“What do they understand about opera in New York anyway?” I asked.
“A lot, actually,” Molly said.
“Opera is about failure and heartbreak. Near misses, tragically missed opportunities yearning, and nostalgia. Is there any better place to cultivate these feelings than in Trude?”
“Nice try, Norberg.”
“Can the humiliation of Pagliacci really be understood by Wall Street bankers in several-thousand-dollar suits? Can the madness of Lucia be properly understood amid so many fully occupied buildings?”
“This is a great effort.”
“Trude is opera,” I said. “They should be coming here to study opera.”
And that’s how Sven Norberg convinces his future wife, Molly, to pursue her opera career in the tragically woebegotten midwestern city of Trude. It will be one of Norberg’s few personal victories in Eric Lundgren’s debut novel, The Facades, a lush and enigmatic book which finds that strange existential pressure point where cosmic and personal tragedy meet, and presses down on it hard. Imagine the George Saunders’ Band covering a song by the Thomas Pynchon Orchestra and you have a pretty good idea of what sort of book The Facades is.
The Saunderian elements of the book come with its strong moral insistence. The tenderly misanthropic Norberg, a Job-like man who loses his teenage son to Christian evangelicals and his wife to mysterious forces beyond his (and our) understanding, draws out our sympathy while staying complex enough to avoid any of the resentment readers might feel towards a flatter, stock character. Norberg is an odd, confused, homely man, whom we want to cheer for because cheering for the underdog is almost always more emotionally rewarding than cheering for the powers that be. And Norberg is the consummate underdog. “My face is one of those faces that alarms when unsheathed,” says Norberg about shaving. He’s a loser on every level, physically as well as cosmically. His son leaves to be raised by strange Megachurch Christians. His lawyer boss treats him like a flunkee. He’s considered somewhat of a LOSER among the folks at his mother’s retirement home. He sleeps with a teenage girl who works at the local bakery. The odd duo of cops investigating the disappearance of his wife never quite take him seriously. And yet Norberg ambles on through the narrative, his love for his missing wife creating a magnetic North for him to follow as he suffers the barbaric indignities of all the characters with much more mysterious, and perhaps malevolent, intentions.
The cover band is Saunders, but the song is all Pynchon’s. This is a missing persons mystery. And any work filled with so many slapstick illusions and odd characters in which a missing woman is searched for in a wasteland of potential patterns, hidden motives, and assumed conspiracies, begs to be compared to Pynchon. The wife is an opera singer, for starters — a playfully unlikely occupation in a rust belt city. There’s a cop known as the Oracle, whose name may or may not be an ironic put down. There are militant, armed librarians fortified in the main city library that the dictatorial mayor has closed as part of his push for austerity. But it’s a testament to Lundgren’s writing that the characters remain Pynchonesque without coming across as derivative. Instead of seeming like mere agents of the systems in which they live, Lundgren’s characters evince rich interiorities that suggest they are not just a part of their author’s world, but exist outside of and respond to it. This means that Lundgren trades in a little of Pynchon’s aloof intellectual playfulness for warmth; a little humor for sympathy. The world of Trude is influenced by Pynchon without becoming a Pynchon cargo cult.
It isn’t just the citizens of Trude who seem strange without becoming entirely fantastic or mythical, but the city itself as well. Trude is a town well into its decline. At the height of it’s renown, a generation or two before the story takes place, the architecture of Trude was irreparably affected by the work of a mysterious architect Bernhard. Bernhard created Trude’s sprawling mall, in the center of which is a labyrinth no one has yet been able to solve. He created the upscale retirement home where Norberg’s mother lives — a strange place in which people are made to write their memoirs and are rejected from the rolls if their stories aren’t sufficiently psychologically appealing. The life of the absent (perhaps dead, perhaps not) Bernhard is a source of fascination for Norberg, providing some sort of confirmation that there are, in fact, prime movers who actually do exert control in this uncanny and dream-like city. The city is uncanny in the very technical sense of the word; it is the familiar made odd. Lundgren himself lives in St. Louis, the city that Trude seems to be modeled on, and also my own hometown. It’s difficult for a native to miss the dog whistle: the city destroyed by white flight, the suburban sprawl, the underfunded infrastructure, the German influence, the once proud and great cultural history, and even the so humble as to be pathetic city newspaper — all are recognizable to me.
If there are weaknesses in the novel, they come in the form of occasionally awkward attempts to keep the dreamlike atmosphere of the work from drifting too far either into pure fantasy or hardboiled reality. But for the most part, Lundgren pulls off the precarious balancing act by relying on the quality of his delicious prose: “Abner, wearing a loose Hawaiian shirt and sagging elastic-waisted khakis, looked swollen from decades of sensual indulgence, like a debouched aristocrat in an Edwardian woodcut. The meaty back of his neck cooked in the late September sun.” Using such wonderfully tactile descriptions to counterweight the more fantastic elements of the plot, Lundgren is able pull off quite a technical achievement. In fact, it’s that very proficiency that takes this book from being just a playful and quirky story, to a novel worth recommending by an author worth keeping an eye on.