Tuesday, April 28, 2009

Fiction Review: Olaf Olafsson, "On the Lake"

Reading "On the Lake," a short story by Olaf Olafsson, is like walking on ice on a pond and suddenly noticing the surface cracking with every step. The cracks become more and more pronounced as one continues, and one can only think of two things. The first is reaching safety, while the second is wondering when it exactly was that the ice first started to break. Suddenly, one falls through the ice. The water isn't anywhere near deep enough to drown in, but the shock of its cold is enough to knock one silly, and it may also spur one's memory of the small, almost imperceptible sound of the ice when it first began to crack. Later, after one is out of the water and safe, that memory dominates all one's recollections of the event. All one can think about is that sound and one's failure to heed it at the time. In "On the Lake," Olafsson portrays a marriage that suddenly comes apart at the seams. It's easy to pass by the moment the unravelling begins when one reads it, but the story's ending brings it back so sharply that one is left slightly stunned. Rereading the story, one finds the memory of that crucial moment reverberating through every sentence and scene.

The story's protagonists are Oskar and Margret, an Icelandic couple spending spring vacation at their lakefront cabin. Jonas, their six-year-old son, is with them, and the story begins after he and Oskar were in a boating accident earlier that day. Oskar attempted to turn the boat too quickly, which caused it to capsize. The water is still dangerously cold, but Vilhelm and Bjorn, their neighbors on the lake, manage to rescue them in short order. No harm is done, but afterward, Margret seems suddenly estranged from Oskar. The two thank Vilhelm and Bjorn by having them over for food, drinks, and cards that evening. However, by the time the night has ended, Margret does something that seems almost calculated to end her and Oskar's marriage, and the moment she lost her faith in him is revealed.

And, as Olafsson makes subtly clear, this is a marriage based on faith, at least on Margret's part. There are women who never outgrow the need for a father figure; the men they take as lovers and husbands are ones whom they're convinced are strong, omnicompetent, and able to take care of them through thick and thin. Before the boating accident, Margret saw Oskar in this way. Olafsson writes:

She had spent her childhood summers by the lake with her mother and her siblings, her father coming out as often as he could. She had hoped it would be the same for her and Oskar. Until this evening, she had been confident that it would.
Marriage for Margret has been a way to maintain the security of childhood. The cabin is something of a synecdoche for what Oskar represents (or had represented) to her. It's the proof that he is a strong provider and protector: he successfully built it from the ground up, and the cabin is an improvement on his father-in-law's--which his father-in-law even acknowledges. Margret has gone from father to husband, with the two men filling the same role at different times of her life.

Oskar's ability and drive has its flipside, though. He's a deeply egotistical man who looks for ways to demonstrate how much better he is than everyone else. His target before the events of the story has been his father-in-law. However, after the rescue, Oskar is clearly humiliated by the fact that Vilhelm rescued him and Jonas, and he never misses an opportunity to belittle Vilhelm later on. He exaggerates his own role in saving Jonas and downplays the danger the two were in from the near-freezing water. He loans Vilhelm some dry clothes after they come ashore, but he can't help but mock how Vilhelm looks in them. Much of the evening that follows is spent playing cards, with Oskar boorishly criticizing Vilhelm's playing at every turn. Hints scattered throughout suggest that Oskar senses that the rescue has caused Margret's regard to shift from him to Vilhelm, and he thoroughly resents it. Vilhelm saved him and Jonas when he was helpless to do anything. Margret now sees him as weak and Vilhelm as strong. By the end of the story, it is clear that the foundation upon which Margret and Oskar's marriage was built has been destroyed.

Olafsson masterfully builds the tensions between Oskar and Margret to a climax. He never overstates Oskar's insecuritites, and he keeps the reader guessing at Margret's exact thoughts up until the very end, when all is revealed. The repeated references to her looking away in response to Oskar are particularly notable; they almost function like a refrain. Overall, the pacing has the feel of an instrumental piece in which every note is made to count and be savored; every sentence contributes to the story's momentum and overall effect. Flaws, such as the question left hanging of Vilhelm's exact relationship with Bjorn, are piddling. Olafsson gives this portrait of a marriage suddenly faced with collapse the tempo of a thriller. It's a superbly crafted piece.

”On the Lake,” by Olaf Olafsson, is featured in the Winter 2006 issue of Zoetrope All-Story. It is also included in Olafsson's collection Valentines, published by Pantheon, and in The O. Henry Prize Stories 2008, published by Anchor Books.

Friday, April 17, 2009

Comics Review: Alan Moore, Stephen Bissette, et al, Swamp Thing, Book 3: The Curse & Book 4: A Murder of Crows

Alan Moore's initial goal with the Swamp Thing series was to divorce it from the self-pitying tone that had hobbled the efforts of his predecessors on the strip. When he took things over, the character was a man whose body had been transformed into a monster's, and his purpose was to find a means of changing himself back. Moore identified this premise as a metaphor for denial. The solution he came up with for the problems it posed was ingenious: turn it inside out. The point of the strip became the character's implicit quest for self-fulfillment. The hope of returning to the life he led before his transformation was abandoned in favor of embracing the happiness to be found in his present circumstances. The crux of this was his relationship with Abby Cable, which blossomed into love in "The Rite of Spring," the final episode of Book 2. Moore began with what he called a "Hamlet covered in snot," and ended with a "happily ever after" moment--sort of.

The material was originally published as part of an ongoing monthly comic-book series, so after Moore reached this endpoint, he had to answer the question of where to go next. He responded by taking the character's engagement with the world around him to the next level. The "American Gothic" storyline, which comprises Book 3 and Book 4 of the collected series, begins with Swamp Thing in a state of self-absorbed contentment. This is no happily ever after, though; his body dies after being accidentally poisoned, which leads to the discovery that he can grow new bodies at will. He also meets John Constantine, a British occultist and psychic who goads him into a series of confrontations with supernatural phenomena across the U.S. landscape. The journey is a parade of evil and horrors, with Constantine in many ways acting as the Virgil to Swamp Thing's Dante. One of Constantine's goals is to bring Swamp Thing to a greater understanding of the nature of good, evil, and how they function in the world. This sets the stage for the storyline's climax, an apolcalyptic encounter between divine manifestations of good and evil in which Swamp Thing is a full participant. Ultimately, the knowledge he has gained from his experiences is what brings things to a peaceful resolution. The "American Gothic" has him grow from an individual to a citizen; the story ends with him becoming one who takes responsibility in making the world a better place. At the very least, he is now one who works to keep things from getting worse.

In essence, Moore continues to see denial as something to be overcome; he just moves his focus from the personal to what denial means relative to society. "The Nukeface Papers," the two-part episode that begins things, is built around the issue of one of the most conspicuous examples of societal denial: environmental pollution, specifically the handling of nuclear waste. No one Moore presents can think beyond their personal circumstances. Two nuclear-industry workers pitch drum after drum of nuclear waste into a bog, telling each other, "outta sight is outta mind... an' what the eye don't see... the heart don't grieve over." The local sheriff is too caught up in his card game to pay much mind to local troubles. And as for Swamp Thing, he is completely caught up in his happiness with Abby, seeing everything outside of it as "the carefully logged hysteria of a world he no longer belongs to." Everyone's so oblivious to the pollution and its dangers that they might as well be boozing it up with the stuff, and Moore gives us a character who does exactly that: Nukeface, a wandering derelict who downs the toxic waste as if it were the finest rum. Everybody has their preferred poison, after all, and Nukeface, figuratively speaking, introduces everybody to the latest in throwing up and hangovers--the sort that would leave everyone nostalgic for the old kind. They'd at least survive.

"The Nukeface Papers" doesn't come to a proper resolution--everyone just keeps going their own way. This seems fitting, as the evils the story illustrates really can't be resolved. Crimes of convenience, indifference, and denial are a constant in life. The same is true of the other evils Swamp Thing encounters, which are explicit metaphors for such things as the cycles of violence between men and women, different races, opposed communities, and others. None of these resolve themselves in a way that leaves Swamp Thing with any sense of pride or accomplishment, but Moore has him recognize that they are, to a degree, the extreme expressions of constants. Good and evil feed each other, and the best that can be hoped for is that a balance be maintained between the two. It's this knowledge that allows him to bring about the resolution of the storyline's climactic conflict.

Moore constructs the "American Gothic" storyline in order to give Swamp Thing (and the reader) a metaphysical understanding of good and evil, and the climax turns the character into something of a metaphysical politician. He makes Swamp Thing a negotiator--one with no sense of guile--and the character's earnestness is highlighted by pairing him with Constantine, who's a different sort of political animal: a manipulator. However, repellent as he is in some respects, Constantine is a do-gooder at heart. He knows the danger that is coming, and one senses that he jerks people around because he knows he couldn't get them to do anything otherwise. Almost everyone whose assistance he needs is either an egomaniac, a flake, or some other kind of headstrong personality. He talks in hints and circles, and as infuriating as that can be for Swamp Thing and others, it's the quickest and, at times, only way to get them where they need to go.

The "American Gothic" has flaws. The episodes that comprise Swamp Thing's journey through the American landscape are fine by themselves, but they seem arbitrarily placed relative to one another--they feel as if they could have been presented in almost any order. The knowledge Swamp Thing gains in one episode has no bearing on the ones that follow until the storyline arrives at its climactic section. The material might have been more effective if Moore had dramatized Swamp Thing's accumulation of wisdom--if the character had confronted each of the individual horrors using the knowledge he had gained in his dealings with the previous ones. The material's format as an open-ended serial also becomes annoyingly conspicuous at times. One can comfortably read these volumes without having read the first two in the series, but about halfway through Book 4, Moore introduces a subplot involving the Abby Cable character that has no relevance to the other material. Worse, it's left hanging after it's been developed to a crisis point; one needs to come back for Book 5 to find out where it's going. Serials do not make for tidy reads.

But one is more than willing to come back for Book 5. The reasons go beyond Moore (complemented by the able efforts of artists Stephen Bissette, John Totleben, and others) making the "American Gothic" a compelling read in its own right. He builds on the thematic material of his first two Swamp Thing collections to leave the reader with a more complex starring character and philosophical worldview. The "American Gothic" is far richer and more resonant than what's come before, and it leaves one happily anticipating what Moore will use Swamp Thing to bring the reader next.

Other posts in the Comics Renaissance--Alan Moore series (click to read):