The View from the Seventh Layer 

By Kevin Brockmeier

What I like about Kevin Brockmeier is that he writes about what he knows. If his new collection of short stories is any indication, what he knows is a lot about stories. Each of the thirteen stories in The View from the Seventh Layer is some ingenious variation of narrative genre — there are four fables, a ghost story, an alien abduction story, a fantasy, a science-fiction romance, a situation comedy of sorts, and even a choose-your-own-adventure story.

Only a few of these breezy and sometimes elegant stories subscribe to that 20th-century dogma of short-story writing that Michael Chabon has called the "contemporary, quotidian, plotless, moment-of-truth revelatory story." But even these plotless, moment-of-truth stories have something fantastical about them, something magical, at least something magical imposing itself on the evidently real, no matter how hard that realism might resist.

Take "The Lives of the Philosophers" for instance, one of three plotless stories. It's about a dreamy graduate student whose girlfriend, Audrey, has become pregnant. Jacob is paralyzed by his fate, but continues to vacillate about what he can do or should do, if anything, which is hugely annoying to Audrey. She just wants him to be decisive for once in his life.

He can't, though, so he escapes to his research. One night, while in his office pouring over books attempting to unlock the reasons why Thomas Aquinas and Friedrich Nietzsche each abandoned their work at middle age, he is visited by a woman he calls "the gypsy." She's having problems with the change machine. It ate her dollar.

Jacob gives her some money for the bus. In gratitude, the gypsy tells his fortune. Unlike most people's lives, in which change is inevitable, Jacob's life, the gypsy concludes somewhat ominously, has been determined from the beginning: "You were born to be a certain kind of person, and you're going to die a certain kind of person. Sorry, man." Even when the story is about something as ordinary as one man's indecision about what to do about The Big Problem, Brockmeier finds the extraordinary. He does this throughout Seventh Layer.

What's rewarding about spending time with Seventh Layer is not so much the psychological depths he plumbs, but the skill and ease with which he weaves these stories about stories with cleverness, wit, and a sense of fun. Perhaps these aren't fully formed works, but they are good and familiar company. (Pantheon, 267 pages, $25)


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