The Utopias Without Us in Christian Kiefer's
One Day Soon Time Will Have No Place Left to Hide
Review by Juan Carlos Reyes
The thing that most lingers after reading Christian Kiefer’s heavily stylized book is the relationship between the artist’s wife, Catlin Poole, and the artist himself, Frank Poole. In fact, it’s the interviews in her voice, the exposition about his drinking problem, her pregnancy and his emotional distance, and when and where they first meet that I still see hanging off the edges of the book flap on my desk. It’s her voice that gives an otherwise and intentionally colorless book its fulcrum.
Kiefer’s style for this narrative feels purposefully isolating. One Day Soon’s narrator is a kind of documentarian giving us a window into the life of an artist in-process. The interviewer describes the couple with the qualitative effects of a camera gazing at them, whether at a diner, at the kitchen table, or arguing between bathroom and bedroom. The narrator makes clear to note the passing, annoyed glances both Caitlin and Frank give to an unnamed you and I, which can be interpreted as either a director/cinematographer combination or an interviewer/photographer pairing, essentially two documentarians explicitly aware of their invasiveness. The narrator’s contextual honesty is both refreshing and wrenching—the same combination of feelings I know I get when I watch narrowly enclosed documentaries.
And in the same way that documentarians narrate the panning camera, the narrator’s voice brings us to tempered scenes and images intended only to bring us into the motivations, frustrations, and even secrets of the subjects themselves.
On the surface, this prose-as-documentary’s focus is Frank Poole, an installation artist whose past work is regularly invoked by the narrator and by the characters themselves. We’re not always told the specifics of his works, though. We’re not always standing with them personally. They’re described to us and often brought to us as “stills” or memories narrated by Frank or Caitlin or the documentarian.
There are times in the book where vivid descriptions of the work are followed by the usual framing of a gallery or museum:
Mixed multimedia installation, Year
It’s this framing that reminds us we’re here to see the work and judge for ourselves. We’re here perusing the halls and leaning low to read the descriptions on the walls. But, most importantly, we’re not getting any closer.
It isn’t difficult to imagine the ambition behind the installations we do get to “see”. The names of the installations are loaded with corporate pop culture references. With Tall Grande Venti, Park Place, and This Too Can Be Yours, the reader is made to imagine the social commentary at the heart of Poole’s work. We’re left to imagine the political nature of his corpus. The exposition makes clear, however, that it is all up for interpretation.
Like all art that wants to be envisioned as a critique but not exclusively a critique, the book’s narrator-documentarian creates an important distance for the reader. Poole is an important artist in this world. He is admired, and he is critically significant. But he is first and foremost an artist, and the reader never loses sight of this. Describing a series of works, for example, Caitlin culminates a commentary on Frank by emphasizing that it isn’t simply (or at all) a matter of criticism. That Frank actually loves the symmetry and artistic impressions and intentions behind the design of a Starbucks or McDonald’s:
“…he really loves those spaces. He really does. People call it all kinds of things. A critique of capitalism. Stuff like that. It drives me crazy. He just wants to preserve the space. That’s all he cares about.”
In other vivid descriptions of installations, Frank’s work seems to lament a perspective of domestic life. It’s What’s For Dinner, for example, takes us into a doorway blocked by glass, encasing a kitchen scene drowned in daylight where there’s “a roast on the center island… a pair of oven mitts resting, one atop the other, next to the roast.” Leading us there is a scene starring a bald man and his wife and two boys in their pajamas playing. In The Pantry, a harsher moment plays out in a surreal replica of a dining room. The far end has been turned into a convenience store with aisles and freezers and at the periphery, “a sales counter with a cash register, a half-full bottle of soda behind, a rack of cigarettes, a wall of hard liquor in tiny bottles.” These brief descriptions of Frank’s work are important insomuch as they’re harbinger to intense revelations, often depicted as something akin “voice-overs,” of a hard childhood. A mother making unnecessary requests. An absent and often abusive father. We get a lot of Frank’s past from Caitlin and from the narrator’s exposition, always concise and seemingly as correlations to the actual project which is the focus of the novella.
The raison d’etre of the novella-documentary is Poole’s creating his greatest creation: an untouched, unblemished, and unpopulated city in the middle of the Nevada desert. Replete with streets and mailboxes, open-designed kitchens and living rooms, the goal comes into focus as the Pooles’ marital solitude and Frank’s past sharpens and the reader interprets the past as a function of the present. Frank creates a place of isolation where no one can actually live. A suburban subdivision, “his own Levittown,” where nothing goes wrong precisely because no one lives there. He creates (and, frankly—no pun intended—they, he and Caitlin, create) an empty utopia, a message that declares, among other things, that perfection might be most readily attainable when no one is allowed to trespass on it. That we can maybe only get at the best of ourselves when we’re not really there.
This runs parallel to the distance between him and Caitlin. Because for the majority of the book, Frank is there but it’s like he’s not there. He’s the image of the artist he thinks he needs to be and not the reflection of a satisfied and whole person behind the art. It’s this tension that becomes heartbreaking the more and more we hear from Caitlin. She and Frank met when she was senior in high school, when the local boy turned renowned artist recruited volunteers for an installation he was crafting. She met him, of course, when she had plans of her own, as she was growing into her own art. Inevitably, however, she forewent college to be with Frank. The unmet fullness reaches a heartbreaking peak when we discover the lengths to which her father supported her—that he was willing to take out the equity on their house to get her to college, to help her make art. She didn’t need it, eventually, because she earned a scholarship on her own merits. But she never used it. She met Frank and settled into the managerial role for his installations.
But she isn’t short of her own vision. Before the end, we get to see the quality and vigor of her own ambitions. After a drunken night sends Frank to the hospital for a spell, Caitlin completes the project on her own. Or at least we presume so because after his stint at the hospital, she walks frank through the all-white, utopian suburbia to see the fruits of their labor. The reader doesn’t get to see how Caitlin may have capped off the project all on her own, but we’re not short on imagining how. Before Frank’s relapse, he’d gotten into an argument with the contractor. The shouting match went as well as you’d imagine when a creative mind lost in a nebulous ideal has to communicate the ethos of that vision to the pragmatic builder who has to complete it. The contractor numbers the homes he’s building. The blueprints make no mention of the names that Frank has given each house. The artist insists upon personalizing the spaces that no one will ever live in. These will be, after all, the most that the installation will have by way of a living reflection. And so Frank gets angry at the perceived slight when the contractor sympathizes with Frank’s naming process but makes clear that as a builder he doesn’t get caught up in all that. He has a job to do, even if that job involves getting harangued for the construction details in a place no one will ever live.
Caitlin is the final bridge for the project, and she redeems them both. There’s only one reaction when Frank finally gets to see the installation for himself: “Jeez, Cait. I don’t know what to say. / How about thank you. / How about I love you.” At the end of the book, we fast forward a year. A narrative move that mimics the leap so many documentaries make before fading to black. We see a sobered Frank whose focus is his child and marriage. The novella-documentary insists to capture him in the narrative redemption trope, soft-spoken and clear-minded, protective of his sobriety and his child. He doesn’t allow the filmmakers to get her on camera. He only shares her name. And after a long pause, the narrator-documentarian describes the near-photographic precision of a version of Frank in frozen time: “He is in light. Almost a halo. Almost. And his face: see as it breaks into a smile.”
We’re left with not a redemption story but an almost-redemption story—not something with a clean ending but with an ongoing ending. No, No: A Dockumentary comes to mind. So do Man on Wire and Searching for Sugarman. All these documentaries share the tropes that One Day Soon uses though with the caveat that Kiefer pulls these off in prose. Like all novellas, you can find every so often room for more asides, lengthier and more welcome backstories when the characters speak to the interviewer-narrator, and spots where we could have gotten more about Frank’s artistic history. But the last section of the last chapter, a recapping timeline, so to speak, proves that the novella’s contained purpose was a correlation between the coldness of Frank’s childhood and the coldness of his masterpiece installation, a blend of solitude, fruition, and the continuity of work. Whether it arrived there to satisfaction will be up to each reader. But that Kiefer managed to clearly define the constraints of the novella and contain himself to proving it can be done can’t be doubted.