Reviews

Icelander by Dustin Long

Nora Connor

It features a lost world, literary forgeries, inhuman fox-clad assassins, kidnapping, murder, and heroic ballad karaoke, all of which are irresistible.


Icelander

Publisher: McSweeney's
Length: 249
Price: $22.00
Author: Dustin Long
US publication date: 2006-04
UK publication date: 2006-04
Amazon

The day after his wife Shirley's murder, former Quebec city police inspector Blaise Duplain is literally digging through her journals, reading, smelling, and scratching at scrawled-over phrases, and wondering what clues might have disappeared along with the pages she's excised with a razor. "My aim is true," she's written, and Blaise is unsure whether this is a tender bilingual pun -- French is his native language -- or if, as he suspects, his wife was pursuing other aims altogether. Who killed Shirley, and what she was up to before her death, are the mysteries that set the fictional northeastern university town of New Crúiskeen aflutter in Dustin Long's new Icelander.

It's snowing in New Crúiskeen, as if to establish right up front that the mode of this thriller will be more nerd than noir. Two "philosophical detectives" suspect that Shirley's murder is connected to a plot to dislodge Shakespeare and his Hamlet from atop the Western canon, and one of the main characters is a rogue library scientist, ostracized within the profession for his unorthodox theories on cataloging. As a cast of forgers, anthropologists, tabloid types, and political revolutionaries chase each other around town, the protagonist, known only as Our Heroine, would prefer to stay out of the whole mess. A Scandinavian Studies professor, she lives with a forced celebrity due to her late mother, a famous scholar and crime-fighter whose exploits were novelized by the semi-mythical author Magnus Valison, styled after Vladimir Nabokov. Valison may or may not be the "editor" of Icelander as well, whose footnoted interjections hint at possible multiple identities for several characters and complicate the resolution.

Our Heroine has a pile of troubles in addition to Shirley's murder. Her husband, a god among the subterranean Vanatru people (long oppressed by above-ground Icelandic colonialists), has left her to assume the throne of his homeland, her dog has disappeared, and her senile father keeps insisting that the evil master of disguise Surt, the family's nemesis, is not dead as supposed but very much alive and behind the latest round of mayhem. Quite reasonably, she's inclined to let the police handle the case while nursing her wounds in peace using the time-honored salve of promiscuity, booze, and baths. But when forgery expert, rogue librarian and fuck-friend Hubert Jorgen disappears around the same time as her dog, Our Heroine can't help but get to solving, drawing on the experience gained during her teenage years spent as her mother's sidekick. She shakes off her hangover and goes looking for Hubert and the dog, and by the time she ends up in the back of an ambulance she's solved the mystery, or at least sort of.

Icelander is a funny and complicated thriller, with the practical Heroine and melancholy Blaise keeping the rest of the characters from floating off into irritating whimsy. It features a lost world, literary forgeries, inhuman fox-clad assassins, kidnapping, murder, and heroic ballad karaoke, all of which are irresistible. But it is also an affectionate send-up of anxious, referential po-mo fiction. Shirley's name is MacGuffin, and as a proud feminist experimental writer, she criticizes novels for hewing to a "traditional Western narrative paradigm of the male sexual experience," advocating for some form of "narrative cuddling afterward" -- does the plot of Icelander just roll over and go to sleep, then? At times the parody becomes distracting, either because Long wants to make sure we get it, or because he succumbs to ostentation himself--it's hard to tell for sure. But he heaps glancing references to the Three Stooges, Bluebeard, the Pixies, and French philosophers Deleuze and Guattari on top of his creative, well-developed appropriation of Norse mythology and upper-crusty British detective fiction. The novel's middle section shifts narrative point of view between seven different characters while knitting together the histories, intrigues, and grudges of the characters and their present-time sleuthing. It works, with distinctive voices and funny scenes, like one set in the steam tunnels and temples of underground Vanaheim, in which an earnest Hollywood actor researching the role of Hamlet soaks in a hot tub full of hallucinogenic lichen tea and listens to Shirley's woes. But Long sets it up as a riff on Faulkner's multiple-narrator As I Lay Dying by assigning Shirley the phrase "I am a fish," and repeating it over and over again. That's just overkill.

Or is that just the chance you take with a McSweeney's endeavor? Long's genuine literary enthusiasm is occasionally scattershot, but it also generates some of the novel's loveliest moments, which would stand as such by themselves, no hallucinogenic lichen necessary. The philosophical detectives are endearing, remarking that "meaning, like certain shellfish, must not be killed prior to ingestion lest it be rendered poisonous." And Blaise remembers how his wife's native language "has increased my affection for this time of day, the Evening, as if it were a time for the evening of all imbalances that the day has carried with itself." Although it's easy to relate to a Heroine who just wants to find her dog, it's a treat to find that her troubled world is filled with such pleasant diversions.


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