AN IMPENETRABLE SCREEN OF PUREST SKY
by Dan Beachy-Quick
Coffee House Press
reviewed by Jacob M. Appel
On the surface, Dan Beachy-Quick’s lyrical short novel, An Impenetrable Screen of Purest Sky, is a charming and deeply-moving fairy tale of love and loss. Beneath that romantic sheen, however, lies a subtle but trenchant challenge to both contemporary fiction and, more generally, to twenty-first-century American society’s consumerist, gratification-obsessed, technology-driven culture. In this second regard, one might begin by noting what Beachy-Quick’s delicate literary gem does not contain: cell phones, snark, infidelity, email, celebrities, yoga, profanity, lurid sex, gratuitous violence, disaffected hipsters, political posturing, irony, Internet dating, professional dog walkers, or in-the-know references to Brooklyn and Santa Monica. In short, the volume lacks any of the recognizable and tired tropes that drown so many of today’s celebrated new releases. Instead, the author—a well-regarded poet—harks back to the great sources and traditions of storytelling, to legend and magic, to Orpheus and Eurydice, to Hawthorne’s “The Artist of the Beautiful” and Melville’s Moby-Dick, generating an intricate modern-day fable that transcends the enchanting and forces readers to rethink what makes literature worthwhile.
At its core, An Impenetrable Screen is a novel of memory and imagination in the spirit of Proust. The protagonist, a lovelorn college English professor named Daniel, tells us at the outset of his journey that “there is no end of detail to things that don’t exist.” Rather, “it is in this world where detail is a limited resource, this world in which I live.” That introduces us to the central theme of Daniel’s struggle—and of the narrative’s genius: The paradox that the imagined world can often exist in greater clarity than the tangible one. Through much of the novel, Beachy-Quick deftly negotiates the porous divide between reality and imagination. As readers, we explore vibrant original myths—of a giant transformed into a hillside, of a mischievous child who loses a pearl down a ventilation shaft and follows the jewel to the depths of the ocean—that later weave themselves into Daniel’s lived experience. At the same time, the middle-aged professor’s quest for a cosmic reconciliation with his lost love, Lydia, leads him to fantasize that their son has become one of his students, a fantasy that persistently teeters at the brink of actuality. One often does not know what is real in Beachy-Quick’s world; one always knows what is true. The author’s painstaking care with the novel’s pacing allows the narrative to unfold in layers of meaning that are steadily revealing, as though one is sheering the skin of a pearl.
An Impenetrable Screen manages the rare feat of achieving both authenticity of characterization and formal innovation simultaneously. Nearly every human action and reaction resounds at pitch-perfect. For instance, a central element of the first chapters of the novel is Daniel’s childhood obsession with a storybook, Wonders and Tales, which his own father has proscribed him from reading. Later, Lydia suggests that the prohibition served an ulterior purpose: “That he made such a show of it so that you’d feel tempted to read it, put it on the lowest shelf so you could reach it; he made it obvious which book you were forbidden to open.” Instantly, the complexity of Daniel’s father deepens—and rings all the more true. At a line-by-line level, Beachy-Quick’s prose contains the insight of a careful mannerist, wrapped in the elegance of a poet, such as when Daniel’s father writes to his son of a long voyage at sea: “There are no secrets on a ship—everything will out.” Or when Lydia laments her struggle to explain her work as a theoretical astronomer by observing, “The difficulty, I find, in trying to explain any of this to anyone, even to myself, is that it is impossible to imagine. We always imagine other worlds by imagining this one.” These shards of wisdom are embedded in a text that also plays, albeit gently, with inventive stylistic devices, the most effective of which include composing Daniel’s dreams in verse, to contrast with the prose of the narrative, and blurring the lines between An Impenetrable Screen and the novel of the same name that Daniel himself is writing. In many experimental works, toying with form clouds the quest for meaning; in contrast, Beachy-Quick harnesses his stylistic resourcefulness to enhance his drive toward emotional precision. The result is a volume as modern as Paul Harding’s Tinkers, or even as post-modern as the world of Barthelme and Barth, yet at the same time as tradition-bound as Emerson’s prose or even John Bunyan’s—both of whom are credited by the author as influences, among others, in an endnote.
The struggle of Beachy-Quick’s Daniel is exquisite in its simplicity: He labors to create order from the small-scale chaos of the world that surrounds him. Yet Daniel is at heart “a Melvillian” who “seems sane, but…underneath the calm exterior is a man capable of feeling the cold November of his soul in any month….” So when a pearl suddenly appears on the floor of his classroom, without explanation, he finds the discovery to be “an event of almost cosmic bewilderment, as astonishing as a new star appearing in the sky where none had been before….” From the new stars that he encounters, Daniel endeavors to form coherent constellations. That is the primal human quest implicit in An Impenetrable Screen—as it is in Ishmael’s account of Ahab or Orpheus’s descent into Hades. Beachy-Quick’s creation stands a testament to the allure of mystery and devotion. The novel reminds us by example that the most valuable literature is not about the clutter of modern life, but about the unknowable that lurks beneath that irrelevant clutter.
The ground Beachy-Quick traverses is not altogether a new continent. Sarah Ruhl’s dramatic tour de force, Eurydice, also embraces the Orpheus myth and a father who writes letters from the beyond—in her case, the afterworld, and in his, the brink of sanity. Poet Ann Carson—and before her, Philip Larkin—tapped into a similar reverence for the opaque. Among novelists, alas, such veneration has grown all too rare. The true beauty of An Impenetrable Screen lies in the complexity of its simplicity—the acknowledgment that love, and language, when distilled down to their most fundamental elements, remain enigmas inscrutable to us all.