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Cover Review

The Iceman Cometh

ICELAND: A Novel, By Jim Krusoe, Dalkey Archive: 182 pp., $14.95 paper

July 28, 2002|JEFF TURRENTINE | Jeff Turrentine is a senior editor at Hemispheres magazine.

Reading "Iceland," Jim Krusoe's slim and surreal first novel, is rather like watching a gifted, self-assured magician perform a routine in which the audience's willing-suspension-of-disbelief threshold is constantly being reset higher and higher. It shouldn't work. It can't work: Too many ironclad laws of fiction writing are being casually violated on every page. Then, miraculously, the author pulls it off, and you're left feeling dazzled, even breathless.

This is literature at its most audacious and imaginative but also at its most coolly controlled. Krusoe is stylistically daring without being self-consciously avant-garde; he's laugh-out-loud funny but never lapses into contrived jokiness. Moreover, "Iceland" manages to be that rarest of things: a novel of ideas that's unpretentious and great fun to read. Somewhere up in heaven, Donald Barthelme, Joseph Heller and John Gardner are looking down and smiling proudly. Here on Earth, Martin Amis regards "Iceland" as "a work of great originality, humor, cunning, and charm."

Any attempt to synopsize the almost cartoonishly absurd story line of "Iceland" is doomed. Here's the old college try, all the same. Paul, an underemployed and critically ill (or so he believes) typewriter repairman, is instructed by his doctor to select a new, unspecified organ from the local organ pool, not a figurative term for the supply of available organs in a given area at a given time but an actual swimming pool filled with spleens, kidneys, livers and other human viscera. Tending the pool is Emily, a beautiful stranger with whom Paul immediately has a passionate sexual encounter (the description of which reads like a letter to Penthouse "Forum" drafted by Andre Breton). Later he misdials her phone number and accidentally reaches a carpet-cleaning service. A technician pays Paul a couple of visits, cleans his mysteriously stained carpet and then invites him on a spur-of-the-moment all-expenses-paid trip to Iceland.

And so the brand-new friends head off together for Reykjavik, which will become Paul's home for a few years (once he's undergone a terrifying ordeal in the bowels of an active volcano and yet another bout of spontaneous vigorous coupling with a sexy stranger). Love, marriage, birth, disillusionment and death make significant appearances. Then, in just one of many nods that "Iceland" makes to the Nietzschean concept of eternal recurrence, Paul finds himself back in his American hometown of St. Nils, living once again in his old apartment, free to resume the life he had placed on hold and determined to reconnect with Emily, whose memory has haunted him ever since their magic moment at the organ pool.

Krusoe teaches writing at Santa Monica College and Antioch University and is former editor of the Santa Monica Review. His 1997 book of short stories, "Blood Lake," spent six weeks on the Los Angeles Times bestseller list. He writes with bravura is rooted in his supreme confidence. He has little use for the hoary conventions of traditional narrative exposition, and he's not afraid to compress or elide the major events in Paul's life if it will get him where he wants to go that much sooner. (The book is filled with the kinds of expository humdingers that would get any other writer in big trouble; my favorite is the paragraph that unapologetically begins: "Then a few years passed.") Where Krusoe wants to go is inside Paul's head, to the space where perception, memory and invention, chained together, are hard at work constructing his reality. It's true that the outlandish plot of "Iceland," combined with the author's shaggy-dog-story delivery, makes the novel seem at times like a complicated, protracted joke, but it's like a joke being told during the keynote speech of an epistemologists' convention. It's funny, but if you pay really close attention, it'll mess with your mind.

Every few pages Paul is "suddenly reminded" of the conversation he had with Emily during the languorous pauses between their poolside sexual acrobatics. Never mind that, as narrated, their encounter lasted for only a few minutes and was marked by almost no dialogue: Paul is nevertheless able to remember Emily intelligently discussing Zen metaphysics, spinning weird folk tales a la Arthur Schnitzler and recalling her childhood on a Midwestern farm as the daughter of germ-obsessed antibiotics addicts. Is he fantasizing? Embellishing? Krusoe offers no clues. What he does offer is a definition of love as something much more than sexual chemistry, mutual tenderness or even shared history. For Paul, love is discourse, and its rose never blooms more magnificently than in those moments early in a relationship when you're learning everything there is to know about your beloved. He recalls Emily's gnomic soliloquies the way a lovesick soldier might recall the blue eyes, ruby lips and soft hair of the girl waiting for him back home.

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