[24 April 2009]
Amberville is a noirish mystery novel in which all of the characters are stuffed animals, with names such as Eric Bear, Hyena Bataille, Rhinoceros Edda, and Snake Marek. It’s not a children’s book, nor an Orwellian allegory, nor a Who Censored Roger Rabbit-style black comedy, nor a graphic novel with animal characters, nor even—as I had hoped at first—a sort of symbolic meta-fictional representation of every novelist’s most daunting challenge, which is to say, to bring the inanimate to life.
No, Amberville, written by a pseudonymous Swedish author who has adopted the name Tim Davys, is nothing more or less than what it is, a serious and straightforward suspense novel in which all of the characters happen to be plush toys pursuing independent lives.
This central conceit, and a couple of peripheral ones—like the eerie town the animals inhabit, where there appear to be regularly scheduled storms, and where each street seems to be distinguished by its own primary color—creates a distinctly surreal impression.
The plot concerns an effort by a thuggish dove (that is correct—a thuggish dove) to track down a fabled Death List of stuffed animals that are to be collected by some shadowy “Chauffeurs,” themselves stuffed animals, and destroyed.
Knowing that he is on this list and fearing for his life, Dove strong-arms (strong wings?) one of his former partners in crime, Eric Bear, into finding the list. The stuffed Bear, in turn, is forced to abandon his comfortable bourgeois life, plushly beautiful rabbit-wife Emma, and advertising agency job (for these toys do everything that humans do), and enlist some of his reprobate buddies from his criminal past to save not only Dove but also, as it turns out, his own brother.
His brother Teddy.
As these names suggest, there is a kind of droll comedy to Amberville, though it’s placed in such a serious context (there’s a deeply upsetting torture scene featuring a stuffed camel, for example) that it’s hard to tell how much of the humor was intended, and how much was gained in translation.
Consider these passages, which had me chuckling, and, at the same time, wondering exactly what I thought was so funny:
“The stuffed animals sipped the vodka in silence.”
“Here I stand, hiding, he thought, inside a stall in a men’s restroom along with a drug-intoxicated homosexual prostitute gazelle ...”
“At the fork in the road immediately after the entrance stood a duck in black sunglasses ...”
“A new series of brutal poundings was heard from the outside door. Why don’t they ring the doorbell, like normal stuffed animals?”
“(Snake Marek) was not a social snake, seldom evoked sympathy among his closest associates, and didn’t have a favorable appearance. He was a pale-green reptile with yellowish eyes, and despite the fact that he slinked upright through life, he needed something to stand on—a bench or a table or a box—so as not to feel inferior.”
The surreality, intended or otherwise, is enhanced by a few exceedingly odd passages, such as one in which Teddy Bear defines sadism:
“The Sadist is a stuffed animal who spiritually and intellectually knows that what he strives for is wrong. Yet he can’t resist. The actions of the Sadist have a single purpose. He is out to get satisfaction ... The Sadist might be the bitter taxi driver who by accentuating his unsuccessful life—for example, by placing a diploma in sailing clearly visible up by the steering wheel—is out to implant guilt in his passengers.”
Of all the definitions of sadism and associated other pathologies in which disturbed human beings take pleasure in the suffering of others, this is probably the weirdest ever written. (If, God forbid, anyone reading this review should ever become the unwitting victim of a sadist, let it be, at the very worst, an over-educated and exceedingly subtle taxi driver.)
If it’s hard to imagine a stuffed bear driving a real taxi, by the way, consider the accommodations that Snake Marek must make to the demands of driving: “He’d gotten a vehicle with reptile-adapted instrumentation, with automatic transmission, and with the gas and brake pedals within a tail’s-length distance, but he hated twisting around the steering wheel and crawling back in forth in order to turn. He’d always thought that snakes that drove cars made themselves ridiculous ...”
But the strangeness of this novel is far less of a concern than its conventionality. Ultimately, if these stuffed animals can breathe, walk, eat, drink, smoke, do drugs, vomit, have sex and even drive cars just like humans, what’s the point of making them stuffed animals, when they could just as easily be humans or, at the very least, real animals (which, at least, can actually do some of the things that humans can do)? What is the metaphor, the symbolism, the larger meaning animating these un-cuddly little creatures?
Davys toys with some issues of good and evil in this novel, and there’s a fairly interesting twist near the end, as well as any number of bizarre chuckles along the way. Davys, or perhaps his publisher, is also to be congratulated on not giving these characters little product-placement tags on their furry butts: There’s no grizzled gumshoe in this novel named Gund, for example, nor any Care Bear whores with hearts of gold.
But this novel ultimately lives and dies on the strength of its fairly conventional plotting and, as a result, leaves the reader grasping for something more. It’s a shame and a missed opportunity, though word is that Davys has three sequels in the works. If, like this one, they are mysteries, let’s hope that they answer the biggest mystery of all: Why exactly are these characters stuffed, and what substance are they stuffed with?