The OF Blog: Karin Tidbeck, Jagannath

Monday, November 19, 2012

Karin Tidbeck, Jagannath

I made you in a tin can.  It was one of the unlabelled mystery cans the charity in Åre village handed out.  Most of the time it would be sausages or split pea soup.

This is how I did it:  I waited until it was my time of the month.  I took the tin can from the shelf under the sink.  I filled it halfway with fresh water and put half a teaspoon of salt in it.  Next I put in a small, gnarled carrot from last year's garden.  I had saved it because it had two prongs, like little legs, and arm-like stumps.  Then I held the can between my legs and let some blood trickle into it.  Finally, some of my spit.  I put some plastic wrap over the opening.  The rest of the night, I sat with the can in my lap, and sang to you.  That's how you were made, in October, as the first snows fell.

– opening to "Cloudberry Jam" (p. 77)

For myself at least, weird fiction often works best in the short story format.  There the conflicts between the expected and the irreal, the clash of the narrative "I's" and "You's," seem to be distilled into purer draughts.  Swedish writer Karin Tidbeck's first English-language collection, Jagannath:  Stories, contains an almost perfect mixture of diverse (and seemingly contradictory) elements that make the thirteen stories (twelve reprints/translations, one original to this collection) a delight to read.

The first thing that struck me about Tidbeck's writing is the confessional-type tone with which many of her stories open.  Take for instance the quoted beginning to "Cloudberry Jam."  Change the images slightly and it would sound almost exactly like a mother telling her daughter the place and manner in which she was conceived.  There are no convoluted clauses or vestigial remnants of an eldritch language required to give Jagannath's stories their weird flavors.  Instead, what Tidbeck does here is take deceptively simple affairs, say a love affair, and switch out certain mundane elements (say, a love between an upper class twit of a Pygmalion and a working class Eliza Doolittle) with outstandish statements such as the one that begins the opening tale, "Beatrice":

Franz Hiller, a physician, fell in love with an airship.  He was visiting a fair in Berlin to see the wonders of the modern age that were on display:  automobiles, propeller planes, mechanical servants, difference engines, and other things that would accompany man into the future. (p. 7)

The baldness of opening with a man falling in love with an airship is mitigated somewhat by the list of technological marvels on display.  The love of a man for a machine is not shown to be daft or a sign of incipient madness, but rather is introduced in a matter-of-fact tone that establishes that within the setting, such loves are not strange but instead are normal.  It is this sense of "normalcy" that allows Tidbeck to craft a tale that contains a surprising series of twists and turns, with more depth of meaning than what might be expected at first.

The weird elements in her fictions here seem to be channels through which she is able to discuss a wide variety of topics in a more attention-grabbing and perhaps effective fashion than if she had constructed them as more mundane fictions.  Several of Jagannath's stories deal with matters of love gone awry, of social privileges presumed (and later revealed to be false, hollow concepts that contain their own violent tendencies), of  (Scandinavian, but sometimes from other European traditions) folklore and the superficiality of our belief in "reason."  These are topics that have fascinated readers (and before them, listeners) for millennia.  Tidbeck does an excellent job in taking these story motifs and creating stories that surprise and sometimes unsettle us in ways that we did not know beforehand that we secretly desired.

Jagannath contains very few stories, if any, that fail to hit their mark.  Some are told with wryness, while others contain layers of sadness.  Yet no two closely resemble one another in form or style, with the exception of the above-mentioned "confessional" tone that a few of the stories have.  Instead, the thirteen stories feel more like fractured prisms in which the light is split ever so much into different spectra, creating a plethora of images and tales that tackle different aspects of human interactions with each other and the world around them.  The weirdness created by this fracturing does not detract from the stories, but rather causes the reader to pay closer attention to what is transpiring; depth of theme and character thus is improved through this.  Jagannath is one of the best speculative collections that I have read in the past few years and as Tidbeck's debut collection in English, it promises great things are in store for the future.


Anonymous said...

Another weird fiction collection worth getting - damn Larry I can only buy so many things. :-)

Thanks for the review!


Larry Nolen said...

Look on the bright side: better to spend money on Tidbeck than on Sanderson, no? ;)

The Mad Hatter said...

I finished this last week and loved every story. Definitely one of the best collections I've read from the last 3 years. I thought of it as a beautifully skewed view of Scandinavian folklore.

Larry Nolen said...

I didn't think of it until now, but it's fitting that I re-read/reviewed Jagannath so soon after reading/reviewing Claire Vaye Watkins' Battleborn. Very different approaches to short fiction, but both contain a precision of prose that's very difficult to achieve. It has been a good reading year for short story collections/anthologies this year.

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