Dan Beachy-Quick’s An Impenetrable Screen of Purest Sky is an impressionistic take on the complexities of being more than one thing to more than one person and trying to understand it. And I’ll admit it, I picked it because I loved the title. It sounded so poetic and like it must have been an allusion to something I didn’t understand. Another thing I liked was Beachy-Quick’s name. It’s rhythmic and sounds like it should be the beginning of a poem or the refrain in a song or a chant at the very least.
Initially, I have to admit that I had a difficult time getting into the book. It isn’t what most would call plot-driven or even character-driven. It’s driven, sure, but not in the typical fashion that most readers are used to. At first that made me feel uncomfortable, like I didn’t know what to do with myself, but the more I started reading, the more I got into the rhythm and the motion of the book. I let it do what it was doing and when I could reach out and grab onto something that looked like a plot point or a character foible, I did, but I held on loosely. I didn’t want to be dragged down by plot or character because inevitably the story would move in a different direction.
One of the more grounding sections of the book is when we meet Daniel, a teacher who loves Melville and the novel, Moby Dick. In fact, he’s obsessed with it, much like Melville’s narrator is obsessed with finding the big white whale. He slowly starts to back away and feel less engaged with the class he is teaching. After the narrator cancels his class one day a section that echos Melville’s Moby Dick reads:
“Call me Daniel. I have a gift I keep to myself, the gift of self-abandon. It is the orphan’s lesson if he can learn it–not to feel abandoned, but to continue his abandonment past the bounds of where the loss should end, parent’s death that prefigures one’s own. Fate is everywhere speaking; it does not call you by name; it tells you to name yourself. Call me Daniel.”
This use of intertextuality only lends to Beachy-Quick’s multi-dimensional fairytale-like story, though it is unnecessary for the reader to have read Moby Dick to understand the feeling of exile and alienation that our narrator, Daniel, is feeling. Its strength lies in the call to action and reaches far beyond the bounds of the book into another one to give a layered meaning. The theme of alienation, self-afflicted or otherwise, is a strong thread that runs through the book.
Beachy-Quick also uses images to weave stories and connect the reader to what is being read. Images like water, whales, volcanoes, a fairytale book from his childhood conjure up visual cues that trigger memories from different times in the narrator’s life. The abandonment theme comes in again when the narrator remembers the time when he wanted to show Lydia (his lover) his book, but when he goes to grab it, it is gone. Vanished. “I could not say it, but it was true. Everyone vanishes.” The young narrator remembers this scene with nostalgia and abandon. I couldn’t help but feel the weight of that thought.
Strangely, this book was hard to pin down, but I liked that. I liked the way its meaning floated above and around me. This didn’t make it easy to read, but it made it interesting and different from the more linear stories I am used to. I think the best words to describe this book are layered and complex. It entangles itself with a variety of texts that use intersections of imagination, memories, and fairytales. Not a fast read, but a thought-provoking one.