impenetrableImagine a college classroom. The professor is giving his umpteenth lecture on Moby Dick when an annoying student begins to call Melville boring. Fed up, the professor tells the student that “to find a book boring speaks, perhaps, to a lack of inner resources. Even boring books aren’t boring. The people who read them are.” This exchange occurs midway through Dan Beachy-Quick’s novel An Impenetrable Screen of Purest Sky, and I have such respect for this dialogue that I wonder whether, when it comes to this book, I lack some inner resources.

The professor mentioned above is Daniel, the narrator of An Impenetrable Screen of Purest Sky, who is hard at work writing a novel titled, of course, An Impenetrable Screen of Purest Sky. In his novel, Daniel collects pieces of his past: “what I write about is myself, my childhood, my friends, dinner parties, music, the bewildering dazzle of social hierarchies, artists I know and the art they make, my father’s work,” resulting in something “long and sprawling and disorderly, tying time in a knot.” In true meta-fictional fashion, Dan Beachy-Quick is describing both his own novel and also Daniel’s novel-within-the-novel. Got it?

Daniel is focused on his relationship with his dead father, whose whimsical job was, as far as I can tell, to translate myth into song. Now, Daniel lives in his father’s house and works in his father’s chair, at his father’s desk—in short, seems to be retracing and revising his father’s life. This is terrifically sad, as is the implication that our lives have already been lived—by our parents, by characters in literature, by somebody other than ourselves.

Also on Daniel’s mind is his past romantic relationship with a woman named Lydia. While many of the characters are obsessed with abstraction (am I allowed to call it pretension instead?), Lydia gains my sympathy for wanting to hear Daniel say, simply, “I love you.” She believes a succinct expression of emotion to be important—a nice contrast with Daniel, who talks about how little the word “I” means (“the fiction of the self,” etc. etc.). A sequence when Daniel and Lydia spend time at a boardwalk carnival is surreal and altogether remarkable, ending with a statement by Lydia that, in context, devastates: “He was just alive.”

But enough about the characters and situations. This is an experimental novel—a novel about what novels are, really—and, like many Coffee House Press books, a plot summary is mostly irrelevant: This is a book of Ideas (some more interesting than others) about writers, academics, artists, intellectuals—people who discuss Borges at cocktail parties—written in a way that spans various genres of text, telling the “story” not just through Daniel’s narration, but also through excerpts from his novel-within-the-novel, his father’s letters, occasional poems (Beachy-Quick writes poetry for his day job, after all), and some material about a girl named Pearl which, frankly, I didn’t understand at all.

If nothing else, everything is beautifully written. Here is Beachy-Quick’s description of somebody having walked from wet grass onto cement: “the dew being removed with each step became the dew-wet marks that darkened the cement, each step less distinct as the wet soles dried, soon just a circle-of-heel behind a circle-of-toe, and then only the toe…” As a poet, Beachy-Quick knows how to create tension within his language: On one page, he can move from abstractions like “[t]he hour stretched out before me, longer than itself” to simple statements of fact like “[m]y father’s name was Allan; my mother’s name was Maria.”

My favorite portions of this novel are the rare ones that create emotional intimacy. “In another universe I wasn’t so sad,” Daniel narrates at one point, and it’s the closest I ever feel to this character. But the meta-fictional gestures are (mostly) predictable. (When Daniel’s novel-within-the-novel turned out to be titled An Impenetrable Screen of Purest Sky, I groaned.) This novel feels like the result of a brilliant dude falling completely inside his own head—and during some long passages of Daniel walking and thinking, my interest fades. When the end comes and some form of plot kicks in (pregnancy? paternal twists?), it feels forced and a little melodramatic.

I don’t think I’m misrepresenting An Impenetrable Screen of Purest Sky, nor am I kidding when I call Beachy-Quick a brilliant dude. Certainly he’s a lot smarter than I am. Each of my criticisms he answers somewhere in his text, very cleverly. But maybe this cleverness is part of the problem. He is so aware of—and committed to—trying to break the form of the novel that he never manages to truly break the form of the novel (especially when compared to many other Coffee House Press books, including Norah Labiner’s excellent Let the Dark Flower Blossom, published earlier this year). Wasn’t it David Mamet who said something about how whenever a writer tries to be original, he or she comes up with a cliché? Beachy-Quick’s novel seems like the sort of primer a professor might give his students—an introduction to commonly used techniques and tropes of postmodernism, perhaps—before delving into some headier works.

In his introduction to An Impenetrable Screen of Purest Sky, Chris Fischbach (Coffee House Press’s publisher) compares Beachy-Quick’s novel to The Tree of Life, which comparison I would agree with if Terrence Malick’s film consisted only of the scenes in which Sean Penn wanders aimlessly around Houston and then, later, that random beach. Those scenes, though “avant-garde,” are experimental in a predictable way—are, basically, the type of thing people imagine when they hear the phrase “experimental film.” But what makes The Tree of Life a masterpiece (and truly original) is how it grounds its abstractions in familiar images of childhood—the shaded streets and shadows against pavement—which images seem concrete and well-observed and, yes, universal. Malick, a fundamentally friendly filmmaker, invites viewers into his larger vision. Beachy-Quick’s novel, on the other hand, locks all its doors and windows, pulls down all its shades, hangs up a sign: WARNING! ART INSIDE!

As Daniel tells Lydia, the danger present in Moby Dick—the danger of being alone on the masthead—isn’t just that you might fall, but rather what you might fall into: yourself. “That’s why it’s good not to be alone,” Lydia says. An Impenetrable Screen of Purest Sky feels seriously, seriously alone, and I mean that in a way neither laudatory nor critical—just bemused.