Reviewed by Darby M. Dixon III
"Iris feels goose bumps rising on her forearms, but hesitates to touch the thermostat."
That sentence, the opening line of Radio Iris by Anne-Marie Kinney, its seemingly unassuming description of a minor moment of human stuckness, does a fantastic job of dramatizing that tension between anticipation and hesitation, approaching and withdrawing. This theme drives the book forward as it builds in layers of present mysteries and past memories. It embraces weirdness on its own terms and rewards the reader with its own brand of momentum.
It is the story of Iris Finch, a 20-something possessed with competing streaks of anxious introversion and quiet playfulness, the type of person who has to be tricked into attending a party full of strangers but who leaves cryptic Sharpie messages in hidden places. By day, Iris is a receptionist for a business of unknowable services or purpose. Her boss is a businessman whose every move appears arbitrary; it is never clear, to Iris or to us, what he actually does, though he seems to do quite a bit of it (and that, when he is doing it, "his chosen official font" is Arial).
There's a Kafkaesque layer of weirdness smeared across everything: her day-to-day interactions are of the sadly comic type that fill office life (her boss has no idea what to do with a phone once it starts buzzing in his ear), her days are frequently broken up by cryptic calls from mysterious locales ("[H]e wasn't going to tell her where he was so that she wouldn't have to lie if anyone asked"), and her coworkers disappear—those who actually existed in the first place, at least:
As the months wore on, the number of people in the office seemed to dwindle. At least seemed to. She didn't know what number they had started at. Over time, the number of sandwiches she fetched at lunchtime fell to five, then four, then the lunch orders stopped coming.
Radio Iris refuses to limit itself to the drama of the weird. Instead, within the framework of the facelessness of contemporary society that it sets up, the novel digs deeper, wrestling with timeless, fundamental questions. Why exactly are we here? What the heck else might there be to this, other than...this? What's our purpose? There's a telling moment when Iris's boss, "disheveled, blaming traffic for his tardiness" lists off a bunch of odd jobs for Iris to take care of; in response, "She wrote down everything he said, hungry for instruction."
Standing in counterpoint to that hunger is her brother, Neil, who maintains an agitated silence between himself and Iris. Neil is "a traveling salesman [who] sells to the people who sell, finds backers, gets products licensed... He is always at the airport, in a cab, in a wind tunnel, waiting for the train that's just pulling in." Iris wants a relationship with Neil and the rich memories of their shared history, while Neil needs to stay in motion, to escape from some childhood trauma. Radio Iris interweaves segments told from Neil's point of view with those from Iris's; his view of their history—his self-centered view of their childhood—is markedly different, and perhaps more real, than Iris's.
Stylistically, Radio Iris uses its quirks to tell a disarmingly quick but complex story through compressed, focused chapters that frequently end on the sorts of affective poetic beats that both conclude and magnify everything that's come before. As easy as it might be to get lost in sentences that beg to be held up to the light—"...she tries to remember the dream. She can feel that there was one. She can feel dusty air lifting off her skin, and the hot white sun, though long gone, is burning somewhere inside her."—we never lose sight of the story and its driving thematic interest in finding some way through or out of the mess of modern life.
Deep-seated doubts about our place in the universe affect the mundanity of being in that universe; the answers to the questions we ask ourselves are to be found as much in our own moments of personal revelation as they are in the slow turn of a mysterious radio dial, looking for some signal from beyond ourselves. Radio Iris is a book for those of us who crave a little instruction, who prefer the search to the finding.