PHANTOMS by Christian Kiefer

PHANTOMS by Christian Kiefer

Eye on the Indies:
A Look at Indie Authors and their Publishers

By Lanie Tankard, Indie Book Review Editor

Phantoms by Christian Kiefer (New York: Liveright Publishing, April 9, 2019). 288 pages; $26.95, hardcover ISBN 9780871404817.

“These faces in the mirrors
Are but the shadows and phantoms of myself….”
Henry Wadsworth Longfellow,
The Masque of Pandora (1875)
Part VII: The House of Epimetheus

Two wars + two families = one luminous novel of love, hate, secrets, and repercussions—rendered in gorgeous thought-provoking sentences to savor. Here in Phantoms, Christian Kiefer adroitly weaves several generations of othering into a tapestry of American shame.

Vietnam vet John Frazier is working at a filling station as he tries to shake a drug addiction acquired in the war. Staying at his grandmother’s in Newcastle, California, he’s attempting to write a novel about his combat experience—until he’s drawn into truth that’s stranger than fiction. Frazier assumes the role of storyteller in the sixties for an actual tale still unfolding from the forties, but it’s not until the eighties that he’s finally able to set down on paper the whole ugly drama that occurred in Placer County. All the actors from the World War II scenes have died by the time the missing piece of the puzzle arrives at his door. Kiefer skillfully shifts between decades, creating a panoramic of past wars to examine racial intolerance.

In 1969, Evelyn Wilson, an aunt Frazier never really knew, asks him to drive her to Oakland, six hours away. Since Aunt Evelyn is actually “a second cousin twice removed,” Frazier simply refers to her as “Mrs. Wilson.” With the aid of a map, she directs him to the house of a Japanese American woman named Kimiko Takahashi. Upon arrival, it’s clear to Frazier these two women are truly uncomfortable coming face to face after twenty-seven years. As the encounters between Evelyn Wilson and Kim Takahashi continue, he bears witness to the Rashomon effect (conflicting perceptions of past events).

Both families had been close before World War II. The Takahashis had rented a house from the Wilsons in one of California’s Japantowns, where they planted and harvested the Wilson orchard. The Wilson children, Jimmy and Helen, grew up with the Takahashi children: Ray, Doris, and Mary. The plot tension centers on the relationship between Helen and Ray, which had deepened just before the Takahashi family and thousands of their West Coast neighbors (most of whom were American citizens) were put on trains in May 1942 under Executive Order 9066. They were taken to Tule Lake internment camp near the Oregon border in Newell, California, until the war ended.

The novel opens in medias res, with the story beginning in the middle of a sequence of events. Sergeant Ray Takahashi is returning to Newcastle after World War II, having served in the US military. Phantoms implies Ray signed up of his own free will, partly out of a sense of patriotic duty and partly out of hope that doing so might release his family from Camp Tule or lessen racial prejudice. That hope did not pan out, however, and he may not have had a choice about enlisting. Answers to Questions 27 and 28 on the questionnaire given to those entering internment camps forced many into conscription through a catch-22 “loyalty oath.”

Coming back, Ray confronts the psychological aftereffects of war as he remembers the fierce European battles in which he fought: the Vosges Mountains, Anzio, and Monte Cassino. Instead of being hailed as a hero, however, he’s greeted with prejudice. The reception he’d been expecting is nowhere in sight. Why isn’t Helen welcoming Ray? Didn’t they love each other? The home he finds upon return is far different than the one he left. He vanishes, becoming the invisible man. Several decades later, no one—not even his mother—seems to know what happened to him. Hmmm, but is Mrs. Wilson laying all her cards on the table? Ever so slowly the answers surface.

Thrown into the Vietnam storyline is Hector, known as “Chiggers” by Frazier (his closest buddy from ‘Nam), whom Hector calls “Flip.” No parades welcomed them home either. The two men exude post-traumatic stress disorder—or what Jungian analyst Harry Wilmer called “the healing nightmare” when he studied the war dreams of Vietnam veterans. Memories lodged in the collective unconscious can arise unbidden at any time. 

Frazier finds it easier to fictionalize Vietnam than to recall its horrific reality, yet he still has trouble pulling together a manuscript. His writerly struggles besiege Phantoms from beginning to end. It’s a book that’s as much about the writing of itself and the nature of literature as it is a tale tucked within a tale told by a master. Kiefer’s layered metastory technique is akin to a stack of nesting dolls. This method upholds the idea that each person contains many narratives abutting other lives, and all those stories affect our interactions.

Who owns stories anyway—and who gets to tell them? Kiefer anoints Frazier as raconteur to narrate the main Takahashi/Wilson story, thereby breaking the fourth wall by integrating drama techniques à la Bertolt Brecht into metafiction. Frazier’s role as commentator is essential to the performance while remaining outside the main action. And for that reason, his dispassionate observer’s voice resounds.

Phantoms demonstrates why words matter. Kiefer uses the term grammar of exclusion. Consider some of the PR euphemisms Milton Eisenhower and his staff spun for President Franklin D. Roosevelt in the Office of War Information regarding Japanese Americans: evacuees instead of inmates and relocation rather than internment.

Other novels have also addressed the treatment of Japanese Americans during World War II. Kiefer’s intricate tale, however, is distinct from its predecessors—both in structure as well as its use of multiple wars, stories, and time periods. Kiefer ultimately connects the two wars near his book’s end in an unexpected and strong way. Phantoms is a marvelously labyrinthine feat of construction. The novel portrays how unfettered nationalism and fear of foreigners can expose the seamy underbelly of xenophobia in any era.

Christian Kiefer
Author photo by Jessica Eger

Kiefer’s ingenious choice of book title riffs on many aspects of that one word: “phantoms.” It’s an effective framing device with assorted nuances: illusions from childhood impressions, guilt from past deeds, apparitions stalking veterans’ nightmares, or even the actual McDonnell-Douglas F-4 Phantom IIs haunting the Vietnam memories of Frazier—whose military duty in the jungles and mangrove swamps was summoning those jets on his radio to spew fireballs that wiped out whole villages. As John Frazier learns more and more about Ray Takahashi, he forms a brotherly mental bond with him as a fellow soldier, even though they fought in different battles during different wars on different continents in different decades and never met.

Kiefer enlarges the overarching idea of war and its ramifications in a powerful manner. He selects a poignantly appropriate quote from The Sorrow of War: A Novel of North Vietnam by Bảo Ninh as an epigraph for Phantoms, linking the grief of both war and love.

Having just finished reading Phantoms, I was at lunch not long ago with a group of friends when I heard one mention that another in the group had been in an internment camp. I turned to her, asking where. “California” was the answer. I inquired which one.

“Tule Lake,” she replied, but said she remembers very little. “I was only a year old when we went in, and my parents would never speak about the experience later.” In his novel, Kiefer uses the Japanese word gaman, meaning “to suffer in patience, to endure what you cannot control.”

In an amazingly lovely way, Christian Kiefer has offered a cautionary tale for current times. June, that interim month between Memorial Day and the Fourth of July, is an appropriate period to reflect on war per se and ask: What does it take to become American?

Phantoms is a 2019 standout title.

Christian Kiefer is director of the Master of Fine Arts in Creative Writing at Ashland University in Ashland, Ohio, a low-residency program he directs remotely from his home in Placer County, California. He is also West Coast Editor of The Paris Review, a newly created position he began last year, and a 2019 faculty member at Kachemak Bay Writers’ Conference this summer in Homer, Alaska. Kiefer earned a PhD in American literature from the University of California–Davis.

He is the author of two other novels, The Animals (2015) and The Infinite Tides (2012), plus a novella called One Day Soon Time Will Have No Place Left to Hide (2016) and a book of poems, Feeding into Winter (2001). The French translation of The Animals made the shortlist for the 2017 Grand Prix de Littérature Américaine and the 2017 longlist for the Grand Prix de Littérature Policière. He received a 2016 Pushcart Prize for his short story, “Hollywood and Toadvine, published in the Spring 2014 issue of Santa Monica Review. His fiction has appeared in a variety of journals. 

Previously Kiefer was professor of English at American River College in Sacramento, where he codirected the annual Summer Words, a community-based creative writing event. He has been on the English faculty at Sierra Nevada College (Incline Village, Nevada), where he taught fiction in the low-residency MFA program. He also taught at the Community of Writers in Squaw Valley, California.

Kiefer was keynote speaker at the 2016 North Coast Redwoods Writers’ Conference at College of the Redwoods in Crescent City. He has been a contributing editor for Zyzzyva and a fiction reader for Virginia Quarterly Review (VQR). In addition, Kiefer is a songwriter and recording artist

Publisher: Liveright

Liveright is an affiliate publisher of W. W. Norton & Company in New York. Albert Boni and Horace Liveright started Boni & Liveright press in 1917. The publisher became Horace Liveright, Inc., in 1928 and then Liveright, Inc., in 1931. After bankruptcy in 1933, it was reorganized into Liveright Publishing Corporation, Inc. W. W. Norton & Company purchased the remaining backlist in 1974, reviving the Liveright name as an imprint in 2012 and sending Norton Executive Editor Robert Weil over as Liveright editor-in-chief and publishing director.

Weil began his career as an editorial assistant at TIME Books, introduced a book division at the former Omni magazine, was Senior Editor at St. Martin’s Press, and then became Executive Editor at W. W. Norton & Company. He holds a BA in History from Yale.

The Liveright logo represents a cowled monk. Norton submission guidelines on the Liveright website note that they are “no longer able to accept unsolicited submissions. If you are seeking publication, we suggest working with a literary agent who will represent you to the house.”

Copyright 2019 Woven Tale Press LLC. All Rights Reserved

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