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The Pets

Everything I know about Iceland could fit into a shoebox: two Björk CDs, a six of Viking beer, a tin of cured ram scrota (a gag gift by one of my “friends”). But I do find the unique and au courant alluring, and my ventures into the unknown often prove worthwhile or at worst innocuous (the only extreme exceptions being Riverdance and Robo-Tripping – I seriously advise you to lay off both, no matter what the cool kids say.)

Everything I know about Iceland could fit into a shoebox: two Björk CDs, a six of Viking beer, a tin of cured ram scrota (a gag gift by one of my “friends”). But I do find the unique and au courant alluring, and my ventures into the unknown often prove worthwhile or at worst innocuous (the only extreme exceptions being Riverdance and Robo-Tripping – I seriously advise you to lay off both, no matter what the cool kids say.)

Björk, I like. She reminds me of the morning after an ice storm. Her voice is cut bouquet, glacier torsos, etc. Her best music was during the Sugarcubes days; though no one noticed (they do now). Her bass player was Bragi Ólafsson. The Sugarcubes crumbled, Bragi spiraled away. He sat in dark rooms with himself. He wrote novels.

For example, The Pets, by Open Letter Press, the University of Rochester’s nonprofit, literary translation press (the original text is in Icelandic, and titled Gaeludyrin). This is Ólafsson’s first book to appear in English.

It is a comic novel. Situational, in its way. Here is the eccentric menagerie of characters on the transatlantic flight (a classic comedy technique – there is nowhere to escape). Here is a man crawling through our narrator’s window (pratfalls, Charlie Chaplin, W.C. Fields, etc.). And, from page 65 to the final word (p. 157), here is a protagonist hiding beneath his bed. Basically an entire novel, a cast of lively characters, stirrings of conflict, crisp dialogue, all from a small apartment, all delivered by a first person narrator – from under his bed! Quite the literary feat. The author is humble. He says (interview from University of Rochester’s translation program blog, Three Percent):

“But that the main character is trapped under his bed is not really a restriction, on the contrary it’s very helpful for the imagination of the person writing the story. In fact I would like to write more novels from that point of view, I feel comfortable under a bed, it’s probably something from childhood.”

Things I liked about this book:

1.) The narrator. For the majority of the book, our guide is first person POV. He is intelligent, often witty, a bit wounded (divorced, separated from his young son). In a word, sympathetic. This narrator passed a key test for me as reader: I would have a beer with him. Remember, he is hiding under his bed. And he isn’t exactly sure why. As a metaphor, I hope we can all relate. Hiding under the beds we’ve made. Dodging conflict. Avoiding consequences. Wondering about the smallness, closeness, oddness of our situations, our lives.

2.) The drinking. Cognacs and double vodkas and red wines and beer. Honestly, I just like to drink, and am actually writing this review while polishing off a bottle of Shiraz, so most any alcohol reference gives a tiny spark, and makes me feel less existentially alone. In this novel, all of the characters drink, often, glass after drained glass, nonchalant and necessary as the rain. This may be an Icelandic virtue, since colder, more Northern cultures certainly embrace alcohol, possibly as curative to bone-gnawing wind, snow, ice, sleet, a lingering mental state as low and large as the leaden sky. The writer, of course, uses alcohol for something more, as technique, as craft (see Raymond Carver 101). Alcohol lowers inhibitions. Opens the characters to tension, to stumble, to faux pas, to the core value of any serious fiction: truth.

3.) The characters. I’ve mentioned our narrator, but likewise intriguing are the minor actors. Most authors purposely mute these personas to illuminate the protagonist. The main character in The Pets is prostrate under a dusty bed, so the structure lends itself to an exploration of the secondary (though we do get fascinating internal monologues from our narrator at times). Havard is the man who breaks into the protagonist’s apartment, providing a catalyst for his mad dash into the bedroom, and beneath the bed. Havard is a modern day Ignatius J. Reilly, only drunk. Need I say more? The potential love interest, Greta, using the author’s words, is “much more mature and exciting than the other girls,” with her body “tousled and flush.” I am a fan of any person tousled (and of tousling in general). Again, one of my key tests as reader: Do I want to sleep with the love interest in the novel? Indeed, I do.

Things I did not enjoy about the book:

1.) The ending. Like an upper class college kid with ironic T-shirt, can of PBR, and Lilliputian eyeglasses, a bit too cool to actually register as cool. But I may be wrong. I did have to read, and re-read this ending. I mean it holds something, some verve. Let’s once more listen to the author:

“I’ve had lots of comments on how the novel ends. While many readers find it very frustrating, even feel betrayed, other readers think it is the proper ending to a story like this. One reader came up to me and told me that the ending of The Pets was the second best ending he had read in a book. I was of course very flattered to hear that, especially because this reader seemed like a “normal” person, not a literature student. And when I asked him what was the best ending he had read, the answer was: For Whom the Bell Tolls! It made my day.”

2.) The cover was an iridescent blue that made me nauseous. The fault may be mine; a medical disorder, for example, like when kids have seizures while playing Nintendo.

But these are trifling concerns. Overall, the book glitters and gleams, a clear, laughing glacial stream. I have something new to add to my Icelandic shoebox. And to remove from that shoebox. To discuss, argue, gladly contemplate over a bottle of Reyka vodka – to share.

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