Love You Madly: The Dorothy Project and Azareen Van der Vliet Oloomi’s Fra Keeler

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Publishing for publishing’s sake was the last thing Danielle Dutton had in mind when she founded her independent press called the Dorothy Project three years ago. “Starting a press simply to add to the piles and piles of books in the world (or just in my house) wasn’t interesting to me,” Dutton said via email.

“I’ve long admired presses that seem to carve out a specific niche all their own, such as Dalkey Archive (where I worked for four years before starting Dorothy), or Siglio (a press out of L.A. that focuses on work at the intersection of art and literature, and which, incidentally, published my second book).”

To that end, Dorothy follows a disciplined model: two books a year with the goal “to seek out and publish writing that takes risks, that surprises and challenges and delights us as readers; to have a tightly curated list; and to work to create beautiful book objects.”

The focus on quality over quantity has had good results. “We’ve been incredibly lucky so far for a new small press,” Dutton said, citing “good coverage” for the press itself and many reviews. “I’m very thankful for that, and I wonder if reviewers and editors have been intrigued by our constraint-based plan (only two books per year, all the same size, mostly written by women). We’re doing something specific, and maybe that is, for better or worse, an ‘angle’ by which to approach us.”

Well-known, experimental writers such as Ben Marcus have taken notice: for The Millions’s 2011 “Year in Reading” series, he recommended the Dorothy Project’s reprint of Barbara Comyn’s Who Was Changed and Who Was Dead. Future projects will include the final book in Renee Gladman’s Ravicka trilogy, and a collection of stories by Amina Cain.

The two books Dutton selects each year are intended to form a contrast. “This year’s two books — Suzanne Scanlon’s Promising Young Women and Azareen Van der Vliet Oloomi’s Fra Keeler — both deal with madness. Both are debut novels from younger American women writers. But stylistically they’re worlds apart, and the fact that they came together as a perfect pair was somewhat accidental.” Both go on sale this month.

Fra Keeler begins as an investigation by an anonymous, male narrator into the mysterious death of the title character. The first scene shows him buying Keeler’s house from a realtor.
(Certain) events of the unfriendliest category are now unfolding. I cannot put my finger on these events; I cannot pinpoint the exact dimensions of their effect. The truth is, I haven’t been the same since Fra Keeler’s death. Some deaths are more than just a death, I keep thinking, and Fra Keeler’s was exemplary in this sense. And it is the same thought since I left the realtor’s office: some people’s deaths need to be thoroughly investigated, and, Yes, I think then, Yes: I bought this home in order to fully investigate Fra Keeler’s death.
We’re not told what the narrator’s relationship is to Keeler, why he needs to go so far as to buy the man’s house, or where he came up with the money. These omitted facts — carefully ignored pieces of character- and plot-information — belie how much this narrator depends on the momentum of his thoughts to keep his story moving. The manic energy in the language sustains a careful, unsettling tension that’s central to the plot and the novel’s meaning.

We soon learn that this man is a keenly intelligent person suffering not from grief over Keeler’s death, but extreme curiosity and paranoid fixation. After telling how he moved into Keeler’s house, he suddenly stops to say, ominously, “Things creep up on us when we deny their existence. …I must retrace,” and then he dives into a flashback that takes up the bulk of the book.

In terms of plot action, he accepts a package from the mailman, makes a phone call, looks out the window, drinks water in the kitchen, goes for a walk in the nearby canyon (the valley of death?), and visits a neighbor. Meanwhile, he muses on causation and the nature of time, sits in a canoe he finds in the time-traveling yurt that’s appeared in the yard, and later decides that all of humanity’s perception of time is a “purified lie.” Headaches and dizzy spells come and go. He grows suspicious of an old woman in the neighborhood, then sees her face — or his own mother’s face — in a dream, accusing him of throwing acid at her.

Van der Vliet Oloomi’s spare, clear language sets this novel apart from other fiction about mental illness. The controlled tone adds complexity to the narrator’s unreliability as we maintain an immediate awareness of who he is versus what he’s telling us. Well-placed surreal scenes are also described plainly, and then mocked sometimes, as in this moment where a cactus turns into an old woman:
I spotted a cactus a few feet away. The stems were bowing down toward the ground. Not like a light bulb, I thought, this cactus, and I walked one full circle around it. It is a green mass of death, I thought. I stood there for a while, the cactus occupying the whole space of my brain, just as the sky had occupied it a moment earlier. I mused over the shape of the cactus until a chubby, toothless old lady formed in its place. She stared at the horizon. She said, “Take a good look, because this is me now, this is me as I am dying.” I felt a second pang go through my chest. I didn’t know if it was the cactus talking, or the old lady. Weren’t they one and the same, hadn’t they emerged from the same entity? Then, I thought, what rot, the things in one’s head. Because images just appear, an old lady out of nowhere, where the cactus had been. One minute, and then the next, what is the use of these things?
He’s a kook with depth. As a person, he comes across as witty and self-effacing, not powerfully cold and psychotic. He later comments on why madness may be necessary in life, and makes moral judgments about other people’s behavior. Naturally, these aspects humanize him and elicit our sympathy and it doesn’t hurt that he acts like a lovable goofball at times. “Dumb as a lobster, you are Mr. Mailman,” he says at one point, while after a snack and a stroll, he says with childlike joy, “How helpful the slice of bread had been, the walk in the canyon!”

He would be charming. But there’s the book’s violent ending to consider. And as I did, I saw this charm being put to a specific purpose. As I thought about it, Fra Keeler reminded me of Rivka Galchen’s Atmospheric Disturbances, Roberto Bolano’s The Third Reich, and Jean-Philippe Toussaint’s Reticence, not to mention big classics like Crime and Punishment and Lolita. And what emerged as I considered a bit of context was that one vital aspect is Fra Keeler’s construction: the ending recasts the whole tenor of the book, illuminating who that realtor truly was and who the narrator might really have been. Then something clicked: the book had ingeniously play-acted a role I had wanted it to perform.

From this angle, Fra Keeler can be viewed as a critique of the attraction many writers, readers, critics, and scholars have to the clichéd glamor of evil, who fetishize the gorgeous anguish associated with men struggling with mental illness. And once we make this connection between novels that revel in spectacles of madness to the male violence at its roots (see Raskolnikov, Humbert, et al), and after we acknowledge that readers thrill to such spectacles and scholars add them to the canon – should this not prick at the conscience and urge us to examine our tastes?

Sure, it may only be fiction. But our enjoyment of it says a lot. Avoiding this issue seems to do ourselves and these male characters (and their male shadows in the real world), a disservice, waiting as it were for the next male-ghoul to be put on mad-parade in front of us to jab and laugh at as we turn the page — while pretending we’re actually learning more about the glory, jest, and riddle of the world.

To be clear, Fra Keeler does not abuse its male narrator in this way. Van der Vliet Oloomi hints sympathetically that war, that poisoned source of eternal male vainglory, is what might have driven the narrator to violence and madness. Rather, one of the things Fra Keeler does is offer a wondrously clear lens to those who want to examine tastes that have been taught to lurch grotesquely in the direction of male anxiety, mental illness, and violence when seeking so-called good literature.

Send in the Drowned: Margriet de Moor’s The Storm

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Dutch writer Margriet de Moor belongs to a select group: she writes literary fiction in a foreign language, she’s not a man, and she’s had consistent critical success in the United States. Since 1991, four of her novels, which include The Kreutzer Sonata and The Virtuoso, were not only translated into English, they got picked up for review – and praised – in The New York Times. All of which may leave de Moor peerless.

Given such a solid track record, her new historical novel, The Storm, is surprisingly wobbly. It’s got engaging historical details about the ocean’s power over Dutch life. There are demure sex scenes and macabre, watery deaths. Its bleakness – joy seems banal in this giddily dark book – is often thrilling. But the omniscient narration is choppy and unsteady. This makes the novel a struggle to read and, together with a clumsy ending, only mildly enjoyable.

The novel poses as a five-part family drama set during one of the Netherlands’ most legendary floods. On January 31, 1953, hurricane-strength winds caused a storm surge that overwhelmed ancient dikes and raged across the southwestern province of Zeeland, “like a plague from heaven, sweeping away 1,836 people, 120,000 animals, and 772 square miles of land at one stroke.” Seawater temporarily erased Zeeland, leading to a massive coastal barrier project called the Delta Commission.

This historic tragedy swallows the lives of two fictional sisters, Lidy and Armanda Brouwer. The cleverly arranged plot starts when, on a whim, Lidy and Armanda swap places for a day. Elder sister Lidy takes a car trip. Armanda stays home to babysit Lidy’s daughter Nadja, then – in a jealous move – attends a party with Lidy’s husband, Sjoerd. This all occurs innocently enough. Except Lidy drives to Zeeland the day the storm hits.

As Lidy departs, we’re told on the first page “her farewell was a final one.” The plot then splits. We get alternating chapters of Lidy’s nasty, brutish life cut short by the storm, and Armanda’s nasty, long life pursuing love with hand-me-down Sjoerd. The parallel storylines allow for heavy resonance between their lives.

We’re meant to assume that Lidy will die and guilt-saddled Armanda will grieve but get happy later, yes? By the time the fast-paced second part begins, de Moor makes clear she’s not telling, and will instead attempt to maintain the suspense. The grand theme of uncertainty rises nicely until Armanda’s gloom gets repetitive in part three. There’s climactic power by the end of part four, but it all collapses into cliché ghost-whispering in the 20 pages of part five, titled “Responsorium.”

As characters, the sisters not only look alike, they’re both depressive, aloof, and unremarkable. Lidy is a victim of the storm. Armanda endures a lifelong sense of being defined by the tragedy. The storm is much more interesting, so de Moor focuses there, trying to whip up the story into an opera of splashy gloom.

“Cosmic and earthly powers from unimaginably distant regions are converging right in front of us,” says an excitable engineer to Lidy as she rides a ferry to Zeeland. “The extreme storm flood! Oh! Can you just imagine it? Have you never heard anything about the hellish catastrophes in the old days? The Saint Elisabeth’s flood in the fifteenth century, that swallowed up the entire province of South Holland? A century later: Saint Felix, even worse…” In these moments, the minor characters feel like they’re playing roles designed to capture the theatrical quality of the national drama. Too much of this makes the book feel less like a novel and more like a patchwork of scenes.

As if on a grand stage, Lidy motors further into Zeeland, “Clouds with glistening edges were being pushed in front and behind one another like flats of scenery across the panorama on the other side of the windshield.” As the dikes collapse, de Moor even steps out from the wings of authorial omniscience to deliver a spooky Shakespearean aside, asking the audience, “What are visions of terror? Unreal things against an unreal backdrop?”

Cut to Lidy trapped in a farmhouse attic watching with other survivors as people outside drown. The writing is powerful here, unintentionally evoking images of New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina. When a woman gives birth in the attic, Lidy notes how “birth and death cries are similar, that they both resemble and illuminate one another.” De Moor then capably zooms out, making humanity small, to explain the atmospheric and tidal forces bashing against the Dutch flood-defense system. “This was land that had been pushing itself outward for centuries, changing its shape constantly and sometimes drastically, because it lay embedded between two arms of the sea that did what arms usually do: they move.”

The aftermath is ghoulish. Lidy’s fate darkens. Armanda’s life worsens as decades pass and Lidy is never found. Sailors fish dead bodies from the ocean, remarking how “they would never eat eels again as long as they lived.” Dead children are stacked on tables in makeshift morgues in a church. Funerals end with thunder and lightning. When Armanda later marries Lidy’s husband, Sjoerd, because the sisters look alike, de Moor writes, “The bride is wearing a mask. By chance it’s her own face.”

A bit of the author’s good work is lost under Knopf’s bad choice to re-title the book. The very first line reads, “One of them, Lidy, stood at the window and looked out.” The line is just OK under the title, The Storm. But under the original title, The Drowned (De Verdronkene), the words “one of them” foreshadow Lidy’s connection to the Dutch who died in “the nightmare of ‘fifty-three,” and the floods of yore. And de Moor later repeats this theme explicitly, when Armanda mulls over her life in frustration and thinks, “At the end of the day, everything in this country is now linked forever to Lidy’s epic.”