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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.

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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


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