Review by Kai Parker.
At one point in my early twenties I decided I had no patience for college (these were not amongst my most self-enlightened years), and thus opted instead to work a number of office temp jobs, floating about until I figured out where I was going and what I wanted to do. These jobs tended to shuffle me from one faceless corporate entity of unknown purpose or occupation to another, with little distinction. The offices, and the people I met in them, were so immediately forgotten that I would be unlikely to register any of them today if I happened upon them again in public. It is sometimes a little disconcerting to realize exactly how many people work in this type of environment on a daily basis for years of their lives. There is an interesting story to be culled from this element of American life, and it is the basis of inspiration for Anne-Marie Kinney’s novel, Radio Iris. Unfortunately, it seems so determined to exist within this faceless corporate structure it’s never able to really distinguish itself as a standout story.
In many ways, Radio Iris is a novel about isolation, about struggling for meaning and identity within the shadow of our often faceless, corporate world, and how that isolation occasionally influences or even informs our isolation within our daily lives, the eternal struggle against the possibility of that same emptiness and loneliness continuing into our final days. It could also be a story about the struggle of your twenties, figuring out who you are and reconciling your hopes to whatever your reality may actually be, and how alien the world seems when you’re finally on your own, away from the sheltering care of your parents or the familiar routine of school, or trying to settle into a career where you find yourself wondering, Is this it?
These are all issues presented in the earnest opening pages of Radio Iris as we follow the main character, Iris Finch, through her strange daily life as a secretary for a company of unknown purpose. You progress through the novel’s initial pages, a quick progression of alternatively fascinating and heartbreaking vignettes, which are so well-written, funny and sad, that it builds a sense of anticipation and excitement for what’s to come and how these themes will unfold. Unfortunately, the story seems to be stuck in constant table-setting mode, never quite developing this early promise into anything tangible or terribly interesting. The table gets set, the meal just never gets served.
The novel is a very short read, at just over 200 pages, but you’d think it was almost three times as long for the way Kinney drags things along, mostly status quo, growing stranger and stranger without payoff until Kinney’s insistence on stringing out the mysteries and oddities of Iris’s life cause the story to just kind of sag and the reading becomes more of a chore than an effort to satiate curiosity. The most interesting parts of the novel involve flashbacks to Iris’s childhood, each one adding fascinating and insightful layers to present-day Iris, but therein lies another of the novel’s problems: if what happened before is more interesting than what is happening now, then why aren’t we being told that story instead?
Were Radio Iris a short story, or were it to take place over only a few days instead of several months, its pace might not be such an issue, and Iris might seem a much more dynamic and progressive character. Instead, this is a story that takes all of its time trying to build to an effectual ending, but the old saying is true, it’s about the journey, not the destination, and I confess, I just wanted to fall asleep and be woken up when we got there.