Translated by Victoria Cribb. New York, NY: Seven Stories Press, 2012. 320 pages. $16.95.
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Andri Snær Magnason is among the most fascinating contemporary Icelandic authors writing today—alongside the popular crime writer Yrsa Sigurðardóttir, the novelist and celebrated lyricist Sjón, the short fiction writer Gyrðir Elíasson, and numerous others not yet translated into English. Prolific across several genres and mediums and the author of numerous award-winning titles, what distinguishes Magnason is not only his artistic range but his activism and cultural relevance. His most recent nonfiction book, Dreamland, a bestseller in Iceland, deals with environmental policies in that country and has a foreward by Björk; it was made into a documentary in 2010.
In the fiction of Magnason and several of his contemporaries, one finds the dreamy, fantastical, and haunting characteristics also present in the music of Icelandic bands such as Sigur Rós and Of Monsters and Men; Magnason himself has collaborated with múm. That Icelandic indie music has crossed over into the mainstream stateside is certainly a hopeful sign that more of its inventive literature may follow. For now readers here will have to seek out what exciting and well-received Icelandic works have had the good fortune of being translated into English. The translation of Magnason’s LoveStar is well worth the wait.
LoveStar opens with a poem about a seed, and a man in a jet over the Atlantic holding it. “If anything happened to the seed all hope would be lost,” Magnason writes. “Of course he didn’t know that all hope was lost anyway. He would be dead within four hours.” The matter-of-fact tone, unusual scenario and imagery, as well as the mystery of the man’s identity and impending doom, catapult us into Magnason’s uninhibited imagination. The man, we soon find out, is LoveStar, the driven yet conflicted mastermind behind the corporation of the same name. Set in an Iceland of the near future, the novel alternates between the events leading up to his final moments and the story of two lovers, Indridi and Sigrid. By Prologue’s end, Magnason has laid out his world of “the cordless modern man”—where data is sent via birds and butterflies rather than wires and waves. Orwell and Huxley immediately come to mind, but Magnason’s novel is more Swiftian satire successfully pushing the limits of believability. The book’s gallows humor echoes Vonnegut and Saunders, but with an originality all his own.
The main plot centers on Indridi and Sigrid, who are torn apart by the latest LoveStar venture, inLove, which calculates individuals and matches them with their “perfect mates.” When we meet Indridi, he has become an advertising “howler,” and Magnason’s description of his occupation illustrates not only the misery to which Indridi has fallen but also the novel’s satirical bent:
Those who walked past howlers could expect an announcement like:
This was more effective than conventional reminders on ad hoardings or the radio. So when Indridi met a man on his way to the parking lot, he howled:
“FASTEN YOUR SEAT BELT! SLOW DOWN!”
The man had been arrested for speeding without a seat belt. As a punishment he was made to listen to and pay for two thousand edifying reminders from ad howlers. That was probably the best thing about the new technology. It could be used to improve society.
Indridi’s ad-howling occurs on the heels of a message from inLove informing Sigrid that her soul mate has been found—and it’s not Indridi. After she initially refuses to meet her match, LoveStar’s Mood Division conspires to force Sigrid and Indridi apart. But with Indridi’s finances frozen and his speech receptors forced to “howl” slogans, Sigrid eventually gives up and boards a bus for the resort where she is to meet her supposed perfect love. Here the plot kicks into a high-stakes adventure, as Indridi awakens to find Sigrid and her things gone. He dashes into the Puffin Factory next door. But instead of puffins, the factory is now producing VikingCenturyFoxes. After Indridi hurls himself into their pen, one of them swallows him whole.
The inventiveness and humor of Magnason’s genetically-engineered creatures is perhaps rivaled only by those found in Margaret Atwood’s MaddAddam triology—just wait until you meet the Mickeys. Passages like the one below exemplify the fantastical elements at play in Magnason’s world; his straightforward delivery of the facts is what enables us to believe:
The Big Bad Wolf had not yet been publically unveiled. It had been especially bred and genetically engineered to play the leading role in a magnificent staging of the Red Riding Hood story at GrimmsLove. The Big Bad Wolf must on no account digest the actors it swallowed because it was wasteful to have to train new people for the roles evening after evening. Naturally Indridi knew nothing of this. He was held in the dark, moist warmth of the wolf’s stomach and believed that this was how the Viking had felt when they were devoured, skin and bone, by the VikingCenturyFox.
“This is like being sewn up in a haggis,” Indridi thought.
The latter is one of the funniest lines in the book, and a testament to the apt translation by Victoria Cribb. She seamlessly captures Magnason’s tone and style. Yet just when you think Magnason has reached the edge of absurdity—Indridi receives a phone call from his mother while in the wolf’s stomach— the author pushes the episode a step further, and our hero escapes by way of a zipper built into its lining.
The GMO she-wolf is friendly, however, a fitting turn following so much tension. Her return at the end comes as a pleasant surprise after Indridi journeys north to the LoveStar resort and reunites with Sigrid. There’s no room in satirical sci-fi for half-measures, and Magnason doesn’t disappoint. As LoveStar’s Million Star Festival rains down, “they made love in the wolf’s stomach while the world crumbled outside.” When they finally emerge, they ride the wolf across the destroyed landscape. But here, the prose and imagery abandons the satiric for the stark, and enters the realm of the mythic:
They headed up on to the moors and raced over gullies and past ravines, around craters and over rocks. Everywhere they saw the same blackness and from all over the land rose the choking stench of death. The wolf panted, her tongue hung out, but she didn’t slow her pace.
Keeping with the tradition of many dystopian fictions, Magnason ends on a note of hope, as the lovers stumble upon the wrecked jet and the body of LoveStar the titan. “A seed becomes a forest,” Sigrid states, and the novel has come full circle. It is never preachy, imbued with inevitability, and an energetic zaniness that bounds like its wolf all the way through.