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Originally published Friday, March 28, 2008 at 12:00 AM

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Pondering the big stuff in "The View from the Seventh Layer"

In "The View from the Seventh Layer," Kevin Brockmeier takes on life's big questions in microscopic particular: what we pay attention to, how we cope with bad things, how we extend love and how we approach death.

Special to The Seattle Times

"The View from the Seventh Layer"

by Kevin Brockmeier

Pantheon, 288 pp., $21.95

With a prismatic new collection of stories, Kevin Brockmeier returns to some of the themes he explored in his haunting 2006 novel, "The Brief History of the Dead." "The View from the Seventh Layer" takes on life's big questions in microscopic particular: what we pay attention to, how we cope with bad things, how we extend love and how we approach death.

Some of Brockmeier's stories seem to possess the ineffable qualities of tales told to us as children, when our imaginations were thirsty to understand the world's mysteries. Many of us since then have staggered through a great number of desiccating, expletive-ridden, dreary lives portrayed in contemporary adult fiction, but Brockmeier slakes our thirst once again with rich language, measured telling, a hint of wonder — sometimes even a sense of hope.

And then you'll get to the piece called "The Human Soul as a Rube Goldberg Device." This devilishly addictive offering is a multiple-choice story, told in the second-person, that allows readers to select from 60-plus pages of riffs on common daily occurrences (phoning a friend, organizing the bookshelf, ordering takeout) in order to assemble a day in "your" life. Once ensnared in this maze of tangents, you could spend hours noodling through the choices, circling back, striking off again in another direction, yet always winding up on the same final page with the same irrevocable ending. I was so wrung out by the experience that I had to put the book down for a week.

A couple of the stories ("The Lady with the Pet Tribble," "Home Videos") don't demand much of the reader, but many of the rest feature intriguing spirits and riddles posed from beyond ordinary dimensions.

In the title story, a woman whose chances for happiness have been thwarted by abuse and psychological isolation finds solace of a sort in her friendship on a radiant, higher plane. In "Father John Melby and the Ghost of Amy Elizabeth," a priest who always has droned through his sermons suddenly is endowed with dazzling rhetoric. When he discovers that his eloquence is being sparked by an apparition who is wrestling with regret and desire, the priest must make a choice between divine outreach and personal purity. Brockmeier would have us all get our hands a little dirty, and our psyches a little bruised, in order to experience life.

He would have us succumb to the siren songs in "Year of Silence" and "A Fable Ending in the Sound of a Thousand Parakeets," in order to listen more closely. He would have us invest all that we know in "The Air Is Full of Little Holes" (inspired by the famous "National Geographic" cover of the Afghan refugee girl), for the chance of coming away with more.

And he would have us try on the thrift-store overcoat featured in "A Fable with Slips of White Paper Spilling from the Pockets." The coat would not, could not fit. But long after you'd shrugged it off, the memory of it would keep you warm.

Copyright © 2008 The Seattle Times Company

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