Sunday, December 29, 2013

Minding the Animals in Ólafsson’s The Pets

I’m writing about Bragi Ólafsson’s The Pets—which I read in Janice Balfour’s translation of the original Icelandic Gæludýrin—out of turn because I’m pretty sure I want to include it on my list of favorite books I read in 2012. What’s not to love (for a reader like me, anyway) about a book narrated by a guy who spends most of the novel lying under his own bed listening to people gather in his own apartment, wonder where he is, and drink his premium liquor?

The basic story of The Pets is this: Emil, a youngish guy from Reykjavik won the lottery, went to London for some shopping (he likes music and books), and met “a hulk of a linguist” and a lovely youngish woman on the flight home. Even as Emil is winging his way home, Emil’s ex-friend and former petsitting colleague Havard (thought to be institutionalized in Sweden) is drinking his way through Reykjavik and trying to find Emil. Havard comes to Emil’s after Emil arrives home but Emil sees him and dives under the bed before Havard crawls through the window to shut off a tea kettle… a little later Havard starts inviting people over. Including the linguist and the lovely youngish woman.

Again: What’s not to love (again: for a reader like me, anyway) about a wonderfully absurd situation like that? Particularly given Emil’s sense of humor and Havard’s recklessness? Beyond the humor, what struck me most is the hermeticness of it all: first Emil is trapped on a plane, then he’s trapped under his own bed, stuck with other people in enclosed spaces, even if they don’t know he’s there. Hell really can be other people. Particularly when, like Emil, you have a view of the bathroom and can see what people are doing in there. Here’s Emil, near the end of the book, lying under the bed, hearing Elvis Presley (first “Suspicious Minds” then “Don’t Cry Daddy”) play on his own stereo:
For a moment I long to take part, to be on friendly terms with all the inmates of the place one lodges in, but the next moment I am really glad that I am alone, all by myself.
There was also this, about flying, toward the beginning of the book:
For three hours (not to mention on longer trips) one is locked in a tight, uncomfortable space, way above any civilization, with unpredictable people, who could drink themselves senseless or spill their food and drink over you—and the only place of salvation is the toilet.
All of which is to say I loved The Pets. It’s wonderfully serious and sad fun. A bonus: the fact that I laughed out loud many times speaks well of Janice Balfour’s translation.

Disclosures: I always enjoy meeting up with Open Letter Books; I purchased a copy of The Pets.

Up Next: Favorites of 2012 2013.  Then the books I bumped for this one: Donald Antrim’s The Hundred Brothers, which I also liked quite a bit, and Romain Slocombe’s Monsieur Le Commandant, another one that gets a thumbs up. Then Pedro Mairal’s The Missing Year of Juan Salvatierra, which is off to a good great start.

Sunday, December 1, 2013

Life Elsewhere: Mr. Lynch’s Holiday

Catherine O’Flynn’s Mr. Lynch’s Holiday is a quiet, enjoyable novel that dissects contemporary migrations and alienation, offering up the story of Eamonn, a lonely, lost, barely employed expat man who lives in Spain, whose father, Dermot, a retired bus driver, comes to visit from England. It wasn’t so much the plot or backstories that mattered to me in Mr. Lynch’s Holiday—Eamonn’s wife, for example, left him to return to England and Dermot came to England from Ireland as a young man—as O’Flynn’s small touches, things like Skype as replacement human contact (some people fall asleep by the screen!) and the ghostly feel, predatory neighbors, and stray cats of Eamonn’s underpopulated coastal Spanish town.

O’Flynn works in, to good effect, lots of quiet and sad humor: Dermot, for example, never got over nouvelle cuisine all those years ago, and Eamonn ponders “El Cóndor Pasa,” specifically “I’d rather be a hammer than a nail” and the use of panpipes, while drunk at a party. Mr. Lynch’s Holiday is gentle, spare, and occasionally sharp—a very decent combination—but also a bit predictable, particularly in the outcome of Dermot’s visit and a “one year later” epilogue that usurps a perfectly good (and, I thought, thoroughly appropriate) open-ended finish.

Disclaimers: I received a review copy of Mr. Lynch’s Holiday from publisher Henry Holt, thank you very much!

Up Next: Donald Antrim’s The Hundred Brothers.