Dalkey Archive Press ($14.95)
by Carrie Mercer
Consider the poetry of internal organs: "the bloated, spongy butterflies of lungs, the shy parenthesis of kidneys, the lurid exclamation marks of livers, the cheerful blimps of stomachs, the loopy daydreams of intestines, the schools of tiny pancreas, and dark, brooding spleens." Aren't they really quite endearing? This unexpected tenderness toward body parts is typical of the strange, funny surprises in Iceland, Jim Krusoe's surreal first novel.
The narrative line of Iceland is deceptively simple. After protagonist Paul visits an organ bank to pick out a new organ and instead ends up making love to Emily, the organ tender, he spends the rest of his life trying to sort out and relive the details of that afternoon. As the years pass, he makes elaborate attempts to link events and people in his current life to memories of those few hours spent with Emily.
At times, Paul's experiences seem ridiculously improbable, as when he falls into a volcano-and survives-but then even Paul acknowledges their unbelievable quality: bouncing down the side of the volcano, he describes his body as a "horribly deformed ball [falling] down a funnel-shaped roulette wheel of the sort that only appears in dream sequences of bad motion pictures." At other times, Paul seems oblivious to the virtually impossible level of detail in his observations, as when he describes an ice mural that depicts some greeting cards: "It was clear, even through the imperfect medium of ice-carving, that they were poorly printed, and on cheap paper."
The stories Paul remembers Emily telling him gradually grow longer and more elaborate, full of philosophical musings on the nature of memory and desire. Attached as he is to these memories, Paul recognizes early on how inaccurate his recollections are, "reconstructed out of a combination of memory, hope, and a little water in my left ear at the time, which made it hard for me to understand exactly what she was saying."
Luckily, Paul's longing for the elusive Emily doesn't prevent him from having other interesting relationships along the way. He befriends Leo, a carpet cleaner whose number he dialed by mistake while trying to phone Emily. The comical sensitivity evident in Paul's description of organs shows up again when he considers Leo: "As he wheezed, he rocked slightly from side to side, not like a tall tree exactly, but more like a bush about to topple. And like many a bush, there was something oddly likable about him." When Paul accompanies a despondent Leo to Iceland for a vacation, he looks for ways to cheer up his friend. "'A volcano. Lava. Fire. Ice. Who can be sad?'" a tour rep insists.
Ensuing years find Paul married with children, then alone again, searching for Emily. The astute reader will delight in assembling connections that Paul somehow misses in his obsessive search for Emily, making Iceland a sort of philosophical mystery. Looking hard for clues, one might wonder why Paul keeps encountering pairs of men whose names all start with "D" and "S," and why they wear winter clothing inappropriate to the climate. Then again, one might get infected with the same "philosophy virus" Paul caught from Emily.
On any level, Iceland is an intimate engagement, experimental fiction free of the malevolence that marks much of the genre. Instead of violence, Krusoe relies on an appealing, melancholic humor to surprise the reader, making plausible such unlikely possibilities as experiencing "The Banana Boat Song" as a maudlin dirge.