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James Keen’s Thoughts on Todd Keisling’s ‘A Life Transparent’


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Written by: James Keen

“Whatever was happening to him he would have to handle it on his own -and that, above everything else, frightened him most.” – Todd Keisling. A Life Transparent.

Todd Keisling perhaps raises more questions than he answers in his 2010 novella, ‘A Life Transparent’ but it’s to his credit that the bulk of these unanswered points are the result of a narrative that challenges the reader to reconsider fundamental modern day concerns, to re-evaluate them while vicariously experiencing the harrowing events affecting the novel’s central character, Donovan Candle. These questions are not the result of ill-thought out plot contrivances but are more of the welcome variety; just what is it that constitutes the valuable qualities of human existence?

From the outset Keisling is determined not to give the book’s central conceit away too readily. After an astutely confusing opening salvo involving two hastily drawn characters and a grisly conclusion we are introduced to the Donovan Candle’s decidedly moribund realm. Here is a man preoccupied with the everyday distractions of a modern life, who dreams of writing the Great American Novel, while slaving away his years as a employee for a company that specializes in the prevention of identity theft. An anal-retentive when it comes to time-keeping and the crushingly inane regularity of his day, Keisling paints a portrait of an individual who has passively allowed his life to be smothered by thoughts of promotion in a dull profession, addiction to formulaic television and the dim but longed-for ‘dream’ of a vacation with his wife, Donna. Urged by his brother, Mike “to get a fucking life” and  Donna’s assertion that Donovan has never really fulfilled his college-era promise, Donovan does…nothing. And so it’s not long before Donovan begins, quite literally, “flickering in and out of existence”.

The standards of the ‘paranoid character up against a baffling conspiracy’  tales are here, replete with a few “what the hell is happening to me?” internal monologues but for the most part Kiesling keeps things moving along sufficiently quickly that these tired conventions never threaten to spoil the ingenious revelations to come. The elaborate central premise of the book is perhaps hampered only by a notable lack of definition; while we feel invested with the character’s desperate plight there’s very little clarification as to why the alternate ‘reality’ even exists. It apparently, just does. Another minor complaint would be that while the novel’s more sinister antagonists are wonderfully and repulsively rendered, Kiesling’s physical descriptions of his lead characters – Donovan, Donna and Mike specifically – are by contrast, markedly vague.

Keisling’s novel succeeds as an absorbing thriller primarily because of its pace. This is a piece that, once it gets its footing begins to pound along at a near-breakneck pace. There are clues dropped into the tale early on that pay dividends later in the text but are introduced in such a way that the reader doesn’t feel overly manipulated. The culmination of the novel with its thought provoking and emotive climax underscores the commendable judgement of the writer; this has a definable character arc that rarely feels extenuated and Keisling knows not to outstay his welcome. It’s likely that in less talented hands this story would have arrived bloated in size, crippled by repetitive use of horror cliches and not nearly as addictively entertaining.

Where’s the sequel?

Rating: 3.5/5

About The Overseer (1669 Articles)
Author of Say No to Drugs, writer for Blumhouse, Dread Central, Horror Novel Reviews and Addicted to Horror Movies.

9 Comments on James Keen’s Thoughts on Todd Keisling’s ‘A Life Transparent’

  1. All fair criticisms, Mr. Keen. I only have a couple of comments. To your point about a vague physical description of Donovan: The idea was to be intentionally vague for the purpose of allowing a reader to better place themselves in his shoes.

    As for why the Monochrome exists: That’s something I hint at in the sequel and will fully explain in the final novel of the trilogy. I realize that’s probably not the best answer, but it’s the only one I can offer.

    The sequel is called THE LIMINAL MAN and it’s available right now on Amazon, B&N, etc. I’d love to hear what you think of it. The only thing I’d caution you on is that you won’t find the same pacing as with the first. TLM is a slower book–at first. Give it some time to build up and I think you may be pleasantly surprised. I think Matt will vouch for me on that front.

    One more thing: Thanks for taking the time to read my book. I appreciate that.

    Best,

    TK

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    • James Keen // March 1, 2013 at 6:35 pm // Reply

      Thanks for your response, Mr Keisling. Thanks for the clarification regarding Donovan’s physical description; it certainly makes more sense in terms of encouraging an empathy with the character.
      As for the other minor quibble; after finishing this it was only after I took the time to dig around looking for other works by your good self that I became aware that you’d already written a sequel and so perhaps my point is moot. There was a nagging feeling I had that this was an area of the novel that needed a little more exposition.
      I’ll certainly be checking out The Liminal Man, and if Matt hasn’t had me figuratively roasted in editorial flames, I might get a chance to post my thoughts in the future.
      Again, thanks for your response, the book was a pleasure to read and I’m eagerly looking forward to enjoying many more of the same.

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  2. Now James why would Matt roast you…I have found most everything you have done to be well written. Actually you are one of my favorite reviewers here on the site.I have been meaning to express that to you since you first started contributing .I enjoy the fact that you put out there what you feel and do not over rate everything you read. as always…just me…vitina molgaard…the old hippie

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    • James Keen // March 1, 2013 at 7:18 pm // Reply

      Why thanks very much for the kind comments, Vitina. I think it’s important to be honest when reviewing anyone’s work, and if there’s criticism to be made then at least try to be constructive with it. That’s primarily the reason I wanted to contribute; none of the writers here, yourself included, cover authors works in such away as to demean their creative intent however much they may not enjoy the work in question. That’s refreshing in a world of internet literary sites brimming with know-it-all snarkiness. Thanks again.

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  3. Wayne C. Rogers // March 2, 2013 at 8:23 pm // Reply

    James, let me try this again. Having trouble leaving a comment. Anyway, I ordered Phases of Gravity, based on your recommendation. Taaaadaaaaa!

    Like

    • James Keen // March 3, 2013 at 1:12 am // Reply

      Hi Wayne. I hope you enjoy it. A non-genre work admittedly, but a brilliantly written piece of fiction that resonates long after you’ve read it. I envy you reading it for the first time. It’d be great if you can let me know what you think of it.

      Like

  4. Wayne C. Rogers // March 3, 2013 at 1:32 am // Reply

    James,

    Boy, so many changes are taking place so fast that my head is spinning. I don’t know what the next few weeks will hold for me, but if I’m still here, I promise to write you and let you know my view of the book. Sorry, I know this is supposed to be about Todd’s novel. Won’t happen again.

    Like

  5. James Keen // March 3, 2013 at 10:34 am // Reply

    Sounds like exciting times, Wayne. As for the last part, it’d be pretty weird if I post a review of The Liminal Man and we wind up discussing Dan Simmons. An alternate review for a book about an alternate reality, heh-heh.

    Like

  6. Wayne C. Rogers // March 3, 2013 at 5:50 pm // Reply

    Todd would love that, James!

    Like

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