Nothing in the World
GUEST REVIEW BY RON CURRIE, JR.
Those who are familiar with Roy Kesey's writing, either through his dispatches from China at the McSweeney's Web site or the scores of stories he's published in magazines and anthologies, know that he is capable of linguistic high-wire acts and flights of thematic fancy that would make Thomas Pynchon blanch. Kesey is a proven stylist, and reading him can be like watching someone who's dedicated himself to mastering the art of the house of cards—the construction grows larger, taller, more improbably complex and precarious, and those observing hold their breath, certain that at any moment the whole thing will come down. But somehow, it never does.
These readers may be surprised, then, when they encounter Nothing in the World, Kesey's first book and winner of the 2005 Bullfight Little Book Prize. The novella, which follows Croatian Josko Banovic through the opening salvos of the war in the Balkans, is on its surface as quiet and spare a book as one is likely to come across. At times it reads like a deliberate exemplar of Ezra Pound's dictum, "Fundamental accuracy of statement is the sole morality of writing."
Soon, though, the book gives the lie to this superficial impression, as we begin to realize that the sober prose, taken as a whole, forms the gauzy, dreamlike fabric of fable. We are in the hands of a writer whose every word is deliberate and purposeful and whose command of the language is first-rate:
He picked the shell up, polished it with his bandana and held it to the light. On the pearled inner surface he saw a reflection of the raw black outline of his eye, but upside down, elongated and strange.
At the story's opening, Josko is a lonely teenaged schoolboy, who has never known a girl and has no friends. There's little that's remarkable about Josko; he's quiet and (of necessity, owing to the utter lack of attention from his peers) close to his family, in particular his older sister Klara, who lives with her husband in another town and for whom Josko pines. One way in which Josko is special, though, is his skill as a spearfisherman. When the bullets begin to fly, this ability will transform Josko from the "invisible" schoolboy into a national hero, a celebrity he seems unable to comprehend and which, owing to a quiet twist of irony, he will suffer for rather than enjoy.
Soon after he is drafted, Josko's camp is bombed by a Serbian jet. He is the only survivor in his squad. Injured and without the leadership that a better-organized military would provide, he wanders off in search of Klara. This is when the book's surreal, nightmarish aspects hit their stride, as Josko, ever more delirious and harried, finds himself pursued by soldiers and driven by the siren call of a mysterious female voice, which he believes belongs to the woman who is his heart's true love.
It's here, too, that the book's greatest accomplishment is slowly teased out. Through Josko, Kesey illustrates the grotesque incongruities of war, how it produces impossible duality, souls in which seemingly contradictory elements can coexist. Josko, like the boy he is, yearns painfully for his sister in one scene; a few pages later, he shoots a man twice in the back and cuts the head off his corpse. He politely insists on paying for rolls from a bakery, then murders a man by slamming his face into the fan of a jeep engine. Like a heartbroken child he follows the voice of the girl he's imagined is his love, then wanders into a cafe and, as a joke, puts on display the severed head of the man he killed earlier and orders a drink for it. Horrible acts, perpetrated with a coolness that borders on sociopathic, but Kesey merely reports them in his clear, subtly lyrical style, refusing to pass judgment of any kind.
Ultimately, this is a war story that defies such easy categorizations as “war story” and brings to mind Tim O'Brien's simple criterion from The Things They Carried: "It comes down to gut instinct. A true war story, if truly told, makes the stomach believe." Nothing in the World does just that.