Fra Keeler by Azareen Oloomi: How to Read Like a Writer
Many stories focus on characters going insane. Whether the character fully descends into madness or climbs back out, the fear of becoming lost in one’s mind is something many readers can relate to. In Fra Keeler, Azareen Van Der Vilet Oloomi uses stream of consciousness to show her character’s fall into insanity with the intent of un-romanticizing this common literary trope. By studying Fra Keeler, you can learn how to use stream of consciousness, have mentally unstable characters, and challenge tropes in your genre.
Stream of Consciousness
There are two definitions of stream of consciousness:
1. In literature, stream of consciousness is “a literary technique that presents the thoughts and feelings of a character as they occur.”
2. In psychology, it is “the conscious experience of an individual regarded as a continuous, flowing series of images and ideas running through the mind.” (Definitions are from The Free Dictionary.)
Stream of consciousness in writing attempts to mimic the experience of consciousness. When you use this technique, you show all of your character’s thoughts, including the random ones, and jump from focusing on one idea to another. Fra Keeler is immersed in the narrator’s consciousness right from the start with passages like:
Things are illuminated retrospectively, I keep saying to myself. And it is these unfriendly events that will tell me the most about Fra Keeler’s death. Only, they are still forming, they are still taking shape (7).
Here the narrator is thinking about death and jumping from one thought to the next in the same way many people experience conscious thought. There is a breathlessness to this passage. The reader can sense the speed of his thoughts and is propelled forward.
Oloomi uses stream of conscious to pull the reader into the mind of her narrator and allow them to experience what it is like to descend into madness. Readers are steeped in her narrator’s thoughts for the duration of the novel, so they know everything the narrator knows. They experience each moment of confusion, paranoia, and relief. They witness the twists and evolution of the character’s train of thought.
If your story needs to show your character’s thought process and inner monologue, try out stream of consciousness. You don’t have to use the technique continuously like Fra Keeler does. You can also use stream of consciousness as a way to get to know your characters better. Use it as a writing exercise to get into your characters’ heads.
Signs of Madness
When Oloomi came to my MFA class, she told us she wrote Fra Keeler to show the true violence of madness, instead of the glamourous version of psychosis found in many stories using the trope of insanity. Her narrator – and her readers – experiences a true psychotic break. He loses touch with reality and has difficulty distinguishing what is real from what is not, and this occurs over time. Oloomi weaves the symptoms of a psychotic break into the story and her character in the way they commonly occur in people.
Four advanced signs of a psychotic break are suspiciousness, odd beliefs/magical thinking, unusual perceptual experiences, and tangential or circumstantial speech. The narrator experiences all of these in the passage:
And it wasn’t only him who could see me, I thought, because with my mind’s eye I could see him, sitting on a solitary chair holding the receiver with his fat hand. “Hello,” I said, and thought, his hand is like a boiled lobster. “Are you calling about the wars,” I thought to ask, but there was no one on the other end. Not a word out of his mouth. “Cat got your tongue,” I said to him, “Mr. Mailman” (30).
The narrator believes the mailman is out to get him. When the phone rings, he thinks the mailman is the one calling from Ancestry.com and responds accordingly. This is suspicion. When the narrator believes the mailman can see him and would call, he is exhibiting odd beliefs and magical thinking. Thinking Ancestry.com is the mailman and not an automated telemarketer is unusual perception, and responding to what he believes is the mailman with “Are you calling about the wars” is tangential speech.
By weaving these four symptoms together in such a short space, Oloomi shows what it is like to be in the grips of a psychosis. It’s not a glamorous way to hyper focus or rise above the mundane; it is intense paranoia, fear, and confusion.
Oloomi also uses the minor signs of a psychotic break throughout Fra Keeler, especially isolation, anxiety, depression, and sleep disturbance. Each thought from the narrator shows how he is experiencing these symptoms. Oloomi allowed the symptoms of a psychotic break to drive her story, instead of trying to force them into her idea of madness. This makes the madness more real for the reader.
If you have a character with an illness – mental or physical – look for ways to let that illness organically create conflict and tension. Oloomi clearly understands the symptoms and processes of a psychotic break. You need to understand the symptoms and processes of your character’s affliction, so you can make it as real as the insanity of Oloomi’s narrator.
Why an Editor Recommends Writers Read Fra Keeler
My previous articles focused of MFAs in Creative Writing. Fra Keeler is one of the few books I enjoyed doing my first semester of graduate school. It is an excellent example of the type of writing studied in MFA programs. Fra Keeler is character-driven, has an unreliable – and to some unlikeable – narrator, and focuses on the dark places of humanity. It uses many of the techniques and tropes favored by literary fiction and twists a few to make the story unique.
While I occasionally enjoy these kinds of stories and use some of these elements in my own pieces, it is not what I went to graduate school to study and write. If you are considering earning a MFA, read Fra Keeler, then ask yourself if you want to spend the next 2-3 years focused on that kind of writing.
Even if you aren’t considering MFA programs, read Fra Keeler to see how deeply authors can dive into their characters’ minds. If you are writing a story centered on internal conflict or with a character struggling with sanity, the techniques used in this book could be particularly useful. This book is short yet powerful. Study the writing techniques in Fra Keeler by Azareen Van Der Vliet Oloomi to learn how you can use stream of consciousness, have mentally unstable characters, and challenge tropes in your genre to Ignite Your Ink.
What other writing techniques did you notice in Fra Keeler? Share them in comments. To read the short novel, click on the image. For more articles dissecting what’s working in today’s stories, advice from an editor, and more, subscribe to Ignite Your Ink.
Ignite Your Ink is written by editor and author Caitlin Berve. She holds a MFA in Creative Writing and Poetics, actively participates in multiple writers’ organizations, and is dedicated to helping writers produce content that leaves an impression on readers.