An Obscure Constellation
Daniel Davis Wood reviews Kyle Coma-Thompson and Tristan Foster’s 926 Years
In The Ongoing Moment (2005), his book on the history of photography, Geoff Dyer takes a brief detour from a discussion of Charis Wilson and Edward Weston to divulge something like a personal metaphysics:
Time passes. People grow old, fall out of love, go their separate ways. Charis and Weston met in 1934, married in 1939; in the fall of 1945 she wrote to tell him that she was leaving him, and in 1946 they were divorced. Weston took his last picture in 1948. He died in 1958. These are the dates… but in one sense dates are irrelevant. The value of a life cannot be assessed chronologically, sequentially. If that were the case then the only bit that matters — like the closing instants of a race — would be how you felt in the seconds before your death. … The moments or phases that make a life worthwhile can come early or late. For athletes, and women dependent solely on their beauty, they always come early. For writers, artists and everyone else they can come at any time. If you are unlucky they do not come at all. … The acts — in an artist’s (or model’s) case, the works and, in an athlete’s, the results — that redeem a life can come in advance of everything requiring redemption.
These are sobering thoughts, and all the more so because Dyer doesn’t seem to know quite how to arrange his prose around them. His sentences read as if jittering with nervousness at the magnitude of what he’d have them express, particularly in that final line. There, exactly where Dyer cuts to the heart of the matter, the style becomes riddled with doubly and triply parenthetical remarks — remarks inside parentheses inside sub-clauses inside a digression marked out by dashes — which detract from the clarity of the thought. Without those remarks, the sentence would read, very simply: “The acts that redeem a life can come in advance of everything requiring redemption.” Superficially straightforward, but with those few words Dyer conceives of an elaborate system of credit and deficit across the span of every human lifetime: a metaphysical schema whereby one’s painstaking accumulation of worth may be balanced out long before the events that impinge on it. Still, Dyer himself is too distracted by the thicket of artists, athletes, and models to begin envisioning this system in all its intricacies.
Although Kyle Coma-Thompson and Tristan Foster don’t say anything so on-the-nose in their new collaborative project, 926 Years, their work invokes a similar metaphysics. Comprising what could be called a flash fiction cycle, 926 Years is a slim collection of twenty-two interlinked stories, each written in an identical form: a single, unbroken paragraph no more than two pages long. The stories are all titled after their central character, though not necessarily using a proper name, and the titles are all appended with an indication of the character’s age: “Yujun … age 26”, “G.W.W. … age 54”, “Greyhound Slim … age 29”. The title of the book refers to the sum of the characters’ ages, and, by encouraging readers to view these formally indistinct sketches in the aggregate, it does something fascinating with the value of the events they depict. As each story crystallises around a single moment in one character’s life, it suggests that that moment holds some particular value. Why this moment and not another? Why not one of the countless alternatives implicit in the character’s history, or in the years they have yet to live? The specific selection of this moment imbues it with special, overriding significance: since it is, for us, our sole moment of access to the life of any given character, it is as far as we know the most significant moment to have befallen them and potentially the most significant that will ever befall them. And yet the formal flattening and aggregation of these moments creates parity between them, effectively equalising their value: what happens to Mrs. Anderson is no more or less significant than what happens to Caleb, Minda, or Rosalice. What are we to make of this view of human worth, whereby an individual apotheosis of sorts — not recognised as such by the person who experiences it — has its distinctions dissolved into a swell of similar moments?
This dissolving of distinctions, especially across the distances that separate people, is a central concern of 926 Years, in the process of composition as much as in the finished product. Both of its authors are accomplished solo writers with standalone story collections to their names: Coma-Thompson’s The Lucky Body and Night In the Sun appeared in 2013 and 2016, respectively, followed by Foster’s Letter to the Author of the Letter to the Father in 2018. They live on opposite sides of the world, too — Coma-Thompson in the United States, Foster in Australia — and, according to the publisher’s blurb, they collaborated on 926 Years without having met. But the work shows no signs of the division of labour. Coma-Thompson and Foster have streamlined the narrative voice of all twenty-two stories and forgone credit for individual entries, so that 926 Years makes it impossible to identify which words belong to whom. To all intents and purposes, the two authors might as well be one. They enact the cumulative effect of their work: their own distinctions dissolve on the page, along with those of their characters.
What emerges from this is a book that asks to be read holistically, despite its thorough fragmentation, and that in fact makes an aesthetic feature of the tension — the oscillation, the flux — between cohesion and dissolution. This feature is most apparent in the fleeting but noticeable connections between stories: not overt intersections of narrative, not chains of cause and effect, but shared concerns, echoing phrases, and recurring imagery. Mostly, these connections manifest in an attraction to Buddhist theology, especially reincarnation. The Dalai Lama appears early on, while one character is a student of Zen Buddhism and another mulls over the Zen concept of “the plague of identities”. Elsewhere, after a man in solitude speculates that the lights he can see in the distance are “waiting for lives and bodies to grow around”, a woman in a different story feels as if she is “carrying within her countless lives, each waiting to break free”; and when another man catches his reflection and sees “[a] life, complete, but it isn’t mine”, he shares the disquiet of an earlier character moved by a memory of “a moment in a childhood that wasn’t his”. More broadly, too, lives connect across impossible distances by way of crises that afford several characters experiences of transcendence. Not epiphanies, not exactly, but instances of derealisation in which characters are struck by something they can’t name: sometimes spiritual, sometimes aesthetic, sometimes both, and sometimes purely — beautifully — interpersonal.
But the most beautiful moments in 926 Years are those in which connections develop by virtue of style and structure. Often, resonances sound out between the stories as the final sentences draw so close to a character that shards of their thoughts and impressions shatter the syntax like buckshot. Five examples from five different lives: “Waved away the blah blah.” “Left it there. The crickets and bird and song and sun.” “By the Door to Hell in Turkmenistan. Worse from there, not safe for work.” “The bared teeth of pure horrorhood and hilarity, Life. That’s mine, right there. Yours?” “When she squints, [the scratches] don’t fade out. No, they get clearer, darker. Show more. Tally marks. Lives taken? Given.” The features of the voice alone — the sentence fragments, the repetition of “there”, the rhetorical questions — enable these and other stories to sing together as a disjunctive choir. Better still, more graceful resonances sound out across the entire collection as later stories perform the motions of an image described near the beginning of the book. This image, true to the larger aesthetic, is one of cohesion, dissolution, and a return to cohesion; of order, a hint of entropy, then order reimposed. It appears in the words of a Zen master whose recorded voice is heard by thirty-one-year-old Rosalice:
Much as the geese and other such birds at the beginning of the winter months fly south towards more temperate climates, it’s the nature of human beings to move in unconscious arrow formation as well. They take turns, leading the pack. The burden of cutting resistance through the air, something they share. Others fly, you see, in the wake; and that is why they form a V. The wake makes for easy flying, particularly at the furthest outermost edges. The ones in the rear work less, conserve strength, eventually make their way towards the top of the V, tip of the arrow, then when it’s time and the leader has tired, assume the vanguard position.
Formation, fragmentation, rearrangement, reformation. As it goes for the migratory birds, so it goes for the people of 926 Years. Lew Wade Wiley, “heir to the Prudential fortune”, pays strangers to tell him their stories and records their lives in a diary. Then, when he kills himself with a bullet to the brain, he releases his hold on his accumulated “[f]licks of lives spoken” and wonders, with his dying thoughts, whether the money he handed over might have been reinvested in his own company. Jens, a guide in an art gallery, spends her days trying to atomise groups of tourists, and encouraging them to relinquish control of themselves — to physically commingle with art — until she meets a man who may actually have broken apart for an instant and reincorporated into his consciousness the residue of another soul. Mrs. Anderson, an elderly woman whose mind and body are both in states of breakdown, is momentarily returned to the fullness of being when roused by the sweet scent of her husband’s sweat; and a boy named Alexander, in conversation with his mother, abruptly falls silent in a way that prompts her to regather herself and put the final strokes on a drawing she began at his suggestion. The drawing is, naturally, a sketch of a bird, an isolate echo of the image given to Rosalice. Alexander’s appearance at the very end of the book, following on from Rosalice’s appearance in second place, gives the echo greater range, a longer arc. So, too, does the fact that the collection opens and closes with two eight-year-olds: Alexander, on the cusp of self-discovery, is himself an echo of the Amish girl in the first story, whose death troubles the thoughts of the sixty-year-old Chaplain Blake.
While these resonances and the more perceptible connections may be beauties in a minor key, they are stirring nonetheless and 926 Years sparkles with them. Some are of course realised to greater effect than others — more subtle, or more awesome, or more elegantly orchestrated — but the highlights far outnumber the slack spots. Among the most impressive: the travails of Lew Wade Wiley, Mrs. Anderson, and Jens; of Babukar, the airport janitor haunted by an encounter with a sleepwalker; of Franklin O., in flight from a private tragedy, “a misstep away from a vertiginous tumble”; and especially the singular stillness endured — embraced? — by Larry Hoavis. Larry is a country bumpkin who spends the entirety of his story doing nothing but sitting outside in a lawn chair, “listening to the breeze play over the flush green leaves of the corn”, and one night, amid the squalor of his life, he experiences a loneliness so sublime that it feels almost holy — indeed, redemptive.
When Larry, at age forty-seven, feels himself “crown[ed]” and then “overthrow[n]” by the cosmic magnitude of his loneliness, has he awoken in one of Dyer’s “moments… that make a life worthwhile”? Does his experience redeem him somehow, of his failures and lapses, his errors and sins? Does it at least dignify him, distinguishing and particularising his too brief, too protracted, ordeal on this planet? And what of the others with whom his experience forms one point in an obscure constellation? Is Tanya Griggs redeemed by her small gesture of compassion to Mr. Thirteen? Is Sebastian, by revealing his vulnerability to a colleague whose response might be unkind? Or Ronnie, jitterbugging and foxtrotting, impromptu, with a lively stranger? Or Shelley Valentine, Malik, Yujun? To answer with an unqualified “yes” would be too extreme, too presumptive and prescriptive: 926 Years isn’t interested in certainties. It is a small, sharp metaphysical gemstone, cut and polished to prismatic effect: the light it captures from a single life refracts through the whole and touches other lives, aslant, to glimmer anew as each story presents a different facet of meaningful experience. If Coma-Thompson and Foster doesn’t decisively answer the question of what a life is worth — or whether, following Dyer, any one moment can make a life worthwhile — they do suggest, with oblique beauty, that value inheres most in those moments at which a life extends its reach to touch, however faintly, other lives in other places, other times.