True False, by Miles Klee. OR Books, September 2015. 264 pages. $18.00, paper.
Whereas some writers try out different voices, Miles Klee tries out different worlds. In True False, ghosts come alive, men walk on walls, and love is just a project for the Department of Methods, but the voice is persistent, sometimes to a fault: an intelligent destruction and self-aware deductivity of and with language, all at once. The influence and style is truly one of contemporary means, a collage so dense that it becomes wholly original itself. Pieces of Barthelme and Lipsyte and Lutz and Hempel and so many more are everywhere, with Klee’s imagination gluing it together in the biggest of ways.
As with other literature that only functions properly as literature, these stories are at the will of the medium’s defining characteristics: narrative description, word choice, syntax, exposition, tangential thought, etc. It’s barely Literature with a Capital “L”—I don’t remember fart jokes and bestiality showing up in the canon aside from Joyce’s correspondence and Moby Dick, respectively—but the impossibilities of telling these stories in any other way mean having to invoke the old “dancing about architecture” platitude, unscrewing the light bulbs in your bedroom, and calling it a day for a couple of days.
When Klee gets on a cinematic bent and can shed some of the burden of Literature as Literature and Literature Alone, like in “Waiting for the Chinese,” he’s at his easiest to follow. Stories like that and “Quick” take on an enjoyable emotional center, fully formed by the qualities swirling around it. In “Quick,” it’s triplets starting high school, parents who have no choice but to love their life, and death, always nearby, always lurking in their pool filter. From “Quiet”:
“Come in here if you want to talk,” mom said.
In the kitchen I found her and Kenzie, a folder of death threats between them on the counter. Outside the sliding door was the pool. Wet patches on its plastic cover sparkled for the sunset.
“Why do you keep them?” Kenzie demanded.
“So sensitive,” mom went. She was dicing onions.
“If any of them kill mom,” Byron yelled from the bathroom, “we’ll have a case for premeditated.” The toilet flushed way loud.
“Mack, honey, these people are losers. I’m not the one outsourcing.”
“Murders by assembly line workers are up,” Byron quoted as he came out waving dad’s piece in Newsweek.
“Stop!” Kenzie cried. Mom dumped her onions in a pan and groaned.
“Stop saying ‘stop,’” she said. “You may no longer say ‘stop.’”
If there’s a difficulty to Klee’s writing, it’s that he traffics mostly in assumed context and rarely in unassumed narrative. Not that deception is taking place. Quite the opposite. Stories like “A Few Environments” and “Varieties of Things One Rarely Bothers to Mention” are exactly what you think they are: stray thoughts on a playground and a medicine cabinet and a dirt trail, scenarios involving wisdom teeth and painting a room and informal goodbyes.
For Klee, the idea of narrative moves beyond even the idea of being organic—interesting characters in interesting situations, documented as such—and moves into a special, interpretive style not too far removed from head-shrinking: When I put this picture next to this picture, how does each picture change and how do you feel overall? What about with this picture? What do you see now? How do you feel now? And now? And now?
Stories like “Ibid.” and “Past Simple” exist, much like the other short short pieces that alternate between the longer works, as mere exercise, the kind of story that might need to be defended by someone who really likes arguing about definitions of things.
Perhaps Klee’s wheelhouse is best found in the same way he talks about Borges talking about his artistic lineage, which in itself is part of a tangent in thinking about Roberto Bolaño’s assumed knowledge of Borges, which is actually all part of a footnote about a line from an Octave Feuillet book that Klee hasn’t read. Klee, like Borges and company, is a reader and a digester, and in many ways, he writes only as an extension of the necessities stemming from his infatuation with reading and digesting.
It’s an afterthought to a love affair, the mint in the bowl on a desk in a place he never leaves. Personally, I had the best luck reading this collection slowly, with an eye for the high points, like latter day Barry Hannah or Frederick Exley’s A Fan’s Notes. Keep a highlighter nearby and use it with great regularity so that you can go back later and not have to wade through the book’s length and disjointedness, its two least-favorable qualities.
These stories aren’t so much life-affirming as they are world-affirming, whatever world it may be that Klee takes us to, but also the very real one we all inhabit. There’s certainly plenty of confirmation that there’s a whole lot of space with a whole lot of people and a whole lot of ideas and experience in said mass of people, and if each person and every thing has its own past, present, and future, quite simply, how the hell does the ether stand it? All that weight, that history, that never-satisfied beast of time. True False is either manic handfuls of the ether or the bits that slipped through the cracks.
But that’s the world, painted as fair as it can possibly be painted. As for your life, that’s up to you—should you choose to accept it.
Ryan Werner is a cook at a preschool in the Midwest. He plays a Gibson Corvus and an old Ampeg VT-22 in a loud instrumental rock band called Young Indian. You can find him online at ryanwernerwritesstuff.com and also @YeahWerner on Instagram, where you will be inundated with picture of comic books, indie lit releases/excerpts, professional wrestlers, and 1980s guitar ads.