Monday, January 19, 2015

Evil Storytellers From Finland

Pasi Ilmari Jääskeläinen, The Rabbit Back Literature Society

Children's author Laura White has become Rabbit Back, Finland's most famous recluse, a veritable Far Northern Greta Garbo. Every member of her renowned Literature Society has become famous for nigh-magical writing, but she hasn't accepted any new members in thirty years. When mousy schoolteacher Ella Milana catches Laura's eye, that precedent changes. Then Laura disappears. Curious, headstrong Ella finds herself an orphan among Laura’s disciples, and resolves to discover the Literature Society’s carefully buried secrets.

Jääskeläinen's publishers have slapped the "fantasy" label on this, apparently his first novel translated into English. But that's a marketing contrivance. His storytelling approach more resembles the bastard offspring of Shirley Jackson and Jorge Luis Borges. Between his languorous pace, nonlinear timeline, and intense character focus, Jääskeläinen creates what Franco-Romanian critic Tzvetan Todorov called “the fantastic”—that liminal space between dreams and waking, where reality doesn’t constrain possibility, and human illusions of control break down.

Ella gets adopted into Laura White’s Rabbit Back Literature Society shortly after her father’s death. But before Ella’s tutelage begins, Laura literally vanishes on a wisp of snow, leaving Ella orphaned a second time. (Jääskeläinen’s symbolism is pervasive, and often unsubtle.) Ella coaxes Literature Society members to divulge their stories, a process they call “spilling.” Slowly, they spill one secret even they’ve mostly forgotten: they previously had another member, a boy genius who died young.

Pasi Ilmari Jääskeläinen
Much of Jääskeläinen’s novel deals with how Laura White turned young disciples into genuine writers. Since Laura vanishes before Ella’s real training begins, Ella must become her own teacher, assembling her apprenticeship piecemeal from other Literature Society members. This proves taxing, since members have essentially stopped talking to one another.She uncovers less a Platonic artistic ideal than a band of intellectually profound, emotionally stunted man-children, bound together by a cerebral form of Stockholm Syndrome.

Laura White (or Pasi Ilmari Jääskeläinen?) evidently doesn't believe in writers "creating" narratives. Rather than invention, Laura sees art as a process of stripping away learned pretenses. Writers are fundamentally antisocial, because they trade in truth, divorced altogether from sentiment. Literature Society members mine each other for stories, a process Jääskeläinen tacitly likens to cannibalism. Artists wring truth from themselves and one another, slowly, painfully, with all the grace and prettiness of a back-alley appendectomy.

Members of the Rabbit Back Literature Society are all talked out. They’ve only created globe-spanning art by consuming each other’s stories, and they find themselves so depleted, they’ve retreated into near-complete isolation. Ella provides fresh meat, not only a source of her own stories, but new questions that force members to retell old stories in new ways. Vampire-like, they start consuming Ella, but she has only one overwhelming quest, to find the enigmatic boy genius.

Most of this book consists of characters telling one another stories. Ella teases out confessions buried so deeply within her new colleagues, even they’ve forgotten the unvarnished truth. Picking facts from the prettified narratives they’ve created to excuse themselves, to themselves, proves grimly difficult. In return, Ella’s colleagues demand stories from her, stories that require her to examine herself in ways she’s never previously attempted. Ella learns the easiest person to lie to is herself.

Words create reality. That’s Jääskeläinen’s thesis throughout this book. Literature Society members create transcendent art from words, which others receive, and are transformed. But they keep words away from other areas. They’ve so thoroughly erased the boy genius’s name from shared memory that he’s essentially vanished from history. But reality needs stories, so when Literature Society members stop telling new ones (nearly all have lapsed into undeclared retirement), local library books, virus-like, start rearranging themselves.

Ella, a literature scholar who started creative writing only late (like Jääskeläinen), discovers a vein of terrible abuse beneath her sometime literary heroes. These authors create art only by damaging themselves, and one another. After catching one mistreating another with apparent sadistic glee, Ella realizes: "Maybe that's what happened when people became writers and knew each other so well that there was no need to speak anymore. Authentic communication was quickly replaced by written drama."

This is a difficult book, populated with sharp-toothed antiheroes, frequently digressing into long, talky detours, with a cynical, almost demonic view of human creativity. It’s also dreamlike, thoughtful, and humane, with frequent flashes of unexpected humor. It straddles the line between popular novel and Platonic dialogue, driven less by events than Jääskeläinen’s rich, ever-evolving ideas. It demands readers as committed and thoughtful as itself. Not everyone will like it. But it offers plenty to love.

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