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Book Review: An Impenetrable Screen of Purest Sky

An Impenetrable Screen of Purest Skypurest sky
By Dan Beachy-Quick
Coffee House Press, 2013

I had a student once who responded with great intensity to my lesson on the signifier/signified split. “Woah!” he said. “Lucas isn’t Lucas!” (side note: “Woah!” is, without a doubt, the most heartwarming reaction you can hear from a student).

It’s true. The name “Lucas” isn’t the same as the person “Lucas,” or even my mental picture of him. Words are inevitably separated from the things they represent. But following his realization, Lucas didn’t, to my knowledge at least, abandon everything he knows to explore the possibility of connecting the two. A character in Dan Beachy-Quick’s new novel, An Impenetrable Screen of Purest Sky, does.

Beachy-Quick’s narrator, Daniel, loses his mother, Maria, at a young age. His father, Allan, a professor who spends his life trying to translate an ancient, mythical scroll, cannot seem to wrap his mind around the death of his wife:

Maria, her name, when she was alive, I could speak it and she would come. Now I can say Maria and mean her exactly, but because she cannot hear me, she cannot come. The same word calls out, even into death — Maria. […] Living makes us think that every word ends at the thing it names, but it isn’t true. Things live in the middle of their names to distract us from all a word says that is not discernible.

For Allan, this state of affairs, where “Maria” isn’t “Maria,” is unacceptable; his reaction to the word/reality split is to try to fix it. He leaves young Daniel, undertaking a voyage to find the last remaining speaker of the language of his mythical scroll, a language which purports to bring forth reality with words alone. Whenever Allan expounds on it, the description sounds half-Borgesian, half-wish-fulfillment:

This language, he’d tell me when I listen, couldn’t be translated simply by referring to a dictionary […] One couldn’t, he couldn’t, nor could anyone, create a dictionary of this language, write down the various parts of speech, what transliterated words referred to object or person or action or comparison or indication or conjunction or division in our own language; this language was rooted, if such a word can be used in this case, in a profound instability, in which no single word ever distilled into definition of one single thing.

Meanwhile, the effectively orphaned Daniel (lots of links to Moby-Dick’s orphan Ishmael here) inherits his father’s struggle with the transitory nature of language, and the failure to make it otherwise. As an adult, Daniel tries to write an autobiographical novel, but keeps running into trouble: words can’t capture the self, which shifts, fragments, lives in constant excess of any one definition. A dilemma for any would-be autobiographer: how can the ephemeral self ever write a coherent self-narrative?

When Daniel meets Lydia, a physicist studying the theory of multiple universes, he finds the idea (not to mention the woman) immediately attractive: multiple universes, just like the multiple selves of our interior, “worlds next to worlds, worlds within worlds.” Lydia falls in love with Daniel, but she doesn’t want to be with someone who doubts the reality of his own being. In Lydia’s eyes, selves are real and meaningful, even though, like “a planet not yet found” or “a galaxy past our vision,” not all the elements within us are known and available for description. She says that she wants the man she loves to identify with the “I” in “I love you” — a fair request. Yet for Daniel, this kind of identification is all but impossible. How can he invest deeply in the self and in other selves when he knows that they’re fleeting and that loss is just around the corner?

Beachy-Quick’s is often a melancholy novel, exploring Proustian questions about identity’s fragmentation, feeling its way down into the loneliest, darkest parts of its characters. Daniel spends many of its pages struggling with the falsity, but ultimate necessity, of limiting definitions. “Call me Ishmael,” “Call me Daniel.” Yes, the name is constructed, insufficient, constraining, finite, but it’s also the only way we can stabilize reality enough to survive in it. Beachy-Quick puts into laymen’s terms the types of theories we’ve read elsewhere — those that leave us with a de-centered, multiple, splintered model of the self, but that don’t then tell us how we might practically engage in daily activities or form relationships with that awareness. “Lucas” isn’t “Lucas” — now that we’ve realized it, this novel seems to ask, how do we live with that?