"A Life Transparent" Book Review
Written by Tony Jones
Published by Bloodshot Books
Written by Todd Keisling
2021, 220 pages, Fiction
Released on 2nd March 2021
Simply put, Todd Keisling’s Devil’s Creek is one of the most outstanding novels of 2020 and of such quality the author deserves to have a new legion of curious fans flocking to their work. Hopefully for Todd, such readers find themselves sifting through his impressive back catalogue, which features novellas, short stories, collections, and other novels. A Life Transparent is the oldest of these, first published in 2007, with its sequel The Liminal Man following five years later. Keisling was fresh out of college when he wrote this first effort and in the fascinating end notes reveals that he has tidied the manuscript up slightly and made several minor chapter amendments, otherwise it is relatively unchanged from first time around. The author also promises a brand new, third and final book, at some point in the not-too-distant future.
If you are expecting another fix of cults, dodgy religion and supernatural horror from the same ballpark as Devil’s Creek, then you might be disappointed, A Life Transparent is not that type of novel. The main character is Donovan Candle, who works in telesales in a company where he is under-appreciated and struggling for promotion. Meeting his ever-increasing sales targets revolves around selling security software preventing identity theft and it is a tough market to crack. One of the background themes involves following your dreams, which Donovan most definitely has not done. Even though he has a college education, he feels like a failure, which is reinforced by his brother, who is a successful private detective and rubs his nose in it whenever they chat on the phone.
One could argue that Todd Keisling does too convincing a job of making his main character a boring ordinary Joe, because that is exactly what he is. Donovan is just too dull to carry an entire novel on his shoulders, but events definitely move up a gear when he is forced out of his comfort zone. I appreciate this dullness is partially the point, but he is just too whiney and weak to have the majority of the plot built around him, and the occasional diversion to his wife are a welcome change. Donovan has been stuck in the same job for years, is never late, has a sick wife at home and accepts the daily trudge of a life going nowhere until weird stuff begins to happen. He starts to flicker and disappear, almost as if he is being deleted from existence. Things come to a head after he under performs in an annual review and he refuses to take his wife away for the weekend, as they do not have (or so he says) the cash to spare. Would anybody truly notice if he did disappear? A good question and one which the author wants the reader to ask.
Early in proceedings his wife vanishes and their flat is trashed after a fight with an intruder, and quickly Donovan is ripped into this bizarre other world where he is blackmailed into following a set of dodgy tasks from a sinister stranger, leading him to another place which bleeds into our existence. Welcome to the Monochrome World, where everything is in black-and-white and ticks at a slightly different pace to our dimension. To save his kidnapped wife Todd must step out of his mundane comfort zone, which is tricky for a guy who has lived the same day on repeat for over ten years or longer. Although I was engaged in finding out where the plot was heading, the Monochrome World did not exactly fire my imagination or grab me by the throat. Again, perhaps it was not meant to? Instead, it came across as a bland type of purgatory where not much happens. Donovan could have fitted right in.
A Life Transparent also has strong science fiction leanings, which blend nicely with the detective angle of the story. In the early stages, Donovan’s brother comes across as a bit of a big mouth, but I found myself warming to him as the story evolved and it connects nicely to his only true enjoyment (or is it?) in a stalled ‘work in progress’ detective novel he has been slaving over for several years but is not really going anywhere. The novel has a lot of symbolism (the detective novel being a great example), much of which is fairly obvious, revolving around fighting the boredom of everyday life, which is even reflected in the names of the creatures, ‘Yawnings’ and ‘Cretins’. This is a very quirky read, which is easy to speed through, and I am sure individual readers will home in on different aspects of what is undoubtedly an odd book.
The story, which utilises both horror and science fiction, explores the universal desire to make a mark and leave something tangible behind and the potential which life may offer, or perhaps even the famous American Dream. One could put this into the context of Todd Keisling’s writing career; A Life Transparent is a very commendable first effort and provides early signs that much better lies ahead, with the likes of Devil’s Creek, the collection Ugly Little Things and The Final Reconciliation being convincing examples of a horror writer who is seriously hitting his stride.
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