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The View from the Seventh Layer


The View from the Seventh Layer Cover

ISBN13: 9780375425301
ISBN10: 0375425306
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A Fable Ending in the Sound of a Thousand Parakeets

Once there was a city where everyone had the gift of song. Gardeners sang as they clipped their flowers. Husbands and wives sang each other to sleep at night. Groups of children waiting for the school bell to ring raced through the verses of the latest pop songs to get to the pure spun sugar of the choruses. Old friends who had not seen one another in many years met at wakes and retirement parties to sing the melodies they remembered from the days when they believed there was nothing else in the world that would ever grip their spirits so and take them out of their bodies. Life was carried along on a thousand little currents of music, and it was not unusual to hear a tune drifting out from behind the closed door of an office as you passed, or even from the small back room of the art museum, which was almost but never quite empty. The people of the city did not always sing with great skill, but they sang clearly and with a simplicity of feeling that made their voices beautiful to hear. And because they loved what they sang, no matter how painful or melancholy, a note of indomitable happiness ran through their voices like a fine silver thread.

In this city there lived a mute, the only person who was unable to lend his voice to the great chorus of song that filled the air. The mute had spent his entire life in the city, and everyone from the members of the school board to the stock boys at the grocery store knew who he was. In some communities there is a man who sells whistles by the courthouse or paper kites down by the river. In others there is a woman who decorates her home with multicolored lights and streamers every holiday. Usually these people are no more than small figures at the periphery of everyones attention, but when they die, it can be more surprising than the death of a prominent leader or a renowned artist, because no one has ever regarded them carefully enough to consider what their absence might mean.

The mute was of that age where his hair had turned white and his shoes no longer seemed to fit him properly. Some of his neighbors believed he was deafan understandable mistake. He was not deaf, though, only mute, and from time to time he liked to sit in a chair on his front porch and listen to the people around him chatting with one another as they took their afternoon walks. They would say things like “Im telling you, buddy, the second my pension kicks in, its off to the tropics for me.” And “Peter asked me out for dinner tonight, dear thing. I think hes finally going to pop the question.” And “Thats the deaf man, Sarah. He cant hear you, but thats no reason you cant be friends with him. Why dont you go wave hello?” It comforted him to listen to these conversations. He had never married or fathered children, and behind the door of his house, there was only the quiet tapping of his footsteps and the endless chirping and fluttering of the parakeets.

The mute had gotten his first pair of birds when he was still a young man, purchasing them from a pet vendor he met in the city park. One morning he had seen them preening and tilting their heads in the sunlight, and that was all it took. The color of their feathers seemed to call out to him: the jewel-like greens and yellows of their wings, the shaded blue around their necks, but most of all the lovely soft purple above their beaks. It was not until he released the parakeets into his living room and watched them hop from the back of the chair onto the curtain rod, and from the curtain rod onto the shelf beside the mirror, that he felt something slipping loose inside him and realized how much he had needed their companionship.

One of the parakeets turned out to be a male, and the other a female, and soon he had five birds to take care of. The next year he bought two more from the pet vendor and watched another three hatch from their eggs. It wasnt long before he had so many birds that he knew he had to do something. He hauled the good furniture out of the parlor and attached dozens of little swings, perches, ladders, and mirrors to the walls. He put a wooden gate in the doorway. He even installed a pair of recessed skylights in the ceiling so that the birds could watch the shadows of the clouds move across the floor. In the end he believed he had managed to create the kind of space a parakeet might enjoy.

He loved each and every one of his birds, and over the years, as the flock grew in size, he learned various tricks to distinguish them from one another. It was only from a distance, he realized, that their bodies seemed to blur together into a single shifting net of brightly colored wings and tails. When you looked more carefully, you noticed that one of the birds had a particular way of tucking her head under her wing while she ate. Another liked to stand by the window after the sun went down, pecking at her reflection in the glass. Another wore a set of markings on his back that looked like two-day-old snow, with dapples of wet grass beginning to show through. Every bird was unique.

He enjoyed watching their lives play out inside the walls of his house, and he took tremendous satisfaction in being able to feed and take care of them. It felt good to be needed by something with a working voice and a beating heart. He often wondered if the other people in the city knew how much happiness a creature so small could bring.

When did he first start giving the birds away as presents? No one could remember, least of all the mute. But a time came when he might be expected to turn up at any public celebration with a bamboo cage in his hands and a bag of fresh seed in his pocket, smiling and nodding in that richly communicative way of his. He became a fixture at birthday parties, baptisms, inaugurations, and weddings. There was always singing on such occasions, of course, a boundless wave of pop songs and old standards. As he listened to all the love and sorrow wrapped up inside the harmonies, he wished more than anything that he could join in, but the only thing he had to offer was his parakeets.

With every bird he gave away, he included a set of instructions that ended with the sentence “Parakeets are natural mimics, and if you treat your bird as you would a human being, it is likely that he or she will learn how to talk.” Some of the people who accepted the birds from him were busy or practical-minded sorts who had little interest in keeping a pet, but were too polite to tell him so. They stowed the parakeets away in a dimly lit corner of their spare bedroom, or even set them loose in the woods at the edge of town. Others appreciated the birds as no more than a spectacle or a diversion, something to feed every morning and take out whenever they happened to grow bored. Only a few cherished them as much as the mute did. Still, most of the people who kept the birds were able to teach them such simple phrases as “Good morning,” “Whats your name?,” and “I love you.” A number of the birds were clever enough to learn a more complicated set of expressions: “Its a cruel, cruel world,” for instance, and “How about this weather were having?” One man successfully showed his parakeet how to say “I prefer the music of Brahms” whenever anyone turned on the radio. Another taught his bird to say “Hubba-hubba” every time a redheaded woman came into the room.

There was one particular bird who was able to reproduce almost any sound he heard, but when his owner coached him to repeat the phrase “I dont understand the words theyre making me say,” he refused to utter so much as a syllable.

For every parakeet the mute gave away, two more were born into his parlor. Some of the birds died of illness or old age, but there were always new birds to replace them, and the flock showed no sign of diminishing. It began to seem to the mute that the rules of time had been suspended inside the aviaryor if not suspended, then at least reshaped. When he brought his first pair of birds home from the city park, they had not been much older than children, he now realizedand neither, for that matter, had he. Then something changed, and he began to settle into the rhythm of his days and nights. His grandparents died, and later his parents. The long history of a lifetime fell into place behind him. And the birds, it seemed to him, were still not much older than children.

Sometimes he stood at the gate watching them flit about between their perches and allowed his mind to wander. He couldnt help thinking of his childhood, particularly those times when he would sit at the back of his classroom during choir practice. He remembered what it was like to listen to everybody singing, to feel the music scaling and building inside him, higher and higher, climbing toward the open air, until it became so powerful that he was almost sure it would not give way this time, though invariably it did. He used to shut his eyes and sway back and forth behind his desk. Anyone could see what was happening to him. The truth was that he, too, had the gift of songit was just that he could not make use of it. One of his teachers had the idea of giving him a tambourine to shake, and that helped for a while, but the rattling sound it made was not quite what he was looking for. Later he thought about learning to play a real instrumenta flute, maybe, or a clarinetbut as it turned out, he did not have the talent for it.

The mute gazed at the birds until his memory faded away. Then he went to the front porch to wait for his neighbors to take their afternoon walks.

No one who has ever lived closely with a flock of birds and come to know their eccentricities could say that they are not intelligent. The parakeets were curious about this man who never spoke, who filled their seed dishes every morning and fed them sweet corn, grapes, and chopped carrots in the evening. Sometimes he stood behind the bars of their cage with a faraway look in his eyes and made a sound like the wind puffing through a long concrete pipe. Sometimes he fluttered his fingers at them, making a friendly chook-chook-chook noise with the tip of his tongue. What did these activities mean?

The birds studied the mute as though he were a puzzle. And because they had always understood the world best by participating in it, after a while they began to imitate him. They mimicked the clang that went echoing down the hall when he dropped a pot in the kitchen. They jingled like a pair of silver bells when his alarm clock went off in the morning. They duplicated the sound of his footsteps tapping across the wooden floor, the sigh that came from his chair when he sank into the upholstery, and even the small back-and-forth sawing noise of his breathing as he drifted off to sleep.

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Larry Robinson, October 17, 2008 (view all comments by Larry Robinson)
Kevin Brockmeier has quickly become one of my favorite writers. This book of short stories includes the best elements of A Brief History of the Dead and The Truth About Celia. He is a very imaginative writer whose work I return to regularly.
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titianlibrarian, August 8, 2008 (view all comments by titianlibrarian)
Wow. Check it out, especially "Fable containing a reflection the size of a match head in its pupil." It starts out:

"Once there was a city where people did not look one another in the eye. It had been that way for as long as anyone could remember. Old married couples lowered their heads like swans as they sat on park benches together. Young mothers stared sweetly at the folds of their babies' necks. Whenever two people met in conversation, each would rest his gaze on the blank surface of the other's shirt, and though occasionally, in a fit of daring, the most intimate of lovers might go so far as to watch each other's lips move, to venture any higher was considered the gravest of social transgressions."

The stories are all beautiful and haunting. I would reread this on a chilly fall night with an afghan over my feet and a cup of tea on the table. Or I would curl up in bed with a lover and read him one story a night before we laid down to sleep. However you read them, they each deserve a moment of quiet consideration before you allow your mind to gallop on to other matters.
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hermionebadger, May 16, 2008 (view all comments by hermionebadger)
I've followed the writing of Kevin Brockmeier closely over the last couple of years. At first, I was amazed at his restraint, his eye for nuance, and the delicate ways that he shows us the world. I am, however, very disappointed with "The View from the Seventh Layer." The language is beautiful, as it always is with Mr. Brockmeier, but this time around, I wanted something more. A character, perhaps, whose life is something other than a reflection in a shady, quiet pool. I felt I couldn't get to know anyone in any of these stories, as everything they said or did seemed filtered through the back end of a fairy tale, filtered again and then again and again until all that's left is an imprint or a painful cliche. Why must every story be a far away and ominous version of the third person limited? Why does it seem that, after "A Brief History of the Dead" and "Things that Fall from the Sky" (both of which I loved) Kevin Brockmeier has reduced himself to a classically trained metaphorist who so desperately wishes to be Jorge Luis Borges?

Unlike his previous works, Brockmeier has given us zero characters that feel real enough for his readers to relate to. I felt like I was floating around in a cloud somewhere, looking into a crystal ball, and not really understanding the actions that I'd seen. Can a mute be heard in a city of song? Apparently, but who cares when the city of song has no hiccups, no real problems at all, and its citizens are so naive to the idea of misfortune that a man with no voice is automatically perceived to be deaf? With most of these stories, I felt like there was some deep, trecherous meaning the author was trying probe, and that I must be missing it, must be looking right past. I learned however, after several rereads, that these deep meanings were really more like subtle jabs at something too vast to be explained--which can be executed well. Brockmeier, however, missed the mark, the reason being a lack of recognizable characters and points of view that range from hazy to vague to completely absent.
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Product Details

Short Stories (single author)
Brockmeier, Kevin
Stories (single author)
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8.46x6.00x1.09 in. .97 lbs.

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» Fiction and Poetry » Literature » A to Z

The View from the Seventh Layer
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Product details 288 pages Pantheon Books - English 9780375425301 Reviews:
"Staff Pick" by ,

Brockmeier's prose is at once fanciful and meditative. This new collection of stories confirms his stature as one of America's most audacious fabulists.

"Publishers Weekly Review" by , "Brockmeier follows up the acclaimed The Brief History of the Dead with a collection of 13 stories possessing the enchantment of his two children's books, but with adult twists. In the title story, Olivia lives in a 'little red cottage' on an unnamed island and sells maps, umbrellas and candies to the tourists. She also sells prophylactics and believes that, in a glorious moment, she was abducted and examined by an alien 'Entity' who came from the seventh layer of the universe. In a more O. Henryesque story, 'The Lives of the Philosophers,' Jacob, a philosophy grad student, is trying to understand why certain great philosophers ceased to do philosophy. He finds the answer when his girlfriend, Audrey, becomes pregnant with a child he doesn't want. In 'The Air Is Full of Little Spots,' the narrator, a presumably Afghan tribal woman, writes of her tribe's belief that 'we see the world only from the back,' but at moments, by the grace of God, 'the world turns its face to us.' While many characters reach such moments of clarity, the stories often falter when they do. At their best, though, the tales show Brockmeier's mastery of the tricky intersection between fantasy and realism." Publishers Weekly (Copyright Reed Business Information, Inc.)
"Review" by , "Kevin Brockmeier's writing has a light, magical quality that makes it a joy to read. Playful and uninhibited, imaginative and gentle, he's an American Italo Calvino."
"Review" by , "Brockmeier is one of my very favorite writers. What amazes me most about him isn't his daunting technical chops or his Millhauser-sized imagination, but that in his finest moments he combines these strengths with a deeper sense of the joys and sorrows of life. These stories are wise and touching, not merely full of delightful surprises but full of heart."
"Review" by , "These are beautiful and ethereal stories by an unsettling writer. Brockmeier is a major talent."
"Review" by , "Nobody has ever written stories like this. Who else could transpose Chekov into outer space, write a Choose Your Own Adventure story for the human soul, or tell the story of a man's life through the twittering chorus of his parakeets? Each of these stories contains a sentence that will blast open the walled-off regions of your heart like dynamite."
"Review" by , "I love Kevin Brockmeier's work, not only for its daring innovation and its boundary-defying marriage of the real and the fantastic, but also because of the deep feeling and compassion he brings to the lives of his varies characters. He is one of the best short story writers in America."
"Review" by , "I am totally enthralled, mesmerized, and jealous of The View from the Seventh Layer. These curious, fragile worlds drew me in like few stories published today. This collection's an instant classic."
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