In Jefferson Navicky’s world, things are kind of bent.

His fiction is like looking at a stick held half in and half out of the water. It’s straight going into the water. But under the surface, it appears to bend at a weird angle. And yet, when you put your hand in, there it is, real to the touch.

The stories in Navicky’s recent collection “The Paper Coast”  have this dreamlike, subsurface atmosphere, and his short novel “The Book of Transparencies” is bent in similar ways. In fact this book’s whole sense of reality is underwater, even at the literal surface.

The story has two threads, more or less. A community college teacher finds in a library a book titled “The Book of Transparencies” by William Bolzebados. He tells us he’s fascinated by the poetry of the narrative and by the story itself, which is Bolzebados’s fictionalization (apparently) of his relationship with an artist named Cleo. The teacher sets about to research the genesis and biographical background of the book, which leads him to Cleo in the Southwest where she is at present (sometime after 2005) at work making art. That’s one plot thread. Jefferson Navicky, by the way, teaches at Southern Maine Community College.

The second thread concerns the events in Bolzebados’s life, principally those in Portland, Maine, where his and Cleo’s love story takes place on Peaks Island. It doesn’t really give away any surprises to reveal that what amounts to the book’s central event is Bolzabados’s death in October 1975 when he leaps, Hart Crane style, from a Casco Bay ferry.

The reason this is not really a spoiler is that the story, while a sort of mystery, is nevertheless not told in straight chronological order. In fact, it is not told in any discernible “order,” in the sense we understand conventional narratives. We learn of events almost in passing, through page- and half-page-long passages told in a variety of voices that are not always easy to identify. Sometimes we’re hearing the teacher/researcher, sometimes Cleo, and sometimes the text of Bolzebados’s book, which happens to be largely in the first person and largely autobiographical. In some passages, it seems almost impossible to tell who’s speaking.

“The Book of Transparencies,” in other words, is an example of a certain strand of postmodern metafiction, with apparently direct links to the fractured and dreamlike fictions of Italo Calvino (compare “If on a Winter’s Night a Traveler,” in which a reader is narrating his reading of a book titled “If on a Winter’s Night a Traveler”) and of Jorge Luis Borges, who with Franz Kafka might have been the 20th century’s most endearing, powerful and bewildering writer of stories vividly bent at the place where they go beneath the surface.

“The Book of Transparencies” is in some ways less a story than an aggregation of prose poems containing history, to bend a literary phrase. For this book creates a dreamlike atmosphere that supersedes the chronic confusion readers may experience from page to page about what is happening and who is telling it. At one point late in the book, the teacher — maybe the author himself — relieves us of the responsibility of trying to get it to make conventional sense:

“Where did Bolzebados go to school? How did he get from Ohio to New York City to Europe to Maine? His life is a page where the white space speaks more than the black marks … The book is not large or long. It is by nature a ghost work, insubstantial in its ability to flush out what can never be fully understood.”

“The book” might be Bolzebados’s “Book of Transparencies,” or it might be Navicky’s “Book of Transparencies.” It doesn’t literally matter, in the same way it doesn’t matter that the stick in the water looks like it’s bent. What matters is the dreamlike atmosphere that accumulates in your mind as you read. For my part, the poetic prose of this book eventually hypnotized me, and I could not put it down. I wanted to get to the next descriptions of the abandoned military batteries on Peaks Island, views of 1970s Portland, glimpses of Cleo’s life as an artist and editor, weird observations such as “in the womb a child is given dreams of previous lives in flashes of lightning.”

Jefferson Navicky’s writing, this is all to say, is beautifully bent. “The Book of Transparencies,” like the stories in “The Paper Coast,” is likely to alter the shape of your dreams if you read it before you go to sleep at night. It’s postmodern fiction grounded, like the fiction of Borges, refreshingly deep in humanity.

Navicky, of Freeport, is also the author of “Uses of a Library”and “Map of the Second Person.” He will be reading from “The Book of Transparencies”  at 7 p.m. Thursday, March 21, at Print: A Bookstore, 273 Congress St., Portland, along with poet Kristen Case.

 

Off Radar takes note of poetry and books with Maine connections. Contact Dana Wilde at [email protected].


Comments are not available on this story.

Augusta and Waterville news

Get news and events from your towns in your inbox every Friday.
  • This field is for validation purposes and should be left unchanged.