Strange. Disturbing. Unimaginable, but imagined. Weird. Karin Tidbeck’s first collection of short stories, Jagannath: Stories, can be so described, but one must also include compelling. It is not usual for me to want to read story after story in a single-author collection in a single sitting, but here each story was better than the last, and I stayed up long into the night reading. This Swedish author, who translated her own work into English, has an odd mind that produces odd stories, stories that every lover of weird fiction needs to read.
My fascination with this collection started with the first story, “Beatrice.” It is about a man who falls in love with an airship — not in the way a man normally falls in love with a complicated piece of machinery, not as in, “He loves his 1964 Mustang,” but actual passionate, physical and emotional love. He shares a warehouse for his love with a woman who has fallen in love with a steam engine. Somehow, Tidbeck makes this scenario work, even to the point of describing a sort of marriage between the machines and their human lovers, and beyond.
But “Beatrice” is Tidbeck’s way of easing us into the weirdness she has on offer. The story that has most stayed with me the most is “Rebecka.” Rebecka is a woman living in a time after God has returned to Earth and taken up an active role in the lives of His people, which often means frying them on the spot when they commit a transgression or saving them when another attempts to harm them. Karl was fried, but only after he had spent three days torturing Rebecka in every way he could imagine. Rebecka has been left horribly damaged in mind and body, and wants nothing more than to commit suicide; but God will neither allow her to do so nor mend her mind. She finally figures out how to solve her problem. The story left me with the same sort of chills I got when reading Ted Chiang’s “Hell is the Absence of God,” and I consider it equally deserving of the awards Chiang garnered. It’s a brilliant story.
“Augusta Prima” is another especially fascinating story, which opens with Augusta engaged in an unusual game of croquet, one using balls carved from bone and requiring a violence not usually associated with the lawn game. Augusta unwittingly discovers the concept of time after discovering a watch when searching for her ball in the rough beyond the gardens. Her discovery leads her down strange paths not normally visible from her world, into philosophies of which she has never dreamt.
Anyone who has ever had to call a governmental agency for help will be amused by “Who is Arvid Pekon?” I’ve often thought that the real person who answers the phone when I finally get through a complicated and contradictory message system was really the only one I ever talked to, and was inventing answers on the spot as he or she put on different voices to represent the different people I’d called. I’d love to have Miss Sycorax’s ability to speak directly to whomever I chose.
Swedish customs and folklore play a role in several of Tidbeck’s stories. “Brita’s Holiday Village,” for instance, relies upon the use of a holiday village as the site for a writer’s personal retreat to complete her novel. “Reindeer Mountain” concerns the vittra, a race of beings that lives in the mountains (and that’s actually inside the mountains, not on them) and occasionally seduces a human female. The vittra are something like fairies, but not as cute, and the story dramatically illustrates how they might appeal to young women dissatisfied with what life has to offer them. “Pyret” takes on the mantle of a sociological piece describing the titular life form, complete with footnotes. This shapeshifter race appears to be benign, if not actually of positive benefit to humans, but it is difficult to study and hard to tell if it is sentient or not. The story describes a number of interactions between humans and Pyret; while it does not have a standard plot, it is fascinating on its own terms as a study of a species of whick little is known.
“Aunts” and “Jagannath” both deal, in their own ways, with the nature of the body as surreal object (one maintained by internal sentient creatures, for instance, or bodies growing to unfathomable sizes) in realities that are not our own. Each, in its odd way, also deals with the question of the body as one’s home. They are marvelously peculiar stories.
The introduction by Elizabeth Hand, discussing the disturbing and yet funny nature of Tidbeck’s writing and the afterword by Tidbeck shed some additional light on the stories and the milieu in which Tidbeck writes. They are both fascinating for one interested in knowing more about how stories work, but unnecessary to the enjoyment of the stories themselves.
Jagannath: Stories is one of the best books of 2012. It contains writing that it new, different, alien, work that makes the normal world look strangely different, as if one’s eyes have taken in a landscape that alters our own. It is beautifully strange.