The Short Version: After his moderately famous mezzo-soprano wife disappears, Sven Norberg wanders the streets of Trude in search of her. But the strange Midwestern town, full of radical librarians and odd cops as well as ordinarily odd people, seems to foil him at every turn – and over it all looms the strange and jarring architecture of Trude’s most celebrated resident, a man named Bernhard.
The Review: Trude is apparently a city from Italo Calvino’s Invisible Cities (Calvino seems to be the hot inspiration these days) – although, having not read the book, I have no distinct point of reference to whether or not Lundgren’s view of the city is accurate. Not that it matters, I suppose – but I just thought I’d get that out of the way.
It’s worth getting out of the way, you see, because I think Mr. Lundgren is following in the footsteps of another notoriously trickster author: Vladimir Nabokov. Nobody wants to be that guy saying “on the basis of this debut novel, author Y is the next X!” – but I found The Facades to have such a mostly-successful melding of wordplay, invention, ridiculousness, and deep examinations of the human condition that I couldn’t help but think of Nabokov. It’s a unique combination and while plenty of authors combine those elements in their own ways, I found Lundgren’s writing to have that same element of deciphering a word-puzzle that you can sometimes (joyously) find in Nabokov. Of course, that might just be because there are actual word puzzles to be deciphered (two delightful acrostics, in particular). But the puzzles, the questions of madness that surround the book, and the layers upon layers of oddities in the city never overwhelm or confuse – instead, you get the sense of a terrifically smart hand on the tiller.
I will admit that the book started a bit slow. It’s unclear, at first, what this story is going to be: mystery? WMFU? Absurd comedy? Something else all together? And the subplot involving Norberg’s son and a vaguely cultish religious order feels oddly similar to Tom Perrotta’s The Leftovers – not in a bad way, necessarily, and certainly not in a plagiarism way. But the similar theme applies – it’s just that where that book was about what happens universally when people disappear, this book is about what happens individually when one person disappears. It was the only moment that didn’t feel entirely organic and new.
Well, the radical librarians feel like kindred spirits to Lemony Snicket (especially the new YA novels) or Terry Pratchett concoctions – but Lundgren also gave them a grounding in this reality and a unique spin, so I didn’t mind that so much. I also love the idea of radical librarians, so I was completely on board.
Opera lovers will find special bonus tricks and treats here – and the idea of this massive opera house, full to the brim of baroque ornamentation, in the middle of an otherwise rather dreary and oppressive Midwestern town… it’s a hilarious concept of course but also a fitting moment on which to latch when trying to comprehend the way Lundgren works. This idea is innately ridiculous, of course – but these productions are lavish. A Baron attends. They are daring, innovative, and a major cultural touchstone. But outside of the opera house, there is a sense of that overwhelming claustrophobia that one so often discovers in the Midwest. That sense of the expanse, of the lack of immediate escapes, if you will. And that’s what makes Molly’s disappearance all the more intriguing: Trude is a place (as the epigraph from Calvino and an ending note from Vollstrom both imply) that you do not escape from. It is a place that contains you and you are contained by it and that is the way of things.
Think of Bernhard’s massive and odd mall, perhaps his masterpiece in the end: a spiral inward towards a great labyrinth – one that is, apparently, unsolvable. You may try to get out but in the end you are forced to retread the same steps as before. You are confined to the same place, stuck there. Think, too, of the rest home for the elderly and insane that Bernhard built and expired in: your memoirs, ranked on level of harrowingness, will get you in and determine your accommodations. I don’t want to give too much away of the concepts at hand because they are funny and interesting and worth discovering on your own – but there are overarching themes to all of these places and things and it makes the book not only an enjoyable read but a mental exercise as well.
Rating: 4.5 out of 5. I can’t exactly say why I’m not giving this a full 5. Perhaps it’s the way it was a bit slow to start or the few moments here or there that felt unnecessary or superfluous. Although, I almost wonder if this book will grow in my estimation some years down the line – re-reading it to discover new facets, uncover new tricks of language, and so on. New light shed upon things I previously thought to be just… there. Who is to say? Readers should understand (and be warned) that the slightly wacky sound of the official synopsis is more muted in the book – but that the true depth is in the distinct imagination of the author and of his creation here. This is a puzzle to be solved – but you can’t be upset if there turns out to be no solution.
(***This review originally appeared here, at The Next Best Book Blog – give them some love!***)