The setting of Sleight is recognizably modern-day America. Things are slightly off-kilter in a way that most of us have grown accustomed to. Certain postmodern touches quietly sidle into the story, one by one, until the listener is surrounded by a cast of characters who can’t seem to (or perhaps don’t see any reason to) differentiate between the abstract and the concrete elements of life. For example, one of the central characters grows “Needs” within her body, expels them in a difficult and unpleasant way, then kills them. Once they are dead, she artistically converts them into objects called “Souls,” which she sells from a kiosk on an urban street corner. This is not an abstract concept or a metaphorical way of discussing a creative process, but a physical occurrence in the world of the story. Another main character carries a stone in one hand (he switches hands once annually at the New Year) every minute of every day of his life—his way of attempting to atone for a rash and catastrophic act in his youth.
The title refers to a fictitious performance art form that apparently somehow blends architecture, acrobatics, mysticism, geometry, dance, sculpture and spoken word. All of the characters in the novel are steeped in sleight as not only a profession, but a compulsion, a burden, an inspiration, an atmosphere, a planet—for most of the players here, sleight is life itself. A doctoral fellow in dance at Temple University at the time of the novel’s publication, author Kirsten Kaschock has obviously spent enough time in the performing arts to understand this phenomenon very well and to portray it clearly. The artists’ personalities and interplay are recognizable, but the author is less successful at bringing the nuts and bolts of sleight itself to life and making it real for the listener. This is not a story in which action is very important overall, but the intrinsically vague and abstract nature of the mechanics of sleight tends to make it hard to envision what’s happening in the rehearsal chambers and on the stage. Add to that the unfamiliar terminology the author deploys in support of her made-up art form, and you get a narrative thread that proves difficult to follow at times.
Sleight, the novel, turns out to be just as difficult to describe as “sleight,” the art form. At the story’s center are sisters Lark and Clef Scrye, both of whom began training and working as sleightists when very young. Lark left the life, however, and has been living in self-imposed exile from sleight, consumed by her body’s expulsion of Needs and their conversion into Souls, as mentioned above. Clef, still an active sleightist, gets caught up in the inevitable drama and intrigue when the enigmatic sleight director West conceives a grand plan to combine two sleight troupes and create a performance piece like nothing ever seen before, and Lark gets sucked back in at the same time. Mysterious hidden talents come to light, with disturbing and unexpected consequences — especially when West recruits a young outsider named Byrne, and a longstanding case involving missing children is solved.
Adam Verner narrates Sleight with clarity and precision, and adopts the novel’s prevailing tone of cool detachment as his own. When things are as trippy and hard to pin down as they tend to get in this story, it takes a straight-arrow, matter-of-fact reader to lend a sense of reality to the proceedings. Verner does quite well on this score.
Sleight is not for everyone, but for those who are comfortable with the abstract and who like a narrative that challenges at every turn, this novel offers much reward. Reminiscent of the works of Aimee Bender and Jonathan Carroll in both style and substance, the story relies on the reader to meet it halfway, and supplies a dreamy surrealism that makes its own logic and is often quite beautiful. Kaschock is not only a dancer, but also a poet, which is apparent in her facility with language, especially her willingness to be experimental with it. Her experimentation pays off, with many lovely and unusual juxtapositions that surprise and delight, and smell like truth. For instance, “‘What other mirrors are there?’ ‘Oh, glass at night, and tinfoil. And some people are. They’re walking knives — you can see yourself in them, but you’re cut up.'”
Disclaimer: I received a copy of this audiobook from the publisher as part of the Solid Gold Reviewer program administered by Audiobook Jukebox. No payment was received in return for a review. The receipt of the book had no influence on the opinions expressed in my review.