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?