WHERE THE SKY MEETS THE OCEAN AND THE AIR TASTES LIKE METAL AND THE BIRDS DON’T MAKE A SOUND, a novel by Mike Kleine & Dan Hoy, reviewed by Jace Brittain

It begins with a body. Like a lot of the books and movies of the detective noir genre, we know there is a woman’s body and not much else:

Michael says, I hate that she’s dead.

Daniel says, I know.

Where the Sky Meets the Ocean and the Air Tastes Like Metal and the Birds Don’t Make a Sound by Mike Kleine & Dan Hoy, is a surrealist, fantasy-tinged, horror-steeped collaborative novel featuring two detectives who share the authors’ names and are trying “to solve a murder on planet Earth.” While all of these myriad genres energize the book, it is specifically the familiarity of the style and mythology of detective noir that allows the writers to indulge in the strangest, most remarkable pleasures of the rest.

The plot spirals out from the fact of a woman’s dead body as if it is (and it seems to be) a requirement of the genre. Kleine & Hoy employ such tropes brilliantly: the murder is a banal tragedy and a genre trope, and we recognize the spot where the world-weary observation and riposte ought to be. “I hate [it] / I know” exemplifies what keeps this haywire novel just barely on the rails—the simplicity of such exchanges dovetail with the nonchalance of a structure which lets the genre do the heavy lifting in the same way that Dashiell Hammett’s cases made recognizable portals for language to get weird (Fond of: “You’re cute / So’s dynamite” from Red Harvest). 

Kleine & Hoy’s use of present tense, for example, feeds simultaneously on the language of dreams and a voice we know from film noir (recall, so easily, Double Indemnity’s Fred McMurray recording all necessary exposition on his Dictaphone). A dreamlike associative logic governs much of the syntax and, at a structural level, how discrete scenes tumble out almost as non-sequitur or like a text organized according to some outside cosmic power: a Tarot deck or a game of chance which doles out Noirish events—punchy interrogations or visits to the nightclub seats of underbelly power. We recognize, for example, the figure of an Information Broker on approach, and if we know what such a scene involves—say: an initial exchange, reticence, pressure from the gumshoes, and the slip of the clue which gestures toward the next scene—Kleine & Hoy explore fantasy tweaks to the scene in which the role is played by a “slimy … aeons-old” Gorgon who slithers across the set stage. 

Kleine & Hoy’s stylistically jumpy relationship to causality does a number on our sense of time—a road trip whose apparent details suggest long duration passes in a car crash’s instant. And the novel’s dedication to scenes as a kind of litany; without transition, here’s another scene on the road, another billboard to pass, here’s another interrogation, a gun, a meal, another marker of the ever-entangling case. It makes for a brilliant yet loopy kind of repetition—without accumulation—a stacking of tropes in which we can at once become calibrated and luxuriously lost. If a pleasure of the genre were making the contingencies of plot’s conspiracy as tenuous as possible through double-crosses, faked deaths, the revelation of the true powers, Kleine & Hoy’s version functions more like a gestus, an evocative sense of what things ought to mean, but the melancholic realization that it might not matter. 

Generally speaking, it’s a quick read, but the associative structure doesn’t always amount to quickness. The longest section is a chapter almost completely consisting of a list of topics which follows “Daniel and Mahmoud discuss …” The topics are stated simply and range drastically, but a slow read rewards us with clear conversational movements. One can, for example, easily read a watery logic across a section containing “kayaktivism … bottled water, Flint, Standing Rock, Freud’s oceanic feeling, baptizms, viscosity and resistance, LCD screens, draining-the-swamp.” The inscrutable breadth across three pages is precisely what makes the list legible: we recognize poetic movement without a demand for hermeneutic sense. A section of the list might prickle static at the ear and seem to begin to communicate a message which drifts into the brilliant, bonkers wash of the continuing broadcast. Sentences, structures, and scenes to which we awake are casually nightmarish, a bizarro joy for the lucid dreamer who jerks awake and reads:

Henrik is in the kitchen opening the fridge like he’s opening a window.

He does this thing with his hands and shows off the space where a wall used to be. Michael looks at Daniel and points with his eyes at an ornamental glyph hanging behind a bird of paradise in a concrete planter in the corner.

Daniel whispers, Architects of Q’Noor.

With the verve of a seasoned sleuth, we size up a peculiar, surreal physicality, take some notes, and make narrative of the hieroglyphic array we’ve found. Without knowing more, we know some shade of an organization like the “Architects.” The detective takes the conspiratorial compiling strangenesses of the occult and diabolic chimeras in stride—Kleine & Hoy’s novel trusts us to follow suit. 

Where the Sky Meets the Ocean and the Air Tastes Like Metal and the Birds Don’t Make a Sound, by Mike Kleine & Dan Hoy. Grand Rapids, Michigan: TRNSFR Books, July 2021. 136 pages. $18.00, paper.

Jace Brittain is the author of the novel Sorcerererer (Schism Neuronics 2022). Their writing, poetry, and translations have been featured in Dream Pop JournalApartment Poetry, Snail Trail Press, Deluge, and Sleepingfish. They received their MFA at the University of Notre Dame. As a PhD candidate at the University of Utah, they study fiction, illegibility, and intersections between digital, animal, and ecological writing. In collaboration with the poet and book artist Rachel Zavecz, they run the small press Carrion Bloom Books.

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