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Tribune News Service
Tribune News Service
Kathleen Rooney

Review: 'The Presence of Absence,' by Simon Van Booy

FICTION: Simon Van Booy uses a simple story about an author telling a story to explore the anything-but-simple process of telling a story.

"The Presence of Absence" by Simon Van Booy; David R. Godine (184 pages, $24.95)


To call a writer prolific can be to damn them with faint praise, but Simon Van Booy is without a doubt prolific — prolific, though, in the positive sense of being marked by abundant inventiveness or productivity.

The author of 15 books, including 2021's "Night Came With Many Stars," two novels for children, and three anthologies of philosophy, Van Booy was raised in rural Wales and the Oxfordshire countryside, and currently lives in New York, where his latest book is set.

In "The Presence of Absence," his fifth novel for adults, the main character, Max Little, is also an author and also a prolific one, still relatively young, lying in a Manhattan hospital and dying of an incurable disease, realizing painfully that "everything I've written was child's play — actually, not as wise, because children know they're playing."

The book opens with a self-referential prologue in which Van Booy positions himself as the Little fan chosen by the dead writer's widow, Hadley, to help arrange for the posthumous publication of the "small journal of his last days" that was "too fragmented in its original form" to make sense on its own. Instead, says Van Booy's fictional version of himself, he, Hadley, and the late Little's publisher Sipsworth House decided that Van Booy would incorporate those fragments "into a novel that I would write and publish under my own name with an introduction explaining the circumstances of our collaboration."

Brief, formally playful, and fable-esque, the subsequent highly self-aware text is divided into two sections. The first, "In Vivo" takes these fragments from 27 — which opens, "Most readers expect some crisis in a story's first pages" — in reverse order down to 1, at which point the text disintegrates, just as the life of Little has been doing all along: "Wait / I hear something / voices / shuffling / jst byond the dorr // ggadfley vaREN // WES hal // HA ?? ha."

The second, "Ex Vivo," subtitled "Sotto Voce," pushes the ludic possibilities of words and syntax even further, experimenting with white space and the field of the page, as well as point of view.

This unusual and relentlessly self-reflexive approach allows Van Booy to tell not only the story of the doomed Little, but also to tell the bigger story of how stories are told — their inherently incomplete yet collaborative nature. As Little explains, "Through the act of reading this novel, it's actually you telling the story" because "when you see words, what's imagined comes from your experience of life, not mine."

In addition to referring to itself, Little's text also refers to such literary figures as Shakespeare and Ibsen, as well as such pop culture artifacts as "The A-Team" and "Knight Rider," as he reflects on both his literary career and his childhood.

If you don't just like reading, but reading about reading — how "words are communal yet bring material order through spiritual separation" — then this is the book for you.


Kathleen Rooney is the author, most recently, of the novel "Cher Ami and Major Whittlesey." Her poetry collection "Where Are the Snows," winner of the X.J. Kennedy Prize, was published earlier this year by Texas Review Press.

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