Twitter friend @johannthors recently went on a “diet” of all-female authors, and one of the books he discussed on his blog was JAGANNATH, by Karen Tidbeck, featuring moody, Scandanavian stories of the fantastic. Since I had a day full of flights a week or so ago, and my phone at hand, I decided to write a few thoughts on each short story in the collection.
The first story, BEATRICE, would be at home in the magically surreal worlds constructed by China Mieville. Eerie and infused with steampunk flavor, the piece tells the tale of two love affairs. The first is between a doctor and an airship; the second between a clerk and her steam-powered stove. The conclusion reminded more a little of themes I touched on in my own short story, SWEETHEART, namely the idea of relationships that exist between creatures of unequal power.
The second tale is an epistolary story, SOME LETTERS FOR OVE LINDSTROM. From a daughter to her alcoholic father, these letters paint a picture of their life after the disappearance of the daughter’s mother. This absent maternal figure reminds me a little of a Kelpie, although the creature referred to here is a vittra. I didn’t find this story as compelling as BEATRICE, but I’m willing to give it a second reading to see if there’s anything I missed.
MISS NYBERG AND I is an utterly charming tale that starts with a balcony full of poisonous plants and ends with a tiny creature taking up residence in a young woman’s apartment. Told from the point of view of a writer friend, the story explores how authors fictionalized their lives and the lives of those around them, asking questions about how we represent the lives and adventures of those we love. While plenty of authors joke about including people and events from their lives in their fictions, Tidbeck capture the particular ethical dilemma of creating a future for someone you know in real life.
Next up is REBECKA, and here things get dark. The story of an abused woman who can’t escape the pain her tormentors caused her, who tries to get God’s attention after repeated, failed suicide attempts. Tidbeck’s sparse prose does a service to this stark, fatalistic tale, drawing out the titular character’s anguish and desire to end her own pain in the wake of trauma. Why does God let bad things happen to people, the story asks, and does He ever answer their prayers for solace? In REBECKA, the answer is more disturbing than reassuring. If God doesn’t step in unless it’s to punish, what must one do to catch enough of His attention to be relieved of life’s pains?
HERR CEDERBERG is another miss for me, about a man who builds a flying machine. There’s something here that ties into a metaphor using bumble bees, but I’m not sure of the overarching meaning of the story. Worth a second reading, and hopefully that will uncover hidden depths. One of the frustrating things about reading books by authors in other cultures is that at times one feels as if one may have missed something through a lack of cultural literacy, and this story does give me that feeling.
Recalling both METAMORPHOSIS and a few other Kafka tales whose titles I can’t quite put my finger on, WHO IS ARVID PEKON? gives the reader a glimpse inside a rather unorthodox call center. The titular character fields a number of odd calls, but had one client in particular whose inquiries grow increasingly bizarre. Anyone who’s felt themselves disappearing into a job will recognize the deadliness of corporate culture in this short piece.
(It’s worth noting, by the way, that so far most of the stories are only a few pages long, and the mood of each piece flows well from one story to the next.)
Stories about writing are always tricky, and my feeling was that NYBERG captures the dilemmas of process more aptly than BRITA’S HOLIDAY VILLAGE, about a writer who retreats from the world to finish a couple of projects (sound familiar, anyone?) and instead cross paths with distant family. This is one of the longer stories so far, and part of me wishes there were more depth and detail about the family members. Since I’m reading this on a plane, I can’t look up what a ‘pupa’ is, but I have the feeling it may be integral to the plot.
Mental illness gets a closer look in REINDEER MOUNTAIN, about two sisters and their mother cleaning out a family home. Here, another absent matriarch – in this case, the family’s great grandmother – appeared as if from nowhere with a sense of being touched by the fairy world. The story talks about mental illness, nerves, anxiety and depression – and worse – being passed down through generations of a family, and how desperately the family tries to ignore the signs when one of their own begins a faster slide into depression and delusion. Called ‘uncanny’ in the book’s introduction, there’s certainly an air of the unusual, here. Taking on the mythic feeling of Nordic folklore, one truly feels the encroaching darkness in this unsettling tale. Family heritage is tied directly to mental illness by an old piece of clothing; it’s ultimately kept as a souvenir of the fantastical occurrence at the story’s climax.
CLOUDBERRY JAM is a fast, fey tale that once again touches on the pregnancy theme Tidbeck brought up in BEATRICE, that of women having unconventional, fantastic pregnancies that lead to odd, not quite human children. Here, the protagonist creates a child for herself, loving and nurturing it until it begins to grow in its own direction. It’s at this point in reading that the mismatched jigsaw of familial puzzle pieces starts to emerge as significant throughout the collection: human oddities, connected by blood and mythology.
With PYRET, Tidbeck strides straight into otherworldly horror. Structured as a report on a mythological creature, this story pressed all the buttons necessary to make the hair on my neck stand on end. The story ends more abruptly than one might prefer, but the lurch it leaves the reader in helps feed a gnawing sense of umease. The imagery Tidbeck creates here is truly chilling.
Next up is AUGUSTA PRIMA, an odd little Alice-in-Wonderland style tale (or maybe i just think that because of the croquet) about beings living in a world without time, and what happens when one of them finds a watch. It feels like the allegory/concept may have gotten a little ahead of the story; more development of the idea would have given the story greater impact. The characters don’t feel as sharply drawn as in some of the collection’s other stories, though the conceit of playing an endless game of croquet in the garden of memory is an alluring one.
With AUNTS, we return to themes of childbearing, family and unnatural pregnancies. Consumption, too, plays a role in this story, where we watch the ritual of three ‘aunts’ who seem to exist simply to eat and procreate in a seemingly endless cycle. Over and over they consume themselves, finally bursting open full of new life, only for the cycle to be repeated again. Attended by three ‘neices,’ in a secret garden, what do the aunts symbolize – if anything? This story seems to take place on the fringes of the world created in AUGUSTA PRIME – an added wrinkle of complexity that makes me want to go back and look for other connections to other stories.
With JAGANNATH, the final story in the collection, Tidbeck’s theme of unnatural reproduction is turned inward. Now we see from the perspective of a great mother’s offspring as they watch their caretaker, a “mother creature” that protects them from an unspecified disaster out in the real world, run down – along with their entire way of life. Dystopian and claustrophobic, JAGANNATH takes place in an isolated and self-contained environment that would be at home in Margaret Atwood’s MADDADAM.
I’m not typically a fan of author’s notes and afterwards, but in this case reading Tilbeck’s final notes was highly illuminating. She discusses her process in terms of the language she uses, the curious mash-up of British and American English, and how she chooses which phrases to translate from Swedish and which words must remain in her native tongue. As someone who struggles with speech patterns thanks to five years spent living abroad, it was fascinating to read how another writer deals with the challenge of locating her stories in a place where a hodgepodge of languages and dialects create their own distinct flavor of storytelling.
JAGANNATH isn’t a hard read, or a long one, clocking in at 134 pages. It took me two airplane rides to finish it, including writing these thoughts on my phone. It’s atmospheric and linguistically engaging, and the writing itself shows an artfulness.that often feels missing in newer works. By the end of the book, the stories do feel as if they often don’t quite end, instead lingering, like the concept of liminal sun mentioned in Elizabeth Hand’s introduction.
Moody and dark, the stories nonetheless hold hope for those who want to believe in an onionskin otherworld. Tidbeck has a novel coming out soon, and it will be interesting to see what she does with the longer form.
Some authors you might also enjoy:
Charles de Lint
PS – now that the holiday shopping season is here, would you like to check out my collection of short stories, SHORT FRICTIONS? It’s currently available on Kindle and other e-readers.