Mr. Fox

My latest review is of twenty-six-year-old Helen Oyeyemi’s fourth novel (again: she’s 26 and this is her fourth published novel), Mr. Fox. Oyeyemi is Nigerian by birth, but was raised in London, and brings a variety of storytelling traditions to bear on her writing. Her first novel, The Icarus Girl incorporates Nigerian mythology; her second, The Opposite House, draws on Cuban folklore and Santaria. Her White is for Witching has been said to take inspiration from Gothic traditions–such as the work of Edgar Allen Poe–and now, with her latest work, she delves into the myriad legends, folktales, and fairy tales about the villainous Bluebeard. (There are actually a handful of other interesting literary references within the book, such as an oblique allusion to Wilkie Collins’ Armadale. These are delightful not simply because they reveal how widely-read Oyeyemi is, but also because they aren’t generally the first references that might come to mind. Armadale, for instance, is hardly the first Wilkie Collins novel that most people would think of, if they know of its existence at all. I certainly didn’t. But I digress…)

Oyeyemi is a consummate storyteller and so even though metafictional, post-modern literary experiments are often not my thing, I found myself steadily sucked into the complex, fantastical, and often eerily disturbing stories and fictional platforms that are created within Mr.Fox. This was my first Oyeyemi novel, but I’ll definitely be reading more of hers in the future.

Mr. Fox has received quite a few rave reviews. See author Aimee Bender’s piece in The New York Times Book Review here; Liz Coville wrote about the book for NPR Books here.

My own review of Mr. Fox was published on The Second Pass. Read it on that website here, or see the full text below.

***

“You have to change. . . . You kill women. You’re a serial killer. Can you grasp that?” So says Mary Foxe, the fictional creation and erstwhile muse of St. John (S.J.) Fox, a 1930s-era author with a penchant for subjecting his female characters to grisly (he says “meaningful”) deaths and dismemberments. A quick survey: a bride saws off her limbs and bleeds to death at the altar; a housewife hangs herself over a ruined dinner; a husband beheads his wife, thinking he would “replace her head when he wished for her to speak.” Tired of being subjected to such fates herself, Mary Foxe — apparently unbound by the pages of the books in which she has existed — casually appears in S.J.’s study and challenges her progenitor to enter a fictional world of her own making, one where he just might find himself the victim for a change.

As those who are well-versed in European folkloric traditions will have guessed, Mr. Fox, the fourth novel by 26-year-old Helen Oyeyemi, takes its inspiration from the myriad fairy tales and traditional narratives about murderous men luring attractive young women to their deaths. Oyeyemi’s novel references Bluebeard and the famous French character based on the 15th century soldier/serial killer Gilles de Rais, and also draws from the Grimm Brothers’ tale “Fitcher’s Bird,” a Victorian ballad about a werefox named Reynardine, the German folk character of the Robber Bridegroom, and, of course, the English fairy tale “Mister Fox.”

The heroine of “Mister Fox” (which coined the refrain “Be bold, be bold, but not too bold”) is Lady Mary, who witnesses her dashing suitor, Mr. Fox, chopping off the hand of a young woman before dragging her to certain death in his castle’s “bloody chamber.” The stalwart Mary escapes with the young woman’s hand, and later reveals Mr. Fox as the villain he is by telling the “dream” she had of the young woman’s murder and furnishing the hand as evidence. Bluebeard mythology includes several tales in which the female characters safely escape in the end, but in the context of Oyeyemi’s novel, “Mister Fox” is all the more noteworthy because the heroine bests her would-be murderer with her storytelling.

While this framework provides a rich context (most of the aforementioned murderers and heroines make appearances within the book), Oyeyemi’s novel is not a simple retelling of the Bluebeard legend or a bland metafictional exercise in which author becomes character and vice versa. There are no exact parallels or allegorical stand-ins. Through S.J. and Mary’s dueling narratives, Mr. Fox submerses us in a series of inventive, complex worlds, each uniquely voiced and easily standing on its own. Within one story, a young governess and writer enters into a troubling correspondence with a famous author; in another, a Yoruba woman barters with a mysterious man named Reynardine to recover her dead lover. “Hide, Seek” is about an Egyptian boy and his adoptive mother, who are building a woman piece by piece with art works they find all over the world. “Some Foxes” tells of a fox and a young woman who fall in love. The result is nothing short of pyrotechnic: this is classical, magical storytelling at its finest.

S.J. and Mary’s fantastical tales are juxtaposed with real-life scenes from the marriage of S.J. and his wife Daphne, blurring fiction and reality until it’s difficult to distinguish one from the other. The often dangerous fusion of fact and fiction, reality and text, is a recurrent concern in the novel. For S.J., there is no harm in routinely victimizing women in his stories because “[i]t’s not real . . . It’s all just a lot of games.” For Mary, this sets a dangerous precedent. “What you’re doing is building a horrible kind of logic,” she says.

People read what you write and they say, “Yes, he is talking about things that really happen,” and they keep reading, and it makes sense to them. You’re explaining things that can’t be defended, and the explanations themselves are mad, just bizarre — but you offer them with such confidence. It was because she kept the chain on the door; it was because he needed to let off steam after a hard day’s scraping and bowing at work; it was because she was irritating and stupid; it was because she lied to him, made a fool of him; it was because she had to die, she just had to, it makes dramatic sense; it was because “nothing is more poetic than the death of a beautiful woman”; it was because of this, it was because of that. It’s obscene to make such things reasonable.

It’s possible to read in Mary’s impassioned speech the sort of logic that guides Parental Advisory labels, but it becomes clear that Oyeyemi is making the case that the very act of creation, of storytelling and writing, has the potential to be violent and dangerous. The storyteller must understand the gravity of this process, because in creating a story, one is, in a sense, creating him- or herself. We see this repeated several times in Mr. Fox: an abusive father forcibly writes text all over the body of his wife until she leaps about chirping, “Am I in the poem? Or is the poem in me?” In one chilling scene, Mr. Fox himself “remembers” deliberately killing Mary Foxe, only to figure out that he’s recalling a story he once wrote about a jilted lover.

Oyeyemi raises this theme of authorial responsibility without offering any well-defined conclusions. But she is a masterful storyteller, and fearless in creating tales whose conclusions are never as straightforward as “The End.”

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Great House

My last review for 2010 (!) is of Nicole Krauss’ Great House. Having not read Krauss’ former novels (but also having received many a glowing recommendation for her last book, The History of Love) I was looking forward to the book without much in the way of preconceptions. I also thought the premise–four stories connected by one object–was rather elegant and intriguing.

As to my thoughts now that I’ve finished the book, I’ll let the review stand on its own. It was originally published on The Second Pass, and the full text is below.

***

The premise of Nicole Krauss’ highly anticipated third novel, Great House, is elegant in its simplicity: four stories connected by one object. The object is a writing desk — at turns inspiring and ominous — which has occupied cramped quarters in New York, Jerusalem, London, and Budapest. Imbued with the experiences, imaginings, failures, and losses of each of the people who have sat and worked at it, the desk is seen by one of Krauss’ five narrators as a “grotesque, threatening monster,” yet symbolizes “a kind of guiding if mysterious order” for another. It is an imposing piece, intrinsically metaphorical, and described as having “[n]ineteen drawers of varying size, some below the desktop and some above, whose mundane occupations (stamps here, paper clips there) hid a far more complex design…”

The desk has an autonomy and character of its own, but it doesn’t actually occupy much space in Great House. Krauss uses it as a point of departure — or sometimes a point of return — in the four stories that comprise the novel. While these tales are loosely connected by the desk, they run parallel more than they intersect, dipping in and out of the lives of powerfully voiced individuals. Krauss is virtuosic in her ability to create characters, to make idiosyncratic and completely unique lives for her cast: an isolated, desperate American author named Nadia; an embittered Israeli father writing unanswered letters to his estranged son; a widower discovering unimagined secrets about the reticent wife with whom he spent most of his life; and an antiques dealer who specializes in seeking objects confiscated from their owners during World War II. Each individual has his or her own speech pattern and quirky turns of phrase, which Krauss artfully juggles throughout.

Her skill with language extends to evocative images. She describes a son’s voice “unraveling like a ribbon dropped from a roof” as he plans the details of his mother’s funeral. The reader walks with her through a maze-like castle, winding down dark corridors and up twisting staircases until arriving in the drafty turret room of a young boy, “one of those animal burrows one finds in children’s books . . . only instead of descending down under the earth we had ascended into the sky.” Through the eyes of another character, we’re shown an “enormous, vaulted room” in Jerusalem where a grand piano is “hanging from the ceiling in place of a chandelier,” swaying just slightly. On occasion, Krauss’ evocative descriptions feel a bit over-determined and forced, such as in a passage where a man’s sadness “seeped out of him . . . blooming into the atmosphere the way the water around a harpooned seal fills with a cloud of blood.” But in most passages, her mastery of language — of rhythmic, descriptive speech — is stunning.

It’s somewhat disappointing, then, that the promise of the novel’s beginning falls short as the plot lines begin to converge in the second half. As characters from one story encounter those from another, as secrets are revealed and explanations offered, the result is anticlimactic. According to Krauss, in a recent interview with The Atlantic, she “…didn’t want to write a novel with any kind of easy connective tissue. I wanted to, in fact, do the opposite. I wanted to see how long I could hold these stories at a distance from each other so that the connections wouldn’t necessarily happen with easy plot choices.” This may be an admirable approach, eschewing the sort of artificially resonant last-minute links that can undercut an otherwise strong piece of fiction. But while each of the stories in Great House feels meaningful on its own, the connections between them continue to feel arbitrary in the end. Krauss connects her characters through the desk. More pointedly, they are similar in their loneliness, their isolation, and the looming specters of their memories. But aren’t most strangers?

 

The Ambassador

I was very pleased to be able to review The Ambassador by Bragi Ólafsson for The Second Pass this month. As I’ve said before, I was more or less enthralled with Bragi’s previous novel, The Pets, and attempted to foist it off on anyone who gave me even the slightest indication that they were in need of a book recommendation. The Amabassador was another satisfying read which bore some pleasant stylistic/thematic similarities to its predecessor, while branching into much different discussions as well.

While preparing my review of the book, I was compelled to go back and read Jonathan Lethem’s article “The Ecstasy of Influence: A Plagiarism,” which was published in Harper’s in 2007. It honestly didn’t resonate with me much at the time, but in light of some of the events in The Ambassador (the main character is found to have plagiarized unpublished poems by his deceased cousin)–and the questions that Bragi raises about authorship, creative output, and ownership of an idea–the Lethem article was very useful to me. If you have a subscription to Harper’s, you can read the article in their online archive, and I’d very much recommend it. If not, I felt the the following quotes were particularly relevant to the text, although they didn’t make it into the final edit of my review:

“Literature has been in a plundered, fragmentary state for a long time.”

“…it becomes apparent that appropriation, mimicry, quotation, allusion, and sublimated collaboration consist of a kind of sine qua non of the creative act, cutting across all forms and genres in the realm of cultural production.”

“Most artists are brought to their vocation when their own nascent gifts are awakened by the work of a master. That is to say, most artists are converted to art by art itself. Finding one’s voice isn’t just an emptying and purifying oneself of the words of others but an adopting and embracing of filiations, communities, and discourses. Inspiration could be called inhaling the memory of an act never experienced. Invention, it must be humbly admitted, does not consist in creating out of void but out of chaos. Any artist knows these truths, no matter how deeply he or she submerges that knowing.”

At any rate, do check out The Amabassador (and The Pets)! My review is available on The Second Pass website, or the full text is below.

***

After a recent reading in a small, internationally stocked New York bookstore, Icelandic author Bragi Ólafsson prepared to answer questions from the audience about his newly translated novel, The Ambassador. But rather than asking about the novel, or a previous novel (The Pets, published in the U.S. in 2008), or his prose style and writing inspiration, or even his former gig as the bassist in The Sugarcubes (a band fronted by Björk), the audience put him in the awkward position of providing a complex overview of the entire nation of Iceland — its history, relationship with Europe, and the collective feelings and opinions of its 320,000 inhabitants. Some of these questions veered toward the literary: one participant asked for a summary of the state of all Icelandic fiction, as well as an update on the popularity of crime fiction within mainland Scandinavian countries such as Sweden. Another was curious as to how the current economic crisis was affecting Icelandic poets — “Are they isolated? Are they upset?” This took the conversation to a more purely financial place, with other guests asking Bragi (Icelanders don’t go by their last names, which are patronymic, even in formal contexts) to summarize the events that led to the downfall of the Icelandic banking system, and what, if anything, could be done to resolve the situation.

Bragi answered each inquiry with remarkable civility, but it seems comically appropriate that a reading for The Ambassador would both force the author to become an impromptu emissary for his country and so quickly devolve into absurdity. Bragi is a master of the straight-faced farce, the simple situation that becomes suddenly and astonishingly convoluted. This was showcased to great effect in The Pets, in which the main character, Emil Halldorsson, spends the entirety of the novel hiding under his bed while an unwanted guest breaks into his home, drinks his imported liquor, and invites his friends over for a party.

As a rule, Bragi’s characters do not attend to social mores or banal niceties. They actively defy them, forcing anyone they come into contact with (including the reader) to negotiate an entirely unfamiliar brand of social interaction — one bereft of expected politeness, full of bumbling awkwardness and a host of errant choices that compound as the novel progresses. It’s part of what makes his work so engaging. As he explained prior to his reading, “It’s not very interesting to describe nice people.”

The Ambassador opens during a shopping trip to an upscale men’s clothing store in Reykjavik. Sturla Jón Jónsson, a fiftyish building super and published poet, is purchasing an expensive “English-style Aquascutum overcoat” that he’s coveted for quite some time. He’s bought the coat just in time for an upcoming trip to a poetry festival in Lithuania. As his departure nears, Sturla Jón has had a spate of good fortune: not only has he been selected the sole representative from Iceland at the festival, he’s also just published a new volume of poetry and won almost 10,000 kronur in the university-run gambling hall.

Almost immediately upon arriving in Vilnius, however, he finds out he has been publicly outed in Iceland for plagiarizing unpublished poems by his deceased cousin. Shortly after, his prized overcoat is stolen in a restaurant. Both events precipitate increasingly outlandish behavior on Sturla Jón’s part. To replace his lost garment, he steals an expensive overcoat from a different restaurant, only to find out that the man he robbed is a prominent American benefactor of the poetry festival. When one of the organizers accuses him of the theft, Sturla Jón abandons the event altogether, opting to hide out under an assumed name in a Vilnius boarding house.

Much bubbles under the surface of this seemingly simple, comic story of petty theft and a literary festival gone awry. The Ambassador is awash with Sturla Jón’s drifting and tangential memories, each adding an additional layer of nuanced development to his character and his complicated relationships. We’re introduced to his father, an aspiring filmmaker and librarian who is only 15 years older than his son. Sturla Jón’s mother, an unstable alcoholic, has recently taken up posing topless for local artists. His talented young cousin, Jónas, killed himself only days after promising to give Sturla Jón the manuscript for his first book of poems. There’s even a crossover character from The Pets, a teacher named Armann Valur. The rich back story and well-realized secondary characters add a fullness to the narrative, and a sense of Sturla Jón’s deeply interconnected community at home.

Perhaps the most productive recurrent theme in The Ambassador is creation, the question of to whom a creative idea, artistic product, or particularly powerful turn of phrase belongs — if it belongs to anyone at all. As it turns out, Sturla Jón is entirely surrounded by other authors and artists, not only his fellow poets at the festival. Before he’s left Iceland, several strangers and acquaintances — the man who sells him his overcoat, a neighbor in his apartment building — reveal that they, too, are artists of some stripe. Arriving in Lithuania, Sturla Jón shares a table with a Russian man at a strip club who is writing a novel, and a cab with a woman who is also a poet. His coat is later stolen (he believes) by a street musician playing Rod Stewart covers. “[P]eople everywhere around him seemed to have a need to tell him about their own desire to create,” Bragi writes. And for his part, Sturla Jón absorbs all of this creative output, internalizes it, and makes it his own.

Bragi complicates the ethical questions of authorship and plagiarism. Sturla Jón is an avid reader, for whom inspirational quotations, powerful metaphors, and particularly vivid images create a backdrop to all of life. He is constantly recalling lines of poetry, song lyrics, or descriptions that seem so apt, so perfect in describing his own experience that he feels as if he could have written them. Here, he is waiting at a bus station in Lithuania:

He remembers a quotation he noted down in his black notebook shortly before leaving Iceland, a quotation he’d come across by chance . . . in a book which contained the musings of poets on their duty to explain the meaning of their poems. And when he opens his notebook as he sits there on the hard wooden bench outside the bus station . . . he feels as if these words by the English poet Donald Davie, published in 1959, are his own . . . [Y]ou could easily convince yourself that it was pure coincidence that they’d been printed in a book in England before Sturla’s handwriting had fixed the lines in a black notebook.

Haven’t most authors — and most readers — had a similar experience when first coming across a resonant line or passage? The Ambassador isn’t interested in wrapping up any debates about plagiarism — or any of Sturla Jón’s offbeat misadventures. It relishes the journey, and offers plenty of unexpected insights and ironic humor along the way.

 

Stolen Spring and The Missing Bureaucrat

I recently reviewed two novels–Stolen Spring and The Missing Bureaucrat–by Danish author Hans Scherfig. Both of the novels were translated and published by sadly now defunct Fjord Press in 1983 and 1988, respectively, but have unfortunately gone out of print. (I do strongly recommend picking up used copies of both, on the cheap, on Amazon, though.)

My article was published under the title “Leave Them Kids Alone,” as part of the Backlist section on the website The Second Pass. You can read it on that website–which is wonderful and worth perusing–or read the full text below.

***

In January 2006, the Danish Ministry of Culture unveiled the Canon of Danish Art and Culture. Representing seven different modes of artistic production—from architecture and ‘design and craft’ to literature and film—the canon aimed to showcase 12 “indispensable” works in each category: “…works of art that cannot be disregarded if we want to define what is characteristic and distinctive about Danish culture.” Readers even subconsciously familiar with Danish letters will recognize several of the literary selections, like “The Little Mermaid” by Hans Christian Andersen, Either-Or by Søren Kierkegaard, and Winter’s Tales by Karen Blixen. Even those authors less familiar to Americans are Danish luminaries, including a Nobel Prize winner, an experimental poet, and several prominent figures of the so-called “Modern Breakthrough” period. So while it’s hard to criticize the authors chosen for this ambitious undertaking, the project’s creators did admit that their choices will “obviously be constantly challenged and discussed.”

One author overlooked for inclusion was Hans Scherfig, a diversely talented and politically outspoken novelist best known for works of satirical social commentary. His barbed humor and perceived misanthropy got him labeled an “angry rationalist with a scathing wit.” His irony and unpretentious prose make his novels easily accessible in translation, darkly funny and pleasurable reads. Two of Scherfig’s most iconic works—Stolen Spring and The Missing Bureaucrat—were translated into English and published by Fjord Press in the late 1980s. Fjord Press is now defunct, and both titles have gone out of print, but affordable used copies are readily available online.

Scherfig was a polymath whose first love was painting. He also dabbled in poetry, travel writing, journalism, and political activism. He was born in the white-collar Copenhagen neighborhood of Østerbro in 1905 and was educated in the Metropolitanskole, a prestigious private high school for boys. Despite this “suspect middle-class background,” Scherfig became an ardent Communist in his adulthood—a political alliance that caused him numerous hardships, particularly during Germany’s occupation of Denmark during World War II. In 1941, Scherfig and other well-known Danish Communists were arrested and jailed. Although he was released after only a few months, he was kept under police surveillance for the rest of the occupation and was “officially prohibited from writing.” (He still continued to write and publish under multiple pseudonyms and even smuggled the manuscript for his novel The Idealists—also available in English—out of the country. It was published in Sweden in 1944.)

Scherfig’s plots were frequently drawn from real life, and Stolen Spring offers the most easily recognized parallel to his own experience. His years at the Metropolitanskole were formative, but not positive in the least, and left him believing that “the school’s task is to foster the particular characteristics that are desirable in a society which uses the unrestrained struggle of wild animals in nature as a model of human freedom.”

Stolen Spring begins, as several of his novels do, with a suspicious and unusual death for which there are no apparent motives. An elderly man dies suddenly after eating a malt drop. We come to learn he is C. Blomme, a teacher of Latin at “the gray school” (a thinly veiled allusion to the Metropolitanskole). An autopsy later reveals he was poisoned with strychnine. But no traces are found in any of his other malt drops, nor can the police find evidence of it in the shop where the candy was sold or in the deceased’s home. We’re told that his family and work colleagues are “sorry he was dead.” Moreover, “He had no debts. He had no secret mistresses. He cultivated no expensive vices. He had no frustrated ambitions.” Who would want to kill this harmless man?

The narrative jumps ahead 25 years to the class reunion of a group of Blomme’s former students. “Among the nineteen gentlemen there were people who could offer expert opinions on the head teacher’s death,” the deadpan narrator intones. “There were doctors who were knowledgeable about poisons. There were jurists who were knowledgeable about criminals. And there was a psychoanalyst who was knowledgeable about the peculiarities of the human psyche. And the murderer was also present.”

Having set the stage for a pulpy detective novel, Scherfig quickly changes tack and Blomme’s unsolved murder is, for the majority of the novel, a muted concern. As Niels Ingwersen, a scholar of Scandinavian literature, has noted, the resolution of a crime in a Scherfig novel is of very little overall importance: “No dapper detective is present . . . and when the criminal is revealed, if that occurs, there is no grand hope offered for a better future.” Instead of following the current-day murder investigation, Stolen Spring flashes back again to the school days of Blomme’s former pupils, immersing the reader in their world and revealing their many possible motives for offing their teacher.

Daily life at the school consists of a dispiriting cycle of brow-beatings and petty torments that the students suffer at the hands of their peers and their teachers. Blomme mocks his pupils, creating embarrassing nicknames for them and humiliating them on a daily basis. But the Latin master is only one awful part of an average day. There’s also the teacher who screams and hits students as they falteringly recite their French exercises, and the natural science instructor who fails his most talented student because the boy can identify plants and animals that he, the teacher, cannot. Then there are the older boys who have suffered so much at the hands of their elder classmates that they viciously harass the younger students under the watchful but disinterested gaze of the faculty. Those rare teachers whose intentions are noble become the brunt of the students’ torture for no other reason than that they are easy marks. Most poignantly, there are the teachers who are themselves former Gray School students. Having once harbored dreams of becoming famous writers and thinkers, they were encouraged to take up a “useful” profession instead.

One can be forgiven for wondering how the resulting story manages to be remotely funny. Scherfig, it should be noted, didn’t think that Stolen Spring was amusing at all, referring to it as a “tragic book . . . an account of the stunting of human beings.” Yet there is an undercurrent of wry humor. Consider this passage describing the students’ brief respite from the normal school schedule right before the Christmas holiday:

The gym teacher, Mr. Ejby, has his own special Christmas fun. He draws a large circle on the gym floor with chalk. Then all the boys have to go into the circle and try to throw each other out…It’s a superb free-for-all, and Mr. Ejby roars with laughter and encourages the combatants. “Hit him for goddam Chrissake! Push, dammit!” So they hit and push and tug and shove. Blood and tears flow when Hurrycane takes one on the snoot. “You damn sissy!” Mr. Ejby shouts. “Can’t you even take part in a little punching game? Hell’s bells, we’re celebrating the start of Christmas peace on earth.”

It’s a cruel scenario, but Scherfig’s tone also conveys a kind of survivor’s humor, shared by those who have made it through a common disheartening ordeal. Scherfig also details the brief moments of joy and mischief that sustain his young protagonists, such as their creation of a secret society called The Black Hand, whose entrance password is “Death to Blomme!” and whose mission is to “… combat mankind. First and foremost teachers and park attendants.”

Where Stolen Spring lays bare the conditions faced by children in the educational system, The Missing Bureaucrat dramatizes the long-term consequences of such training. Having completed their elite educations, the hapless graduates find themselves without any practical skills—no common sense or self-sufficiency, no confidence in their own judgment. Such is the sad state of Teodor Amsted, the bureaucrat of the novel’s title. “It isn’t so easy to arrange your life when other people have always done it for you,” the narrator explains.

When you’ve gone to school for twelve years where there were teachers who told you what to do and what to learn and what to know and what to think. . . . And when the last exam is over, you move into an office—perhaps in a ministry where what you’re supposed to do and say and write is also decided for you. It isn’t easy to be independent when other people have made all the decisions for you for 46 years.

The Missing Bureaucrat was written and published in 1938, two years prior to Stolen Spring but its action takes place after the events of the first novel, when two of the Gray School’s graduates—Amsted and former classmate Mikael Mogensen (an unemployed bohemian dilettante) both disappear at the same time. Amsted, it seems, has inexplicably committed suicide by igniting sticks of dynamite that were stuck in his hat, his pockets, and even his mouth. Mogensen vanishes on the same day, and it takes some time for the police to find a connection between the bizarre fates of the two men.

Scherfig’s style in both novels is similarly sarcastic, but The Missing Bureaucrat divides its attention among several targets, and reads less like a manifesto than Stolen Spring. Its joyfully convoluted plot develops through a series of caustic, astute character portraits. There’s Mrs. Amsted, who makes a speedy and tearful production of converting her wardrobe into appropriate mourning garb. There’s Sylvia Drusse, an author who introduces the widow to a group of spiritualists who claim to be able to communicate with her dead husband. There is the bland and minutiae-obsessed Section Chief of Amsted’s former office, who spends entire days composing memos on the ministry’s protocol for closing windows. These secondary characters—not to mention those in the book’s later passages in the country—create a ludicrously disconnected and selfish patchwork of humanity. Scherfig is not a subtle architect: Bureaucrat’s ultimate plot twist approaches with inevitability. But it’s this inevitability that gives the novel its empathetic punch. The labyrinthine system in which its characters exist only allows them one possible (and hopeless) resolution.

In his 1933 novel En flyktning krysser sit spor (translation: A Fugitive Crosses his Tracks), Danish-Norwegian author Aksel Sandemose coined the term janteloven (“Jante Law”) which quickly became something of a supposed truism of Scandinavian culture. Janteloven is generally used to describe a society’s collective distrust of individuality and personal achievement. It consists of ten basic rules, including “Don’t think that you are special” and “Don’t think that you are good at anything.” Both Stolen Spring and The Missing Bureaucrat offer an acute diagnosis of a society that suppresses what is unique and remarkable about its citizens in the name of upholding a common mediocrity. They stand as masterful works of satire—funnier variations on Kafka’s social dread. But while Scherfig may paint a cynical picture of Danish society, it’s easy to infer that his biting criticism is grounded in the notion that an improved world may be possible. To quote Ingwersen again, “…his exposure of fools and folly was meant to bring his readers to their senses.”

A Friend of the Family

The first review I had the privilege to write for The Second Pass was on local (some sources say Brooklyn, some say New Jersey–but either way, she’s from these parts) author Lauren Grodstein’s subtly affecting A Friend of the Family. Grodstein–who also wrote the well-received YA novel Girls Dinner Club under the pseudonym Jessie Elliot–is a wonderful prose stylist and empathetic observer and her novel was a real pleasure to read, despite the more troubling thematic aspects of the plot.

You can read my review on The Second Pass here, or below.

***

Lauren Grodstein’s A Friend of the Family introduces its stolidly suburban protagonist, Pete Dizinoff (“Dr. Pete”), through a memory — a reminiscence of the morning, years past, when the collapse of the Soviet Union was announced in American papers. While his dear friends declare it a moment of promise, Pete is immediately on guard, “bizarrely afraid” as the familiar global balance comes to an end. “The cold war was stasis, Elaine,” he explains to his wife. “Us versus them, good versus bad. Instability, especially in that part of the world, is dangerous. This makes me concerned. Not panicked, but concerned.”

It’s a moment concise in its characterization and elegant in its presentation of the unwaveringly self-assured, moralistic worldview that Pete uses to navigate his daily life. He is a talented internist with a knack for “specialty cases, the sleuthy diagnoses nobody else had been able to figure.” His wife is loyal and caring, deferring to his judgment on everything from “matters of international consequence” to “the paying of bills, the hiring of plumbers.” Pete is not a man accustomed to being wrong — or even questioned — until Laura Stern, the daughter of his best friend, reenters his life and begins showing an interest in his son Alec. Believing himself to be acting in Alec’s best interest, Pete sets about breaking the couple apart.

What follows could be considered a comedy of good intentions gone awry, were it not for the grim circumstances of Laura’s past and the horrible, redoubling consequences of Pete’s meddling. Early on, we learn that Laura gave birth to a premature baby in a library bathroom when she was only seventeen, immediately killed the child, and hid its body in a dumpster behind the building. It’s a profoundly disturbing revelation — even more so once Laura is introduced: she is attractive, charming, intelligent, and outspoken. But for Pete, her past actions forever define her as, among other things, uniquely unsuited for his son. The novel becomes hinged on Pete and Laura’s sparring match — an increasingly deceitful and manipulative power struggle that seems much less about winning Alec than about simply besting the other.

Grodstein’s ability to make Pete and Laura frequently sympathetic (when they can also be troubling, even repellent) is remarkable. Where other characters in A Friend of the Family have clear motivations and react to situations in straightforward ways, Pete and Laura are complex, deeply selfish, and often confused — characters whose motivations and actions require readers to consider their own.

We may objectively recognize that Pete’s investment in his son’s life and future verges on obsessive. When Alec shows no interest in applying to colleges, Pete writes the entrance essays and submits the applications for him. When asked if he “would want Alec married and miserable for your sake or happy and alone for his?” he instantly replies, “Married and miserable…as long as there are grandchildren.” But even if his notions of what’s best are severely limited in scope and unrelated to Alec’s own aspirations, Pete’s protective impulses and genuine concern for his son are difficult to fault.

As the novel reaches its climax — a startling confrontation between Pete and Laura — our sense of identification with Pete is complicated by two dramatically different accounts of what takes place. Pete tells us his version of events, of course, but we only receive Laura’s side of the story secondhand. Given the nature of the accusations against him and the volatility of his relationship with Laura, however, the reader cannot help but wonder if Pete has sterilized his retelling in order to maintain his listeners’ empathy, our understanding of him as a concerned and loving father.

Until this point in the novel, Pete’s narration feels inherently truthful. He admits fault, if not real regret, and reveals enough of his own life’s mistakes and indiscretions that any late attempt at deceiving the reader might seem futile. But so little is gained by Pete’s determined intervention — his grand plan for Alec goes entirely unrealized — that one wonders if Laura is the only character capable of real destruction, of causing irreparable harm to another human being. And so Grodstein brings her story full circle, leaving us to question if one act (even, as in Pete’s case, one that may not have happened) can define a person, and whether good intentions are ever as innocuous as they seem.