“A Life Transparent”

“A Life Transparent”, by Todd Keisling, is a cautionary tale in the guise of a supernatural thriller. Beware of living a dull, cautious life, or even just being a boring person, or the boredom bogeyman might come and literally suck you out of this world, body and soul. And then, in the immortal words of one of the main characters, “you’re fucked”.

Our protagonist is indeed a dullard but this book about boredom is itself never tedious. There are a number of interesting and creative features which kept me intrigued throughout. The main hook is that an ordinary person leading a pointless existence can disappear, and become one of those missing persons whose fate is never discovered. In real life, they either change their identity and move on, or are deceased and discreetly entombed. Here they are ripped into a different world, a black and white layer beneath the colorful world we all know. In this half-life they belong to a devious dominator, who does stuff with them for his own amusement. It’s never quite clear how this creature came to be or even why – there is no eschatology, as it were – and he remains untouched in his domain in the end. I truly was expecting him to be somehow destroyed by some unlikely effort on the part of our protagonist and was happily surprised when he was not. He, the demon, is a master of his own world and, like all masters, prefers the company of slaves. He is outraged when one of his slaves escapes him, and sets about – in a rather convoluted manner – to recover him. As a reward for the capture of this nemesis, the demon allows the protagonist a second chance to reinvent himself as a non-boring person, and thus releases him from bondage. It’s a bit curious to me why the demon would reward one capture with one escape, when any escape has outraged him so, but still, I was happy for our hero, and it made for a pleasant ending.

The invention and details of this other reality are the striking achievement of “A Life Transparent”, in my mind. I thought the author did a fine job of painting the picture of that monochromatic underworld. It reminded me of a conversation I recently had with my young child, about how boring hell must be – as well as heaven – because after all we get used to everything. It’s one of our talents as humans. An infinity of anything is a yawner. The creatures in the monochrome are built for it – they are not human but are natural to the habitat. In this way, the other world is consistent and makes its own kind of sense.

There were a few elements to the story that bugged me throughout. One comes from my own prejudice against long-time childless housewives. The hero’s wife in this book has no life of her own. She exists merely to attempt to procreate and be kidnapped, and in the meantime complains about her husband’s dull life. Her own life seems to be far more pointless. She seems to have no interests, no family, only one friend she is seen to be talking on the phone with at one point. When she is kidnapped, no one reports her missing (otherwise the police would have gotten involved, outside the control of the narrator). Is she a cipher? She is more of a transparent meaningless person than her husband, who merely works in cold-call sales. Why has she no job, no interests, no world of her own? Especially in this day and age, I found that bothersome. I found myself thinking that she was even more of a candidate for the bogeyman than her husband. The husband, in fact, was at least attempting to “write the Great American Novel”, so he wasn’t a total loss. Sure, his manuscript was as boring as he was, but hey, what was she doing? As far as I know, she wasn’t even quilting or blogging about quilting.

There was also the matter of the demon’s arch-nemesis, a callous bestselling author of a deliberately insulting self-help book. I really like this guy and was sad to see him swallowed up by the hell he’d escaped from, even if he was a vicious cold-blooded murderer. He had personality, at least. I really thought there was going to be some kind of Jekyll-and-Hyde situation, where this guy and the demon were two sides of the same person, whose madness was powerful enough to rip the seams of reality, like yet another Philip K. Dick imitation. I was very glad this was not the case. The evil was given its own truth and allowed to wallow in it, and there was some satisfaction in some self-help guru being consigned to the rubbish heap forever. As a bookseller, I used to enjoy it when I got to strip-cover some pretentious faith healer’s crappy mass market paperback.

In sum, “A Life Transparent” is well-written, interesting, creative, and intriguing. In short, I liked it.