“To worry or to smile, such is the choice when we are assailed by the strange; our decision depends on how familiar we are with our own ghosts.”
— Julia Kristeva, Strangers to Ourselves
Our country’s current social crises are the result of a widespread, trans-partisan refusal to recognize ourselves in the other and the other in ourselves. “Selfhood” is given in our encounter with the other. For anyone who cherishes their own distinctiveness, their own autonomy, this entails a debt to those different from ourselves. One of the chief joys — and the unsettling challenge — of great fiction is that it deepens our awareness of this reality.
By this measure, Christian Kiefer’s new novel Phantoms succeeds magnificently. Not only does it deepen one’s sense of duty to the other, its narrative framing actually models the work of self-reflection necessary to fulfill that duty.
Phantoms opens on Ray Takahashi’s return to his family’s home after fighting in the Second World War. He knows his parents and siblings no longer live there, that they were never allowed to return to that small house on the edge of an orchard after their internment at Tule Lake, but it still shocks him to find a white family occupying his childhood home. We learn later that he has come to see Helen, the girl he loved, the daughter of the orchard’s owner, from whom Ray’s family had rented their home. When the girl’s mother, Evelyn Wilson, finds Ray on her doorstep, she drives him away, livid with an anger that both surprises and confuses him. Shortly thereafter, Ray goes missing.
The narrative perspective shifts in the second chapter and we learn that what seemed to be close-third-person in the first was really the work of John Frazier, the nephew of Evelyn Wilson, who is narrating a dark secret of his family’s history. What follows is a complex yet seamless weaving of three narrative strands: Frazier’s participation in a confrontation between Evelyn and Kimiko Takahashi, the matriarchs of the two families; his reconstruction of the traumatic history of Japanese internment and personal betrayal…