Workplace Absurdism & Lyrical Surrealism: Anne-Marie Kinney’s “Radio Iris” Reviewed

Radio Iris
by Anne-Marie Kinney
Two Dollar Radio; 209 p.

In the right hands, the outer edges of realism can summon up tension aplenty. Anne-Marie Kinney’s novel Radio Iris has certain basic ingredients that suggest one school of contemporary fiction: it’s largely about the numbing work done by its protagonist, a young woman named Iris, with occasional forays into the life of her equally unfulfilled brother Neil. Reading Radio Iris occasionally reminded me of another standout novel of late: Alexis M. Smith’s Glaciers. Both are focused character studies of detached young women, each of whom is fixated somewhat on an elusive young man. But while Glaciers is ultimately about questions of knowability and the tensions between tangible and intangible things, Radio Iris has stranger questions at its heart.

There’s a tension here between what initially seems to be a particularly absurdist workplace comedy and the much more surreal narrative it threatens to become. Iris’s office job goes beyond the generic towards the border between comic and sinister: her boss is frequently absent, sometimes lies outright to her, and establishes arbitrary regulations that he doesn’t care to enforce. Meanwhile, Iris finds herself drawn to the nameless young man in the space across the hall from her office, less a figure of romantic attraction and more one on whom a series of conflicting emotions can be projected. And Iris, whose memory seems unwilling to delve too far into the short-term, has much to direct onto this young man.

There’s ultimately a reason for this; Iris’s fixation on this nameless young man does have roots in something more than simply the demands of the plot. It’s almost — almost — the sort of turn that can make this kind of book seem psychologically pat, except that Kinney’s after something far stranger here than a simple “eureka!” moment. And Kinney does a lot well here: her description of dreams ably evokes her characters’ subconscious minds and the random logic that they contain. And while Iris’s penchant for distraction occasionally threatens to become preternatural, Kinney never loses sight of her protagonist’s economic anxieties. Or her anxieties as a whole:

There is a panic that doesn’t disrupt, but lives unnoticed in the body, that comes not as a shot from nowhere, but as a kind of liquid, released from within.

Radio Iris is a curious book: the haze in which may of its characters dwell owes something to both the aftermath of trauma and surrealism’s alternatives to logic. It’s an unlikely blend of styles, but it largely coheres here; Iris remains a compelling character here, inquisitive and flawed and with a penchant for making bad decisions. It’s those decisions that put her in peril, that threaten nearly every aspect of her life — but it’s also those qualities that draw us to her, and help this novel draw readers in until its last few elusive words.

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