The Book from the Sky
North Atlantic Books, 2008, $15.95
There is a gnostic tradition in which Jesus has an imperfect twin, a personage who was once believed to be the turncoat Judas. Early societies made much of the uncanny aura of twins, and the doppelgänger (German for “double-goer”) is the oldest of narrative devices. The double abounds in fiction and film, with countless examples that range from Dostoevsky to “South Park.” In his novel The Book from the Sky, Bard College professor and poet Robert Kelly gives an updated tweak to this ancient story form while mindfully adhering to its orthodox trappings.
Abducted by aliens as a boy, Brother William returns to planet Earth as a prophet—toting a scriptural revelation of odd wisdom that catches on fast. After years of instruction by a “Superior Race,” he has a godlike mastery of the limbic subtleties of human language and communication. In his advanced state, he can explain paranormal workings, such as mind-to-mind transmission, as though it were child’s play: “Each item of information has to be ‘wrapped’ in what is called a cortex of urgency…like…those little cylinders that fly through pneumatic tubes at department stores.”
Because his alien instructors told him that Earth’s people “will spend the next hundred years learning from rectangles of light and information,” Brother William inscribes each truth in the new Bible inside a rectangle, to heighten its luminosity. The opener is: “Darling, I’m saying it one more time. The mind is someone else.” These boxed insights may strike the reader by turns as intriguing and even subversive, or sophistic and banal. Brother William, who narrates much of the novel, details his evangelical logic: “What one saying may fail to do, another may spark. So leaning on one another they might succeed in hobbling into the temple of the mind.”
Kelly is a poet with a religio-mystic bent, for whom the cultic vistas of the universe are routine stops. In his hands, Brother William’s book-within-a-book establishes a fractal authority, even while teetering on inanity. Nonetheless, the master’s message is rejected by a reasonable antagonist, his double—a replica fashioned by the aliens upon the boy’s kidnapping so his disappearance would not be noticed. Ironically, at the point where the gloomy doppelgänger is most incensed by Brother William’s “drivel,” the reader may be starting to marvel at the quirky in-touchness of this gospel, seeing truth rather than fatuity in the statement, “Darling, a good book finds the reader. I found you.”
We learn that the “Darlings” in Brother William’s windows of text are not addressed to just anyone, but meant for his Judas-figure twin, his muse of otherness. Likewise, the book is a providential mirror for his disciples. In a Vanity Fair interview, Brother William elaborates: “A book should be something that shows precisely and clearly the spiritual condition of the reader.” (Kelly’s own readers may be tempted to join the faithful.)
Among the cult’s amusing practices is kissing the bathroom mirror; and one wonders whether a convert’s passing mention of Jacques Lacan, who theorized on the significance of the mirror, is solemn or jokey. The story is toned with a vatic sense of mission, and Kelly’s poetic incongruities exert an eerie force: “Darling, if you want to find heaven keep looking down. The mud has much to tell you.”