Wednesday, June 14, 2023

A Genre-Busting Nordic Thriller

The Berserkers, Kindle edition, Recital Publishing 2023

Prominent on the lists of popular commercial fiction and television today is a category called “Scandi-Noir” or “Nordic Noir,” characterized by a police point of view, plain language, bleak landscapes, a dark and morally complex mood, and murder, of course. As I began Vic Peterson’s novel The Berserkers (Kindle edition, Recital Publishing, 2023), I was anticipating exactly that sort of genre experience. The first chapter, depicting a crime scene investigation on a frozen lake, did not begin to alter my expectations until its final two paragraphs:

“A pale tangle lay beside the hole the girl had been sunk in. It then dawned on me that the pale tangle was the girl. Her body lay sprawled on top of the ice, displaced by the minor tsunami of the sinking car, and ejected from the ice like the cork from a champagne bottle. Her clothes spread about her in wet snarls lurid under the dim sun, a cape and corset and stockings. 

The girl's pallor was blue and ruinous. My jaw slackened. I tried to utter some words, any words, whether of shock, wisdom, or warning. No sound emanated from my lips. For a pair of large wings had begun unfolding around the corpse, beautiful, wispy, shivering with each gust like the pinfeathers of a hatchling drying in the dying light.”

We quickly learn in the next chapter that No, this is not a dead angel, nothing supernatural is going on. The murder victim is a girl in a Valkyrie costume. More police arrive, character quirks and hierarchies continue to be established, certain foibles of the narrator (decidedly not a detective) are exposed, a subtly comic tone suggested in the first chapter becomes more pronounced, and, well… maybe we could still be in a Nordic Noir novel. But the third chapter removes all doubt: something else is going on here. What is it?

Genre-busting, in my view, is a key consideration in dubbing a work “literary.” I’m always intrigued when an author rejects the security of meeting reader expectations in order to follow a more personal muse. Paul Auster’s The New York Trilogy subverts detective story tropes. In Gravity’s Rainbow, Thomas Pynchon leaps past science fiction conventions. Cormac McCarthy’s western novels are much more than their settings and cowboy details. These authors are using genre elements as vehicles to explore themes, philosophies, or even writing styles that reach beyond what most readers of a commercial genre expect. 

Peterson is doing something like that in The Berserkers. We follow a Pynchonesque assemblage of characters through fabricated Scandinavian settings on a wild ride that is at once a Gothic comic book, a Sword & Sorcery quest in a gritty industrial landscape, an exploration of heavy metal music and soccer hooligans, a moody mystery told in lyrical prose, a comedy of errors, and an homage to ancient Norse sagas. 

The story’s narrator, Grammaticus Kolbitter, is a hapless police records clerk who moonlights in an aspiring heavy metal band named in honor of the frenzied Viking warriors called berserkers. He finds himself on a quest for justice accompanied by two other misfits, a retired (or rather, fired) cop and a legend-loving young woman who suffers from gigantism. The villains they chase are like the Kray twins on motorcycles, but with A Clockwork Orange bloodlust and collars trimmed in wolf fur. Other vividly drawn weirdos populate the cast, but I want to focus on one in particular: the Constable.

The nameless Constable is the imperious police authority whose whim or precognition assigns Kolbitter to the case for no apparent reason. He wears a black cape-like greatcoat and glasses with the left lens blacked out to cover an empty eye socket, and he has two pet ravens, Minne (Memory) and Tanke (Thought). Odin, king of the gods in Norse mythology, is also blind in one eye and keeps two ravens as familiars. The Constable is often behind the scenes, his presence felt but not seen. One of the elements that elevates the novel beyond its plot is the strangeness of the Constable’s two contradictory autobiographies, found in pages that Kolbitter steals from the Constable’s home. These texts-within-the-text are both exotic fictions, each describing a different bizarre family, youth, education, career, dramatic loss of an eye. His first autobiography opens with this:

“Shall I venture a brief yet grand portrait of the man? When I look at his face, what do I see? His face, in a mirror, a shop window, a pond? Volutes of hair, their mercury sheen. Epidermal crevasses. A black lens. Although this blemish has traveled with him, or me, many years, it is in this scar I recognize the creature most fully—him, myself—and oblivion. Attributes of a sorcerer, indeed. 

So begins my authentic biography.

Facets of a hidden clockwork. His humors play out in planetary swings. His relationships are secretive, reckless, trusting, and gravid with both admiration and disappointment. Harsh. One might suppose this man hewn with a mallet and chisel, like a woodcut. I have observed him in private moments, when he thought himself least on display, surprisingly happy, voice strong, engaged among police cadets, those earnest youths with muscular forearms and razor burn and shower-wet hair.”

This version of the Constable was “the son of a hipster couple who lived in an avant-garde circus, street buskers borne on stilts and trapezes, with lefty and lofty political intentions.” The son grows up to choose a different kind of life: he becomes a quantitative analyst in the investments business, a wealthy capitalist viewing the world from a glass tower. But then, as financial markets crash, an aged business colleague gives him a strangely potent drink and stabs out his eye. He is now “A one-eyed specter haunted the corridors, fingertips running the walls to keep his balance under his new optic discipline, his face a bombed church.” 

Several chapters later comes the Constable’s second autobiography, in which he is a spoiled young nobleman tormenting his parents with feigned madness in a brutish kingdom centuries past, where the oppressed masses threaten revolt. Drinking and gaming in a tavern, he encounters a riddling old man with a magic drink that “was icy and stung my throat. It was as if a shard of glacier had pierced me; yet, simultaneously, as if I had licked honey straight from the comb.” A few moments later:

“Thus, swifter than I could have supposed, the old corpse made a poniard appear in his claw and thrust it at my face. I threw my forearm up in what was a useless gesture. The steel slit the flesh of my left eye. I fell to the floorboards. The liquor winked silver on the hearthstones. Blood ran between my fingers.

‘You wanted release?’ the mad stranger hissed. ‘This is your release. The vast cycle of ages will advance without disruption. The price? Sight for sight; vision for vision. You will remember everything, and see everything, and you shall wander haunted among mortals, seeking meaning.’”

When he returns to his great ancestral hall, it is in ruins. He seeks out his parents:

“I immediately recognized their forms, impossibly hardened into statues of glass. Clear, shimmering glass, glowing with a misted light from within. Deliquescing. Father in his opera hat, worn too low, the corners of his thin mouth sloped down toward the folds of his cheeks. Mother, liripipe framing her face, clutching a sprig, staring off into an unpeopled country.”

Clearly, none of this is standard Nordic Noir fare. And these florid passages are not typical of the prose style in the rest of the book. What do these weird tangents have to do with the plot, the police investigation, the quest to bring to justice the murderers of the winged girl in the ice? Nothing. These flights of fancy are not there for the purpose of advancing the plot. Nor are they simply character development. They are atmosphere, enrichment, art for art’s sake: color, brushstroke, chiaroscuro, counterpoint, dissonance, coloratura—confidently applied. Their effect is to lend the entire work a moody strangeness, an edge of unpredictable lunacy, a dark ballast of aesthetic complexity underpinning the humorous, TV-friendly surface. This is not the artistic choice of a calculating follower of genre formula.

So… the odd crew of justice seekers lead us from the frozen lake through bleak northern cities, antique library volumes, a mead factory, a tawdry brothel, a clash of hardcore soccer fans, a bar fight, a tangle with a trio of rune-casting witches, a risky chase and deadly combat inside old mine-shafts in an island mountain, a heavy-metal battle of the bands, and more—all rendered with Peterson’s unusual mix of JRR Tolkein and David Lynch and Henning Mankell

But the Constable’s autobiographies are what I found most fascinating. When Kolbitter asks him about his conflicting life stories, the Constable is suitably cryptic. “‘Sometimes,’ he says slowly, ‘a fable tells the greater truth. Not easy to get your head around, but poetry takes a little bloodletting. Look at the changes wrought in you since that day on the frozen lake.’” But how many autobiographies can one person have? According to the many-worlds interpretation of quantum mechanics, perhaps an infinite number. Maybe that’s what all of us who write fiction are doing: just writing an authentic memoir from another dimension in the multiverse.


NOTE: This review appeared originally in The Dactyl Review 12/29/22.

Saturday, January 7, 2023

Imaginary Auster & Double Layers of Story

Ben Orlando’s debut novel, Lost Journals of Sundown, is two things at once: a fascinating exercise in metafictional homage, and an unusual standalone mystery story.

For readers who are not familiar with the work of Paul Auster, Orlando has created an entertaining, oddly slanted pseudo-detective story. In a slightly off-balance version of New York City, a suicidal writer adopts a false identity as a private investigator and desperately embarks on a vague quest to protect a couple of misfit strangers from their villainous father. He imagines this adventure will keep him away from the noose in his closet. During his rather inept surveillance, he uncovers the father’s darker, more twisted campaign to ruin lives and potentially destroy civilization, one psyche at a time. He faces the dual challenge of both stopping the madman and finding his own salvation.

But there’s more. Readers who know Paul Auster’s “City of Glass,” part of The New York Trilogy, are treated to an extra layer of meaning and enjoyment. If you’re in the know, you can smile at Orlando’s sly wink from the very outset of the book, with the wrong number phone call, the detective pretense, the name Stillman, and more. Orlando has crafted his story to parallel the plot of “City of Glass”—with key correspondences, structural touch-points—but also to ultimately be entirely different in both broad strokes and finer details.
Auster’s The New York Trilogy is known for subverting detective story tropes to go beyond the genre mystery into some new form of hybrid literature. The trilogy can be seen as a prototype of "metaphysical detective fiction," in which the world is one of questions, not answers; interpretations, not solutions; and the sleuth is seeking not "Whodunit" but "Who am I?". For more on this subject, see an earlier blog post of mine.

Orlando’s authorial style and concerns are entirely different from Auster’s. Where Auster is spare, Orlando is colorful. Where Auster is philosophical, Orlando is psychological. Where Auster raises questions, Orlando seeks answers. His book sits more squarely in the mystery genre, while tipping its hat to the outsider, Auster. Orlando’s most impressive feat is the balance he finds, in which he pays metafictional tribute through both imitation and conscious reference, yet at the same time maintains his own vivid style and tells an entirely unique story—all the while addressing two audiences.

Late in the book when Auster himself shows up as a character, and the actual “City of Glass” is unmasked as the template for a con job, the two different types of readers have different experiences. Those not familiar with Auster accept the story twist and either learn about an author they didn’t know before, or perhaps simply assume he and his novella are fictions—either way, the story outcome is the same. The Auster fans, however, see their secret insider’s knowledge suddenly made public, an experience of both satisfactory vindication and, perhaps, a twinge of disappointment. At the same time, it’s fun to see a fictional version of a real person brought into holographic second life on the printed page. And perhaps they nod—yes, all this nicely reflects the way The New York Trilogy and other Auster books investigate blurred identities and “doubling.”

As an Auster aficionado, my experience with Lost Journals of Sundown was pleasurable on a couple of levels. Since I’ve read much of the substantial Auster academia (he seems to inspire scholarly analysis), I enjoy seeing new additions to the catalog. Also, I see Orlando’s book as perhaps a companion work to my novel, Ponckhockie Union, influenced in both style and content by Auster, and in which Auster himself appears as a secondary character, but fictionalized to be an unpublished novelist working in small-town journalism. I wonder what other writers may be putting their Auster inspiration right out on the page. I’d like to read those books too.

On another coincidental side note, I even enjoyed the references to a tiny hamlet in the Catskill Mountains called Sundown, which in real life is just 18 miles from my house. Orlando has created a history for that town that, as far as I know, is a wild fabrication—but that’s his privilege. He’s a fiction writer.

In both our books, the imaginary Paul Auster is a good guy. He attempts to bring some sanity to the scattered, impulsive mind of Orlando’s protagonist, Daniel Reed, and is a fatherly helper behind the scenes as the story nears its end. In my book, he assists the narrator, Ben Rose, in his escape and hideout from a shadowy assassin, and the writings in Auster’s journal act as a Greek chorus of sorts, commenting on and interpreting some of Rose’s story. Orlando drops in the names of characters from Auster’s oeuvre (another wink), and I include mention of Auster’s real-world wife and daughter, even as I construct their lives to be alternate-timeline fictions.

In both cases, readers experience two levels of story: one on the pages and the other in “reality.” Like memory, like deja vu, like dreams, they operate simultaneously, overlaid upon one another like double-exposed film. Orlando has Auster tell Reed that life is like a lucid dream: with awareness and a little attention, it can be controlled. As humans, we are story-making creatures, and stories are dreams made physical. We walk through multiple dimensions every day.

So… how many ways can two different stories exist in the same book? It all depends on the mind-frame of the reader. When you read Lost Journals of Sundown you’re bound to have an entirely different experience from mine. That’s as it should be. Writers and readers are co-creators. As the Talmud says, "We don't see things as they are. We see things as we are."