Is there any good Groundhog Day fiction out there? Other than the obvious one, I mean, the great Harold Ramis-Bill Murry film? I’d love to write holiday-themed posts for this blog, but unfortunately, I’m 0 for 2, not writing about Martin Luther King, Jr., a couple of weeks ago, and today failing again to write about groundhogs. If there’ve been other holidays since New Year’s Day (damn, I forgot about New Year’s Day … 0 for 3 …), then I haven’t done those, either.
I am continuing with my mini-theme week with my second of five posts that feature Missouri State-connected authors. I’ve been at MSU for four years now and have really enjoyed my time here. I’ve also gotten to know about the culture and traditions of the university and the region, the Ozarks. I know that Brad Pitt grew up in Springfield, as did Bob Barker during his teen years (three quick facts about Bob Barker: 1) is a member of the Sioux Nation; 2) played college basketball on a scholarship; 3) was a Navy fighter pilot). Cashew chicken was invented here, it is the birthplace of Route 66, and the all-time leading scorer in women’s basketball history, Jackie Stiles, played for the Bears.
I also know that Kevin Brockmeier is one of our creative writing program’s most distinguished alum, getting a B.A. here back in the nineties. Starting with my first semester, fall 2012, I’ve taught his story “The Ceiling” in every workshop class the first week, along with “Missing Women” by June Spence, another anthologized story by an MSU alum. The idea is to brag about our alum a bit, showcase their writing, and say, “Hey, Kevin Brockmeier sat right there [professor points at a student in a desk], took this class, and now he’s in this anthology and we’re reading him.” I love those two stories and can’t foresee me taking them off the syllabus any time soon. Go Bears!
Today, though, I want to write about a story from Brockmeier’s second collection, The View From the Seventh Layer. I’ve chosen my favorite story in the book, “The Lady With the Pet Tribble.” Star Trek fans will know what a tribble is, those hairy balls of live-action menace that appear in an episode of the landmark series, and then again, using the original footage, in Deep Space Nine. Fans of oft-anthologized short stories and Russian literature will know the reference to the Anton Chekhov’s “The Lady With the Pet Dog.” What do Chekhov and Star Trek have in common? Again, fans of Star Trek, even the most casual, will make the connection, one that plays a hefty role in Brockmeier’s story. So today’s entry is basically fan fiction, for the Chekhov story, but mostly the TV show, and I don’t remember when I’ve enjoyed reading as a story as much as I enjoyed “The Lady With the Pet Tribble.”
Brockmeier mimics the style and plot of “The Lady With the Pet Dog” as much as it can, considering it takes place on the pleasure planet, Sirius, and the protagonist is none other than James Tiberius Kirk. Since Brockmeier’s book is a major publication, out on Vintage, he couldn’t use the name “James T. Kirk,” but instead is referred to as “James” or “Jim” or Keptin. Other characters use Star Trek first names, e.g., Scotty, but Brockmeier employs monikers like “Commander S.” for the science officer and second-in-command (for you non-fans, that’s anti-lawsuit lingo for “Spock”). But the narrator meets the woman in Brockmeier’s the same way that Chekhov’s protagonist does, describing her with language and images that mirror the Russian master’s. The plot is basically the same, too, except it takes place in outer space, some of the women are green, and the titular dog is now a titular tribble. I can easily imagine William Shatner, in the seventies, at the height of his “Rocket Man” performance, being asked to read the classics for books on tape, reading Chekhov’s story in the same voice I heard Brockmeier’s character speak in. It’s a lark, a riotous romp, but Brockmeier still makes it easy to care about his Keptin’s feelings, his despair, even when the two plots—Chekhov’s original and the 1967 tribble episode—converge. I don’t read fan fiction and ban it from my workshops, but if you’re going to do fan fiction, the bar has been raised: this smash-up is genius and I dare anyone to do any better.
The best line, a nod to Shatner’s off-maligned acting style: “The Keptin was a skilled interpreter of tone and inflection, but ….”
Other stories in The View From the Seventh Layer venture into other types of science fiction and fantasy and whathaveyou. One particularly long piece, “The Human Soul as a Rube Goldberg Device: A Choose-Your Own-Adventure Story,” delivers on its promise. Brockmeier also sprinkles a smattering of fables into the collection, “A Fable Ending in the Sound of a Thousand Parakeets,” “A Fable With a Photograph of a Glass Mobile on the Wall,” etc. Its eclecticism reminds me of The Girl With Curious Hair by David Foster Wallace, an author writing a wide variety of high-concept pieces, though Brockmeier may be more fantasy and sci-fi based.
Kevin Brockmeier is one of Missouri State’s more notable alum, author or otherwise, and when I read The View From the Seventh Layer or his tremendous afterlife novel The Brief History of the Dead, it’s easy to see why. He is a writer of tremendous creativity and execution, and everything I’ve read for him has only made me want to read more. I am officially putting in my request for “Hills Like White Elephants” meets the WKRP in Cincinnati turkey episode.