JANUARY 21, 2014
Spinner gave me a funny look. […] “The yogurt business is not for sissies Jonathon, but if you treat it well it will treat you well in turn.”
— Jim Krusoe, Girl Factory, Tin House Press, 2008
JIM KRUSOE’S NOVELS are not for sissies either. To borrow a Lemony Snicket warning, if you prefer books with happy endings, if hope is your mantra, if you demand redemption at the end of a novel, then don’t read Jim Krusoe.
Of course the reason children do read about the horrible things that happen to the Baudelaire children in Snicket’s wildly best-selling A Series Of Unfortunate Events is because those things happen to others, and they know that they, as readers, are safe from all the horror that life in Snicket’s world can inflict on its unwilling victims. In Krusoe’s novels there is no easy out.
Jim Krusoe is tall and lanky with pale skin that gives no evidence of the fact that he has lived in California sunshine for most of his adult life. In homage to one of his most striking features, my daughter once said: “that dude has serious eyebrows.” I have been a student, a friend, and a fan for many years now. A few years ago I dubbed him Guru Jim. And he is that not only to me, but also to legions of students who attend his Advanced Fiction Workshop at Santa Monica College in Los Angeles where he has taught for over 25 years. Beyond the very astute discussions and honest feedback of the work and the high bar set for good sentences, the chief litmus test of any piece of writing, the most striking feature of the workshop is the generosity with which work is treated — the recognition of fiction writing as an endlessly puzzling enterprise, a place where writers are prodded to ask big questions and deliver, not answers, but honestly explored experience. As a teacher, Krusoe does not impose his own vision on anyone else’s work. Indeed, that might be impossible given that his fictional world, like the best art, seems born of a mind from a different planet. A planet, Krusoe might joke, that looks just like Cleveland, Ohio.
It might be tempting to explain the absurdist and dark universe that is typical of Krusoe’s stories to his childhood years in Cleveland, where his Hungarian immigrant parents settled pre-WWII. Cleveland is perhaps best imagined (and skewered) in Krusoe’s third novel, Erased, where Ted Bellefontaine travels in search of his mother who has gone missing.
Look around — gosh, Cleveland! Who wouldn’t want to be there? […] And if Paris had been dubbed the “City of Light” and Chicago the “City of Broad Shoulders,” then, surely, seeing its inhabitants up close for the first time, I thought that Cleveland must be — though to my knowledge no one had yet bothered to name it such — the “City of Noble Foreheads,” for the simple reason that each inhabitant, no matter what race or culture, nationality, or social class — whether man, woman, or child — sported a brow so wide and untroubled as to make me, whose forehead always was and still remains unusually narrow, feel, as I walked up and down the sidewalks of Cleveland, like a slightly sad and overweight borzoi among so many jolly mastiffs and pit bulls.
In Parsifal, which Krusoe says is the most autobiographical of his novels, Parsifal is in search of the forest in which he grew up. Cleveland, it turns out, is called “The Forest City.” In the novel, the sky and the earth are at war — the sky throws down car parts, microwave ovens, laundry machines, and the earth spits up volcanic ash, fire, sandstorms. Sky: father, earth: mother. Krusoe notes that his father and mother fought continuously. His father had no more than a third grade education. His parents gave him no clue how to behave, so like Parsifal, Krusoe had to set forth in the world and imagine it for himself.
Krusoe has published several books of poetry, a book of stories, Blood Lake and Other Stories (1999, Boaz Publishing), and five novels, Iceland (2002, Dalkey Archive Press), a trilogy from Tin House Press — Girl Factory (2008), Erased (2009) and Toward You (2011) — and most recently Parsifal (2012), also from Tin House. His writing has been highly praised for its originality and deadpan absurdism. “Jim Krusoe is the mad scientist, the man behind the curtain,” Susan Salter Reynolds wrote in the Los Angeles Times. “Krusoe does something magical with regular words and regular life. His adjectives glow with possibility […] like an alien presence with a new language that sounds enough like our own to make us strain to uncover its meaning.”
Mad scientist indeed. Mixed in with heavy doses of hard-core darkness are an alchemist’s blend of the seriously comic and funny. If you dare enter a Krusoe novel, you can expect to laugh. His humor is cunning and wonderfully subversive. E. B. White said that often there is “a rather fine line between laughing and crying,” and that this was in part because “humor, like poetry, has an extra content. It plays close to the big hot fire which is Truth, and sometimes the reader feels the heat.” Krusoe’s own take is that comedy occurs when “God looks at the world and sees the difference between men’s aspirations and what actually happens.” His characters have big aspirations, big dreams of saving others and committing at least one act of goodness in their lives. Like knights set off for battle, they stumble around a universe, built by Krusoe with homely materials, that will defy them at every turn. These big dreamers and hapless fools live, mostly, in a town called St. Nils, which seems to sit on some mystical urban/pastoral borderland. Paul is a typewriter repairman, Jonathon works in a yogurt shop, Ted Bellefontaine sells high-end garden implements, Bob redoes upholstery, Parsifal repairs fountain pens. None of them drive. All of them like to let you know what they had for breakfast, and what kind of sandwich they are fixing for lunch, often turkey but sometimes goose liver or peanut butter and jelly. None of them have secure financial means. For all of them, women are elusive. They often talk to themselves, and objects talk to them:
I lifted the helmet of the Communicator onto my workbench, where it sat powerful and serene. “Through me,” it seemed to radiate, “thou shalt receive the wisdom of the ages. Through me, what was lost shall be found; through me, thou shalt go from life to death and then return again. Nice work, Bob, though it certainly took you long enough, I’d say.”
And when they reflect on life they often come up with assessments like Paul in Iceland:
So the days passed filled with joys and sorrows. Or to be exact, in later years I calculated that I’d had seven hundred and twelve days of joy, and six hundred and fifty-nine days of sorrow, plus ten and a half days of grief. Also two days of hunger and seventeen full of nausea, which I attributed to Greta’s penchant for trying out new recipes. In addition there were about a thousand days I’d have to call a wash —where I wasn’t sure exactly what was going on.
The world he imagines often leaves us perplexed and scratching our heads.
All my characters, really, are like good children born into an unjust, fairly incomprehensible world, but who believe that if they can just do the right thing, there is a way of out of this mess. I mean: our mess.
George Saunders, in writing about Kurt Vonnegut, could be writing about Krusoe’s novels as well:
I began to understand art as a kind of black box the reader enters. He enters in one state of mind and exits in another. The writer gets no points just because what’s inside the box bears some linear resemblance to “real life” — he can put whatever he wants in there. What’s important is that something undeniable and nontrivial happens to the reader between entry and exit. […] In fact, Slaughterhouse-Five seemed to be saying that our most profound experiences may require this artistic uncoupling from the actual. The black box is meant to change us. If the change will be greater via the use of invented, absurd material, so be it.
The black box in Krusoe’s novels is a frightening place, and this is the true peril of reading his books. Jonathon, of Girl Factory, reads in the paper about a dog named Buck, a mix of German shepherd, Rottweiler, pit bull, and chow who has been used in a government experiment to create an animal of “exceptional intelligence.” The experiment failed when it was discovered that the gene for intelligence, “at least in dogs, is somehow connected to the one for aggression.” The dog, Jonathon learns, is being housed in an animal shelter near where he lives and has been scheduled to be put down. He sets out to free the dog.
“Freedom, Buck,” I said. “You’ve got your freedom, guy.”
The dog looked at me for a moment, as if to assess his newfound situation and my role in it. Then, with a tremendous leap forward, he raced straight down the corridor into a group of Cub Scouts, seized a smallish boy by his neck, and began to shake him hard. When the boy stopped moving, the dog flipped the Scout’s blue-clad body over his mighty shoulder and headed for the exit, only to be met there by an old woman who, possibly confused by the sight of such a large animal carrying a uniformed child, made the mistake of blocking his path and shouting, “Stop!” and “Help!” Flinging the limp Scout to the ground, the now-freed dog turned his attention to the old lady, crushing the top of her head with a sound that was not at all the sound I would have predicted — which would have been that of an egg being cracked — but more of a pop, the noise of a paper cup compressed against the ground by a heavy heel.
Jonathon soon learns he has freed the wrong dog. The horror is unleashed. Krusoe’s black box has the characters we have come to love doing things that leave us cringing. That is bad enough, but it’s the way they react to their own malfeasance that truly shocks:
At home that evening, I made a can of mushroom soup and a toasted cheese sandwich. I hadn’t eaten since the morning, and they tasted good. I made another sandwich and watched the news, which was when I heard the sweetest words of all: perpetrator unknown.
No guilt, no remorse. Are these hapless fools or are they monsters?
“Lots of things I thought had happened to me, I learned I provoked. And that’s the big revelation. The painful and mortifying one. And the humbling one,” Krusoe says in an interview with Michael Silverblatt on Bookworm. It’s this kind of honesty that makes the humor in Krusoe’s work all the more painful and brings us “to the big hot fire of truth.” He is unwilling to let anyone, least of all himself, off the hook. He creates an uneasy alliance between humor and horror that is rarely comfortable for the reader. His narrators, with all their good intentions, end of up doing more harm than good, and in the act of pursuing their better selves they invariably fail, and fail big-time. This is where Krusoe’s work and vision differs from 99 percent of the fiction that is published today, and it is what, I would argue, makes his work deeply provocative and, perhaps, why it is not as well known as it deserves to be. Krusoe refuses to give us easy answers to the big questions he poses: Can the world be saved? Is there life beyond life? Is it possible to communicate with the dead? What is the relationship between this world and the next? What is reality? What is the ultimate possibility for man?
As for conclusions, there are a lot of people who require a sense of certainty (against all evidence, in my opinion) about their lives, and if all they want is a story with a simple rise and fall, a place to stay awhile that leaves them pretty much unchallenged by what has happened, I don’t expect I’m the person to change their minds. For me, a pat conclusion, one that stops the conversation begun by the narrative, is not only untrue to life, but is the least possible interesting ending we can arrive at. Answers allow us to stop thinking, which may be pleasant, but, after all, how many answers are there to important things?
Answers or not, Krusoe’s genius is that by the time you get to the end of a novel you cannot divorce yourself from the hapless fool. When you come to the end of one of his stories, you have to make sure you are in bed because you will want to curl up in the fetal position and nurse the unnamable sadness that descends on you, when you realize the absurd, subversive, inane, and ridiculous world you have been brought into has been recoupled with the real, and you realize that you can substitute your own name for Bob or Ted or Paul, for who among us is truly innocent?
If Krusoe’s endings don’t provide redemption, or hope, or optimism, they do make us feel deeply the sadness of human existence. If there is any redemption, it is in being taken to a place that is so achingly human we want to cry. By the end of a novel, he has spiraled his narrator, and his reader, into ever-deeper loneliness. “It feels increasingly that the human race is lonely in the world,” Krusoe told Silverblatt. “We’ve alienated ourselves in so many different ways. There is something about the recognition of lonesomeness that is enlightened. It is an understanding.” In Parsifal, he makes this flesh:
Parsifal shut his eyes and reached into his pocket, where he found Black Dog’s pebble. He put it in his mouth and felt better. He closed his eyes and pulled the bag up to his chin. Both his legs were completely numb, so at least the pain had finally disappeared. Not bad, he thought. Not bad at all. Maybe he would dream, and maybe he wouldn’t; he didn’t know what would happen next. Above him was the sky; below him was the earth.
Now, more than ever, it feels, we need writers who can illuminate for us the dark places of the human soul, even better with humor, and best of all with a deep understanding of what it means to live in a world that has become so incomprehensible, even if made so by our own hand. Jim Krusoe fits that bill.