Friday, June 7, 2013

Book Review: Jagannath by Karin Tidbeck

Jagannath
by Karin Tidbeck
Cheeky Frawg Books, 2012.
Fiction Collection.

Review by Alex McElroy.

It is tempting, but reductive, to label the stories in Karin Tidbeck’s collection, Jagannath, “odd.” Though let’s be clear. The stories are odd—in one a man falls in love with an airship, another posits timeless multiverses, children are grown in tin cans. But that word, along with its cousins “strange” and “eerie,” is frequently used as a euphemism for writing that succeeds in quirkiness alone. That is not the case for Jagannath. These stories may stray beyond quotidian human affairs but they never neglect human emotions. The interdependency of emotion and oddness imbues the collection with an unexpected dignity that makes it a pleasure for both its literary and entertainment value.

Tidbeck, who is from, and still lives in, Sweden, began writing fiction in English less than a decade ago. The transition does not seem to have affected her prose. Its expansive brevity is something even native English writers strive to achieve. Take, for example, this passage from the end of “Beatrice,” the tale of airship love referenced above:
Franz opened the great double doors to the warehouse, and slowly towed Beatrice outside. 
. . . He sorted out the tethers. Beatrice II suddenly pulled at the moorings, which snapped, and she ascended without a sound. Franz stood outside the warehouse, watching the sky, until night fell.
The sentences’ concision displays Tidbeck’s commitment to content. They do not call attention to themselves, and they shouldn’t, not because no sentence should ever call attention to itself, but because, in this case, effaced sentences allow the content to enchant the reader. The prose also contributes to the emotional resonance of the conclusion. We are told only that Franz watches his lover depart and waits until nightfall, and through that absence of imposed feeling—never is Franz said to miss Beatrice, or yearn for her, etc—we experience Franz’s loneliness. The story is fully realized in this moment, both on the particular—Franz’s airship departs, thus ending the affair—and on the universal level—we have all watched lovers leave and waited, too long, for their return.

Tidbeck is at her best in works like “Beatrice,” “Some Letters for Ove Lindstrom,” “Cloudberry Jam,” and “Jagannath,” where she strikes a balance between longing and peculiarity that gives her fiction its unexpected dignity. In “Cloudberry Jam,” the story of a mother who grows her child in a can, Tidbeck gives the woman a heartfelt integrity that overshadows the strangeness of her growing a child:
I made you in a tin can. . . . 
This is how I did it: I waited until it was my time of the month. I took the tin can from the shelf under the sink. I filled it halfway with fresh water and put half a teaspoon of salt in it. Next I put in a small, gnarled carrot from last year’s garden. I had saved it because it had two prongs, like little legs, and arm-like stumps. Then I held the can between my legs and let some blood trickle into it. Finally, some of my spit. I put some clingfilm over the opening. The rest of the night, I sat with the can in my lap, and sang to you. That’s how you were made, in October, as the first snows fell. 
This detailed retelling draws us in and precludes our skepticism—a necessary task, due to the strange act being performed. But the scientifically precise sentences are not absent of emotion. Encountering, “The rest of the night, I sat with the can in my lap, and sang to you,” after what might be directions to DIY Mini-Frankenstein Kit, we understand the narrator’s love for this child. Later, when the child asks, “Why did you make me?” readers might very well predict the narrator’s response: “I made you so that I could love you.” As is the case with many of Tydbeck’s stories, what the characters do may be odd, while the characters themselves are nuanced and honest.

Throughout the collection, Tidbeck conveys feelings of longing and grief through unexpected forms and subjects. A story about Arvid Pekon’s work at a call center morphs into an existential tale. Letters written by a young woman to her dead father skirt sappiness and patiently express the young woman’s unique desperation. Our world is odd enough, and though the worlds presented in Jagannath might be even odder, they never fail to remind us what it’s like to live in our own.

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