Roy Kesey is a mad scientist of a fiction writer. The stories in his debut collection shapeshift from allegory and parable to all-dialogue and second-person experiments. Yet, as “alternative” rock lost its meaning a decade ago, contemporary “experimental” fiction often describes something mannered in a strange but oddly predictable way. Kesey, though, produces formally dazzling work that effortlessly and humbly tackles miscarriage, childbirth and stay-at-home fatherhood before taking a turn toward slipstream. ‘Wait,’ which is included in The Best American Short Stories 2007, describes the tenuous social contract in a poorly run airport. The banal procedures of airline delay repeat, becoming odd, then unsettling, then sinister. “Instituto” begins with one man’s accidental discovery of a finishing school staffed with “perfectioners,” and ends with his life forever changed. Like the great Donald Barthelme, Kesey uses visual art as a reference point. Juxtaposing the collage-maker in ‘Fontanel’ and the painter of ‘Scroll’ suggests a key aspect of Kesey’s aesthetic, alternately obsessing over the miniature and the epic.
Kesey writes self-conscious stories, aware they are made of language, ideas and emotion, and it’s work that sometimes falters. Throughout the collection, macroscopic philosophizing (‘Hat’, ‘Strike’ and ‘Cheese’) abuts microscopic dialogue-driven pieces (‘Interview,’ ‘Loess,’ ‘Triangulation’ and ‘Exeunt’). This is disorienting and makes All Over seem like an unbalanced literary meal. The formalist tricks stand out in the works where they are least successful. In Kesey’s best work they yield to and supplement his storytelling talents. ‘Martin,’ for instance, takes the nontraditional literary form of a psychological evaluation of this traditionally underrepresented character: “Martin suffers from the delusion that he is a guitar string... Martin is approximately thirty-one (31) inches long and 0.04 inches in diameter; more precise measurements as to his exact length have been postponed until his upper extremity has been sufficiently relaxed by hypnosis or massage so as to ‘uncurl.’“ This last phrase is almost a prescription for reading a Kesey story: relax yourself above the shoulders and let something nearly unidentifiable — and, in the right hands, immeasurably gorgeous — reveal itself.