plot to summarize, what adjectives might make a book seem interesting to potential readers, if I should include textual evidence, or how many sales a Times reviewer can swing. Normally I’ll read a book once and then leave it be. If it’s good, it will stick with me for a small amount of time and I’ll tell friends about it at the bar, without forming any major opinions other than ‘maybe check it out.’ If it’s really good, I’ll be writing like crazy while I’m reading it, and then I’ll revisit it a year or two or three later, when its magic has finally faded and I want to see if it can be recaptured or if it was a temporary motivation that suited a singular point in my life.
But before books acted as a sort of writerly vitamin, I enjoyed reading for the Minecraftian world building. I immensely appreciated being shook free of reality and how these alternate universes seemed just as real—occasionally realer than real—and were not tied down to bedtimes and baseball practice and third period math. Instead, there was Roald Dahl turning me into a mouse. And me not being pissed at all! In fact, shit worked out as a mouse like it never did for me as a real dude. There were magical adventures taken with yarn-spinning companions. There was C.S. Lewis changing the closet game for good. It was fun. I read for fun (and, occasionally, free Pizza Hut). And, for the most part, I had fun. Klein’s book, in all its madness, closes in on that uninhibited fun with its consciousness approximating hypnagogic hallucinations. Will it be fun for you? I don’t know. It wasn’t what I expected, and there’s a ton of simultaneous events on separated timelines to keep track of, but even though it’s ethnography of the bizarre, the elements that make up this world are recognizable. The Shimmering Go-Between takes on unaligned love, all-consuming desire, even the foggy mundanity of office life, all while the smell of dogwood blossoms hang heavy in the air as a reminder that we’re all made from the same goop. So, yeah, maybe check it out.
The Shimmering Go-Between, by Lee Klein. Madison, New Jersey: Atticus Books. 295 pages. $14.95, paper.
Sam Price lives in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania.