In the Reflection That Is You, No One Is Looking Back but You
Christian Kiefer’s novella is a testament to language in the face of a curious and exciting hybrid form
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In Christian Kiefer’s novella One Day Soon Time Will Have No Place Left to Hide, Frank Poole is building a subdivision in the Nevada desert. It is to be entirely devoid of color and inhabited by no one. It will have its insides filmed from many angles and will last forever. Frank can do this because he is a famous installation artist; someone has given him the resources to do so. It would be a thing both disturbing and wonderful to behold, this white behemoth. For Frank, it is the antidote to a disintegrated childhood. I imagine the Artic, but manmade and without the need for fancy subzero clothing. Either way, it is fantastical and must be viewed from afar.
“Perhaps from the early years of suburbia, but nonetheless of a design we recognize. White roof tiles. White stucco walls. White doors. Through the window … white interiors … white sofas. The televisions are not yet powered, but they will be tuned to white static. … It is like a landscape constructed entirely of powder.”
Frank’s wife, Caitlin, has given up her own art career to handle Frank. A familiar scenario (see: Jackson Pollack and Lee Radzwill, Paul and Jane Bowles, Robert Smithson and Nancy Holt). Caitlin and Frank’s relationship is — sadly or not — timeless, and as such, worthy of investigation. Like Frank’s project, they are very much of the conceptual art world: inward, cerebral, and prone to melancholy. Just as there have been countless retellings of the tension between father and son, children with absent mothers (thank you, German fairytales), and the drab-but-brilliant and therefore misunderstood daughter, the couple’s unequal dynamic feels familiar. Kiefer rescues the duo from trope hell by his method of presentation (more on that in a moment). He writes a couple the reader can recognize, maybe even have a working familiarity with. In this way there can be anchor against all of the elements of the story that are so brilliantly askew.
The story unfolds with a plural, distant omniscience. Soon enough, the reader finds they’re looking at the text of a documentary. Not a script per se, but rather, One Day Soon Time Will Have No Place Left to Hide reads as if a transcription of the narration and dialog from rough video footage, adding in bone-bare scene descriptions. Kiefer has the reader form their version of the installation based on the text that purports to be the raw material for another art form, one which is inherently biased (regardless of what documentarians say). This mode is curious indeed, but also makes sense, in the way that many successful oversized conceptual works do. In many cases, we do not experience works of art in their original mode, but rather, through their documentation: a video of a performance piece, images of an earthworks, or residue of process art. At best, the craft of the thing falls away (it must), revealing the idea itself. The force of the work comes from the viewer’s response to what the piece or the performance might have been like, which to me, sounds like the experience of reading. As with most formally-inventive works, you can think about it until your head splits, or you can hop aboard and see what happens.
Meanwhile, Caitlin is pregnant. Frank is drinking again. To top it off, the contractors on the project think he’s a madman. Real-world problems, like money, the skankiness of cheap casino hotels, and frantic phone calls from the mother-in-law ground this otherwise heady book. Kiefer’s attention to detail tamps down the lives of the “subjects” of the documentary. In somehow proving the “reality” of these lives, the massive installation (which feels impossible, even within the fictional world) becomes totally doable. If Caitlin and Frank are eating eggs from the buffet at the Lucky Hotel Casino, then yes, a pristine, chalk-white development will soon arise from the desert.
The project itself refers to voids in Frank’s history, which the documentarian/narrator offers up in fragments. The viewer/reader is directed towards cracking open ideas of home, while for Frank, the project might provide catharsis. Caitlin and the contractors just want it to be over.
Occasionally, the narration takes a fourth wall-style flip. It was at these moments that I felt the least convinced of the documentary mode, despite the fact that a number of documentaries do exactly this. I felt most aware of my position as a person with a certain amount of experience in the art world, and slightly less in the literary one, assessing something that is meta both of them.
“Frank sips a martini awkwardly, nodding as a woman he will never remember tells him stories he does not care about.
Can we go now? he says.
He turns to look at you now, right through time and memory and into your eyes.
Can we just go home?”
Frank and Caitlin hole up in a crummy hotel to work, living like nomads, tooling around the Nevada casino wastelands. The concept behind this book, both its form as well as the art projects it contains, are so innovative that it could be possible to overlook the writing, which is quite lovely. Kiefer is adept at noticing and describing, qualities integral to the visual arts.
“Winnemucca, Nevada is part of this same landscape: a scattering of houses and steel- roofed buildings and fast food restaurants flung upon a flat tableland between the high treeless mountains of the Santa Rosa Range and the Sonoma. It is a place perpetually howling with wind, the force of which sweeps down through the passes and across the yellow-tipped sagebrush that manages to hold, at the base of each plant, a small hillock of black dirt.”
While Frank may claim that his project is about home, I would argue that the book is also about intervention and the impossibility of control. Snippets of Frank’s youth appear throughout the text. Psychotropic, poetic and very slippery, they are the opposite of Frank’s work.
“And there is water. So much water pouring across the floor in streams now, in rivers, spraying through the cracked glass of the windows. The sofa adrift. The chairs toppling into the swirl. … You would reach into that current to grab hold of them — a shirt, a hank of hair, perhaps a thing pale wrist — but there is nothing to hold in that swirl, nothing but water, loose bits of trash, scraps of sodden newsprint. Your hand would curl around such things nonetheless.”
This book is the opposite of a graphic novel, which pairs images with text to form the motion and shape of the story. It’s more like a drone camera with a keyboard. Or, maybe a TTD machine manned by Werner Herzog, who is taking transcription from Yoko Ono. Or, Bob Ross painting John Cage’s 4’33” using only white. Frank glances up at you briefly, his eyes flickering across the lens, a gesture so fast you do not know if you have seen it at all.
What if this book, besides being a story, is a conceptual artwork, that just happens to be made of words? Think about it.