Bassist gets bookish: The Sugarcubes' Bragi Ólafsson
Guest blogger Michael Shaub reviews the novel "The Pets" by Bragi Ólafsson.
With its 99.9% literacy rate (seriously), and a roster of great authors (Halldór Laxness, Hallgrímur Helgason) that belies the fact that it has a smaller population than Bakersfield, the nation of Iceland could fairly be called a book lover’s paradise. (There’s even a "Library of Water" there, which, according to my Icelandic American partner, delivers exactly what it promises.)
It could also be called a rock lover's paradise -- it's home to the acclaimed band Sigur Rós; the world’s most beloved swan-clad chanteuse, Björk; and -- because no nation can claim rock cred if the stiffest available beverage is lemonade -- Brennivín, nicknamed Black Death, an ungodly strong schnapps that tastes like rye bread soaked in sulfuric acid and then set on fire. (I speak from experience here. Bitter, bitter experience.)
With that in mind, it's not entirely surprising that Iceland has given the world one of the best novels written by a former rock musician. Granted, that's not a long list to begin with. If you don't count Jimmy Buffett's mystery novels -- and you really, really shouldn't -- you're left with a pretty sparse hand. (But one with some high cards -- Joey Goebel's "The Anomalies" and Frank Portman's "King Dork," both excellent novels by American punks.)
So enter Bragi Ólafsson, former bassist for the Sugarcubes, the legendary post-New Wave band that made Björk a star. After the band broke up, Bragi turned to literature, writing poetry and fiction, and translating Paul Auster's "The Glass City" into Íslenska. The indispensable Rochester publisher Open Letter released Bragi’s first novel rendered into English, "The Pets," translated beautifully by Janice Balfour, in October of last year.
"The Pets" is not about rock, at least not overtly. The novel follows two Icelanders who have recently returned from abroad: Emil Halldorsson, who's been vacationing in London after winning the lottery, and Havard Knutsson, Emil's former roommate, who's been on a more involuntary vacation in a mental hospital in Sweden. Emil is a mostly nice guy, although he's a mostly nice guy who seriously wants to cheat on his girlfriend with a stranger whom he first lusted after 15 years ago. Havard is a mostly unreconstructed psychopath.
Havard comes to Reykjavik with a rare copy of "Moby-Dick" and a model ship, trying to track Emil down after several stops for vodka, coffee and felonies along the way. Emil hides under his bed when he sees his old roommate approaching, and stays there for the bulk of the novel, too embarrassed and frightened to reveal himself after Havard breaks into his apartment. Emil is forced to listen to Havard play his records, drink his liquor and smoke his cigarettes while Emil's friends and acquaintances come over, one by one. The night turns into a freakishly awful party that Emil is increasingly unable to escape from.
So what we have is 157 dark, scary and unbelievably funny pages, much of which is narrated by a man hiding under his own bed. That might not scream "rock" at first blush, but the novel is infused, in its own way and very much on its own terms, with music. Emil is a borderline-obsessive jazz fan who takes maybe a little too much pleasure in his Miles Davis collection; Havard's musical tastes run toward playing Elvis Presley's "Hound Dog" ad nauseum and, at one point, buying a ukulele for no discernible reason. Kraftwerk's paranoiac "Computer World" makes a brief appearance, too, at just the right claustrophobic time.
But if you were building an argument for the true rock novel being as unselfconscious about rock as possible, "The Pets" could be Exhibit A. More than most fiction that concerns itself with music, Bragi's novel captures the dark side of rock -- paranoia, fear, self-doubt and the cowardice that's sometimes, maybe often, the flip side of rock-star braggadocio.
Of course it's possible that this is all rock-nerd wishful thinking, and that Bragi didn't intend to write a slyly great rock novel, but rather just a less slyly great novel. Perhaps it's just his biography getting in the way. I don't think so, but either way, we win. So how long do we have to wait for English versions of his other books? Open Letter, get Janice Balfour on the phone. Takk!
-- Michael Schaub
Photo: Iceland's aurora borealis. Credit: Johnny Horne / Los Angeles Times