The second installment of The Novel of Now: Micro-Reviews covers Phantoms by Christian Kiefer, published in April of 2019. This series presents reviews of contemporary novels written by college seniors in a class led by our very own Brandon Williams. Get their take on Phantoms below.
In the Spring quarter of 2019, I taught a class called The Novel of Now in our Creative Writing undergraduate major at the University of California, Riverside. It was a course aimed at graduating seniors, preparing them for the transition from the role of students into, hopefully, the writing world.
As part of this class, we read nine just-published books, each of which had been released within a couple weeks of our discussion (most of them the week before we convened in class). These were books that caught our attention because of buzz built before publication, but no books were chosen for the lessons I expected them to teach; instead, the class itself, and each student individually, would decide what value these books presented (or failed to present). All we had to go on were the blurbs on the back, the book jacket copy, the text itself, and our own opinions. The goal was to let the students start to build their own canon, to begin to define their own aesthetic. At least from my perspective, the course went incredibly well—we had complicated, nuanced discussions, and I watched each student work on the process of creating their own definition of story.
After the quarter was finished, I emailed the class and asked them to write micro-reviews of any books about which they felt they had something valuable to say. After all, they had built well-formulated opinions, and they had tested those opinions in lengthy class discussions. Ten students took me up on that email (as a point of clarification that matters to no one but me, most likely: a few of them were not officially in the class, but were simply reading along). Some reviewed every book, some just a few. We will present them over the next eight weeks, with some light editing for clarity, grammar, and spoilers.
Phantoms by Christian Kiefer
Quick Synopsis: A writer explores the novel he could never complete, based on a sordid family history of racism and betrayal, and attempts to put the various pieces of the long-hidden story through many years.
Phantoms, by Christian Kiefer, is a book with a character named John Frazier, who attempts to recreate a story of two women, Evelyn Wilson, and Kimiko Takahashi, who have had some fallout after the internment camp. This story is trying to be historical, and that’s okay—however, the story is centered about what happened to Ray Takahashi. Mind you, John is more like a third party person, writing about made-up events of Ray Takahashi and the relationship with Evelyn’s daughter, Helen.
One of the setbacks of reading this book is that this often goes back and forth between John’s telling of Evelyn and Kimiko, and the made-up events of Ray and Helen. Another setback was Kiefer’s attempt at building mystery to what happened to Ray. I liked the idea of mystery, but this enjoyment probably lasted for one-third of the book, seeing as Evelyn and Kimiko somehow trust John. Despite the above, I still enjoyed the story for its pacing of the details of events, and the attempt at building characters in a historical time such as this one.
Everyone had mixed feelings about the book and it mainly had to do with the way it was told. It starts out in a third-person perspective following a young man named Ray Takahashi who has just come back from fighting in WW2. He goes to his original home expecting to be welcomed with open arms but is instead confused as his former neighbor forces him to go away. Interesting concept for a first chapter.
That all changes with the second chapter which switches perspectives to a new character. The book jacket shows that there would be two main characters, but it made it seem as though it would go back and forth or something of the sorts. However, that does not happen since the second main character is telling the whole story. The problem with this is that Ray’s story is now being seen and told through another person’s point of view. The class agreed that this was probably not the best decision since the new character’s plot is not as exciting or important.
What I liked about this book was that it was a different way of storytelling compared to the other books we read. This was set around the sixties while the other stories were set in modern day which meant there was a limit on what the author could do. I would say that this story affected me personally because of everything that is going on in my life right now. My mother and grandmother keep telling me stories about their experiences coming to the states and how lucky they were to be able to come here. For me being a first generation college student reading about a story about a family struggling to survive affected me deeply.
Phantoms by Christian Kiefer was a novel focused on two settings, two main characters, and two families at odds. The first person we are introduced to is Ray Takahashi, a first generation Japanese-American that fought in World War II. Then in the next chapter, the story takes place a decade later and we are introduced to John Frazier. John is a young writer that just came back to America from fighting in the Vietnam War. It is through John that we find out more about Ray, his family, and their neighbors the Wilsons. This is a novel that touches on themes such as discrimination, war, coming back from war, toxic love, friendship, and vengeance.
One thing I admired from this novel was how it handles its characters. Mainly its secondary characters like the Takahashis and the Wilsons. From the beginning we find out more about these two families and how they are interwoven. We slowly discover their conflict with each other and are made to understand each character’s personality, motives, and family dynamic. As I read, I found myself caring and sympathizing with some characters while hating yet understanding others. I also wanted to find out more about them and loved when the story focused on them because that is where all the drama and story beats truly were.
If there was one thing I would have to nitpick with this novel is the author’s choice of perspective. The novel is mostly handled in John’s perspective, which I found very odd considering John has almost nothing to do with Ray, the Takahashi family, or the Wilson family. Ray seemed like the most complex and interesting character while John was just the observer. This limits what we know about Ray because the reader only knows what John has heard. Keep in mind John has never meet Ray. When my class and I sat down to discussed this we came up with a theory. Kiefer may have first went into this novel wanting to write about the Japanese American experience pre-WWII and post-WWII. However, since he’s a white male he may have come to the realization this may not be his story to tell. Thus, he created John and this suddenly becomes John’s story to tell by the end of the book. In conclusion, despite my conflicts I would say this was one book I did enjoy reading in class.
The novel Phantoms, by Christian Kiefer, chooses to focus on the post war life of both the narrator John Frazier and the mysterious Ray Takahashi. John is related to the Wilson family, whom the reader learns has extremely close relations with the Takahashi family, and is on the mission to discover what truly happened with the Wilsons and the Takahashis.
This book focuses largely on the politically-induced racial division in America post World War II and the war in Vietnam. Christian Kiefer’s writing style is extremely easy to read and understandable to any audience. He doesn’t seem to aim for any level of difficulty, but keeps the writing style simple which allows the material to be accessible to a wider array of audiences. He also does a great job of making characters very real in their actions. The novel takes a turn toward the mysterious, unexpected considering that isn’t how it was portrayed on the book jacket. The reader follows the narrator on the discovery to find out what exactly happened to Ray Takahashi. In the end, the reader learns exactly what happened to Ray Takahashi after the war, but what does that do for the novel as a whole? As the reader begins to get more clues to Ray’s whereabouts, thus getting more curious and hopeful for his safe return, the author uses this hope as a tool to speak yet again on the racial discrimination against Japanese people living in America after World War II.
Kiefer highlights racial discrimination which is an ever relevant topic today. It is a common theme throughout American history for this type of racial clumping to happen after a larger event. One bad person does something, but instead of being labeled as just a bad person, they are labeled by their race, religion, class, thus causing rifts between the unrelated individuals of their same race, religion, and class to the uneducated and biased individuals of the world.
Collected and Edited by Brandon Williams