Short story collections, whether collected over a period of time or written specifically as a set, often have a way of revealing an author’s preoccupation, and Ólafur Gunnarsson’s The Thaw is no different. Throughout its ten stories, we see the same themes turned to time and time again: ambiguity overlaying points of clarity, a blend of mundane realism and the weird, compassion coming from moments of insights into a character, and the sinister potential that broils beneath when all of this interacts. Reading his returns to themes one after another makes it easy to see when it succeeds, and when it falls flat.
The opening two stories do much to show what to expect. In the brief “Alien,” a father’s response to one of his young daughters enjoying Ridley Scott’s Alien is to tell her that he too is an alien, and will return home that day. In the divorced, broken family (in the time of the story, even the twins are separated), the unnamed characters, simply daughters, wives, and narrators, we see the isolation of people from one another that will run through the rest of the stories. There is the haunting, unresolved, near cruelness of his treatment of his daughter, but it is heavy-handed, and reads like the idea of an author, not the character himself. We also encounter a certain oddness with Gunnarsson’s writing: he wants ambiguity to have the final word, but there is also an affection for brief statements of certainty. When it shows us what we otherwise might not see, it is welcome, but when, as in this opening story, he explains the plot of Alien, or in “The Revelation” portrays an alcoholic nearly bathing in Southern Comfort, and later points out it is his favorite drink, ambiguity would be preferable. It is, in the end, a rough and unenthusiastic way to begin a collection.
Fortunately, it is a collection. The title story is perhaps the best of them. Two brothers, in their forties and fifties, are still entwined, living and working together, with the older, though “a balding and scrawny man . . . who suffered from rheumatism” dominating over the younger. Digging a drainage ditch, they find a skull, and their reaction is so casual, enthusiastic for possible Viking treasure, we can miss the sinister nature of the discovery, and the way it threatens the rest of the story.
Where the threat, and sense of surreal prophecy, is palpable is in the way the brothers each remember the same story. The younger brother, Jonas, the dominated one, the sympathetic one, recounts it in memory first, the drowning of a horse and a man in an attempt to win a bet by riding across a lake. When the older brother, Ragnar, remembers it, we see the effect of their closeness: they are intimate enough to remember the same thing apart from each other. We also see the violence lurking in this: Jonas has no patience for hearing it again, but cannot stand up for himself. Ragnar reveals what the younger did not remember, that the bet was over a woman. When a woman enters the picture and falls in love with Jonas, dread settles in, grows as she moves in with her young son, and breeds violence in the household, which culminates in a fulfillment of the shared memory.
Gunnarsson’s collection shows his interest not just in building different types of tension between people, but in looking at how it arises, what causes it. Throughout, and reflective of the smallness of Iceland, intimacy is often forced and inescapable, and therefore a tension. In “The Thaw,” Jonas cares for his new girlfriend’s young son, and has no problem having sex with her when the son is in the next room, but the thought of doing so where his brother can hear is unbearable. In the former, the intimacy is chosen, in the latter, it is forced. “The Beauty Contest” shows an Icelandic singer who nearly made it big in Europe let his insecurities send him into a single battle on stage with Rod Stewart. In “Gimme Shelter” neighbors passively fight each other over a cat.
The story follows Jim, and his continually absent cat. He finds that the old man across the hall is taking the cat in, watching television, feeding it meals the man once fed his wife. It becomes a fight between them, with neither backing down, nor crossing a line. Adding to the conflict is Jim’s fear that the old man knows the woman living with him is a stripper, and this fear, combined with his lack of empathy, suggests he is capable of greater cruelty than denying a lonely old man comfort. The old man himself hints at knowing more than he lets on, and behind his submissiveness, there is an insistence guised behind politeness. By the end, when all is brought to light, there is not relief, but a dark turn. Like the unearthing of the skull, when what was buried is brought to the surface, it is not so to breathe clear air.
None of this is to say that these stories are obsessively dark. The final story, “Gaga,” is the strange tale of a man who believes that he has awoken on a Mars that is mimicking Reykjavik and that everyone he meets is a Martian imposter. Most of the stories have some strangeness running through them, as in one of the strongest stories, “The Killer Whale,” where a dying daughter could have any terminal disease to serve the plot but has a rare one, causing her to prematurely age. In “Gaga” it is dominant. Though there is some excitement in seeing this come to full fruition, it doesn’t ultimately build into an interesting whole. The stories are also not so self-serious that they are entirely devoid of humor, but more indifferent. When humor cracks through in “The Man Who Wanted to Be Vincent,” a story of a failed painter, it is a welcome variety in tone. This tonal shift allows Gunnarsson to pull off the interesting trick of seeing an artist be liberated from his bitterness by an insult.
Overall, The Thaw is a mixed collection. Though connected through themes, preoccupations, and habits, the plots and characters are not repetitious, and in offering different characters, Gunnarsson offers and finds different routes for their insecurities and motivations. It is also mixed in quality, both beginning and ending on the weakest stories in the bunch. The middle has stories of fullness and complexity, and while in the others, it is possible to poke at weak moments where Gunnarsson doesn’t seem to quite trust the reader or himself (it is easy to wonder if his role as his own translator plays into this), it is more rewarding to devote attention to all that does work in them.
Originally published in French in 2007, We’re Not Here to Disappear (On n’est pas là pour disparaître) won the Prix Wepler-Fondation La Poste and the Prix Pierre Simon Ethique et Réflexion. The work has been recently translated by Béatrice Mousli. . .
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