Virtual unreality


Roy Kesey writes with the soul of a ventriloquist. In the 19 stories that make up his second book, “All Over” (Dzanc Books: 146 pp., $13.95 paper), I hear echoes of J.G. Ballard, Cesar Aira, Jim Crace, George Saunders -- perhaps not intentional echoes but echoes anyway.

I’m not suggesting that Kesey doesn’t have his own voice, just that he’s operating out of a tradition: Let’s call it “post-postmodernism,” writing that is ironic and apocalyptic and aware of itself as a construction all at once. This is not naturalism, in other words, but something more elusive, fiction in which language carries the force of metaphor.

That’s an ambitious mandate for a slender volume of short stories, but for the most part, Kesey pulls it off. In “Strike” -- which has something of the tone of Shelley Jackson’s “Blood” -- he evokes a dystopian Manhattan where an unresolved garbage strike eradicates the social order, leaving a homeless couple to navigate a city that’s been divided between rats and dogs.


“Wait” portrays a group of passengers stuck in an airport lounge; what starts out as a Kafkaesque meditation on absurdity (“The loudspeaker voice says that the flight will begin boarding shortly. . . . The loudspeaker voice announces that there will be a brief delay as the plane’s instruments are recalibrated. . . . The loudspeaker voice says that all reports indicate the fog will not lift until early the following morning; that the flight will thus be postponed for precisely fourteen more hours”) quickly turns sinister as circumstances slip steadily out of control.

Here, Kesey walks the line between realism and allegory, offering situations we recognize, then turning them until we’re not sure what we’re seeing anymore. It’s a vivid effect that -- except for a few stories that collapse under the weight of their own oddness (“Cheese,” “Martin”) -- gives “All Over” a sneaky power to make us think again about a world in which anything can happen, and often does.

--David L. Ulin