The Book from the Sky
(This review originally appeared in Rain Taxi Review of Books,
“I’m on my way back.” So begins this mystical tale of alien abduction, told from the strange dual consciousness of the abductee, Billy, who was taken when he was twelve in the years after World War II — the heyday of UFO sightings. “I have a story to tell you,” he says in the preface, “and I have many wise things to tell you. I used to be a little boy, like you, and now I’m a religion.”
Prolific poet and novelist Robert Kelly concocts a complex and compelling story that explores the metaphysical origins of language, spirituality and identity. The Book from the Sky is at once a confessional and a spiritual guide book, a book that intersperses odd aphoristic affirmations with an internal journey of divorced selves who, much like entangled quantum particles with their “spooky action at a distance,” have inextricably intertwined fates.
When Billy chases the light in the sky (and chases it with pretty, young Eileen), alien beings grab him from the shrubs and take him aboard their ship. Billy wonders why he is able to understand their language, which they claim is “a language that is . . . before and inside all other languages. . . . Our sentences are like water, they find the spaces left in your ideas and your way of saying.” While aboard the spaceship, his captors create a double of him. With disquieting detachedness, the older Billy describes his own evisceration (or “Vivi-redaction” as the aliens term it), his organs replaced with a clock, an old postcard, a tobacco pouch; for lungs the aliens give him “two grey squirrels, apparently alive and breathing, and nested together like a pair of shoes in a shoe box, tail of one to the head of the other.”
The other Billy, the double, returns to Earth, to the life left behind, to grow up the normal way. “One went up and one went down, one went to earth one went to heaven, one went to symmetry one went to the actual.” It is this split that makes Billy question his own identity and begin to identify with his alien captors, as well as to disregard interfering emotions. Thus, as much as this novel is about the double, it is also a coming-of-age story, with an inquisitive child on the cusp of adolescence, yearning for respect and knowledge, yearning to be noticed. Eventually he does what the aliens want him to do: he writes the pamphlet “A Book from the Sky” and, as Brother William, brings it back to Earth to teach to the masses: “Getting by words a thought ready for thinking.”
The trope of the double has particular resonance in its depiction of the human mind at war with itself. Physically, the brain is split in two, and this bicameral brain creates a duality of consciousness; the theory is that the voices in your head come from the right side of your brain, and are perceived by the left.
Julian Jaynes’s landmark book The Origin of Consciousness in the Breakdown of the Bicameral Mind (1976) proposes that ancient peoples believed the voices in their heads to be commands from the gods. Many spiritual teachers believe there is a higher self, a Presence or Observer, which is connected with a universal consciousness. It is by accessing this true self that we overcome the materialism and destructiveness of the lower self, or ego.
Kelly smartly taps into this identity crisis, this duality that propels, repels, and expels. While Part One of The Book from the Sky follows the abducted Billy’s experience in alien exile, Part Two follows the earthbound Billy, or “Jack” as he calls himself: Brother William may represent the spiritual guru side of the mind, but Jack is the lusty, skeptical, unmoored persona who gets abducted in his own right by his own desires. In London on a business trip with his wife and daughter, they become quickly forgotten when he chances upon Verity, a woman gardening in the dirt at a botanical garden in Cambridge. Jack steps out of his identity — literally falls through the earth, like Alice down her rabbit hole, into another life — as an inner voice steers him inevitably toward his double. Verity is a convert, an eager follower of Brother William, and she excitedly makes him read her dog-eared copy of “A Book from the Sky,” although all that Jack wants to do is rut with Verity.
Subverting the voice so that the narrator seems to be at once present and removed from the action, Kelly’s eerie perspective creates a sense of doubleness in the language itself. And the language is beautiful. While propelling the reader ever forward into this strange tale, the language also revels in simple yet profound moments of transcendence. We are at once inside the minds of both Jack and Brother William — and even the twelve-year-old Billy in Part One — crossing barriers of time and space. Interspersed in the narrative are offerings from Brother William’s pamphlet — each set off in boxes and beginning, disconcertingly, with “Darling.” This term of endearment is weird and disarming. Some of them are profound, while others seem silly, but they all feel specific to the human condition. “Darling, believe me. You are not an ordinary person. Believe me, you wouldn’t be holding this book in your hand if this were not true.”
The concept of identity and who we really are — are we our thoughts or what we do or even, as Brother William suggests, “what you make other people feel”? — gets mired in the ultimate desires of our species. Part Three of The Book from the Sky follows the inevitable trajectory of these split beings, bringing them together with disastrous results. “Darling, you don’t know what death is. . . . You don’t even know what it means to be dead.”
This entrancing novel lures the reader with a science fiction story and then unravels amazing ideas that spiral outward. And its singular voice keeps coming back, proving true what Kelly says: “a book colonizes your mind.” As this book settles in the reader’s mind, one must be content to let the ideas take on a life of their own. For just as one must observe the passing of a satellite in the sky indirectly, placing their gaze behind or in front of the moving object, this book cannot be pinned down or seen as any one thing. That is the strength and pure joy of it.