Tr. by Lytton Smith
Because I think Poe’s stalker tale, “The Man of the Crowd,” is his best story and one of the most interesting short stories of nineteenth-century America, I am pleased to discover a like-minded novel from twenty-first century Iceland: Bragi Olafsson’s Narrator. “The Man of the Crowd” is a very short story covering twenty-four hours of a nameless literary man’s stalking a stranger around the rainy streets of London. Narrator is a very short novel — 151 pages — covering eight hours of an almost nameless poetry-quoting man’s following a near stranger around the rainy streets of Reykjavik. Both works are studies of cultural alienation and psychological projection — and playful metafictions that turn readers into stalkers of the stalkers, the authors, and, eventually, of the readers themselves. Both fictions are ultimately and, to me, pleasurably undecidable from their titles onward. We’re never sure if “the man of the crowd” is the person being followed or the stalker or both. And we’re not certain who the narrator of Narrator is because Olafsson keeps switching from first to third person.
There are admittedly richer, fuller stalker narratives, literary ones I mean, not the active sub-genre of popular horror fiction that I found when looking into this category. Nabokov’s Pale Fire, about the delusional “King of Zembla” stalking an American poet, may be the best, the most inventive. More recently, Javier Marias’s Thus Bad Begins and Joshua Ferris’s To Rise Again at a Decent Hour use the stalker to explore complex political and historical subjects. More predictable are stories of sexual obsession such as Ian McEwan’s Enduring Love and Teddy Wayne’s Loner. These writers use considerable concrete detail throughout to ground their stalkers’ compulsions. Poe and Olafsson are more audacious and ingenious because they pull off comparatively abstract, skeletal tours de force. Perhaps double tours because readers may be forced to re-read if they want 1) to extract some conventional psychological or sociological implications from limited data and 2) to try to resolve the circular games that the authors are playing. Of the novels I’ve mentioned, Pale Fire is famously circular. We don’t know if the poet has invented the “King” or the other way around. The action of “The Man of the Crowd” ends where it begins, and the text of Narrator begins where it ends. I realize not many readers wish — to paraphrase John Barth’s title — to be temporarily lost in the Mobius funhouse, but I submit that playing along once in a while with games like Olafsson’s, games about the game of fiction, can be a useful reminder of how fiction works on us.
Narrator begins with a five-page description of an old movie, a French farce with unbelievable events including a character dying because he refuses to flatulate in company. This third-person account and flash-forward ends before the movie does because Aron Cesar, the person our stalker has been following all day, “couldn’t take it anymore” and leaves the theater, followed by the stalker, later identified as “G.” by a first-person narrator, “I.” Most of the novel is told in the third person, but this first-person narrator occasionally interrupts to remind readers of receding narrative frames back to Olafsson, who appears to be real since a person of that name has published other books and played in a backup band for Bjork, who was, coincidentally or not, plagued by a stalker who eventually killed himself. Unless the games of Narrator extend to the fabrication of Internet sites, you can use Google images to find photos of Bragi Olafsson.
“On with the story, on with the story,” as someone says in Lost in the Funhouse. In the morning of stalking day, G. is waiting in line at the post office and sees Cesar mailing a package. G. has never met Cesar and has not seen him in the city for years but immediately assumes he is lying to the postal clerk about the contents of the package. In the next few pages, we learn Cesar had been sexually involved thirteen years earlier with a woman, Sara, who refused G.’s advances. We also learn that unemployed and still virginal G. lives in the basement of his parents, who “abused” him as a child by making him listen to classical music when eating his breakfast.
From the post office, G. follows Cesar to a bookstore where G. overhears the word “five” in a cell phone conversation and concludes that Cesar is arranging a drug deal. Early on G. admits he is obsessed with “formlessness,” and his narrative often digresses into speculations, judgments, random associations, and memories including his vengeful stealing of a very valuable guitar from Sara’s mother. Jealous of Cesar’s good looks, fashionable clothes, social contacts, apparent sexual successes, and past with Sara, the hapless 35-year-old G. appears to project his own past criminality onto Cesar, though that remains uncertain throughout.
It seems that Olafsson — compared to Poe — is giving away the game in the first forty pages. It was at the end of “The Man of the Crowd” that Poe’s first-person narrator decided the man he was stalking was “the type and the genius of deep crime” because the man appeared energized whenever he was in a crowd. In Olafsson’s next 110 pages we do learn more about the energetic Cesar and weary G. as they make the rounds of public places in the city, revisiting some locations like Poe’s characters do. Although G. provides anecdotes from his past, the psychological dynamic of the first forty pages isn’t much deepened.
Watching Cesar and others watching a soccer game on television, G. notes their “rising excitement” that “comes to nothing” and then repeats. He says “nothing happens twice” and can’t recall the source of the sentence. It’s a reviewer’s description of Waiting for Godot. Like that play and Pale Fire, Narrator has comedy. G. is a bumbling stalker. He and Cesar almost bump into each other, and G. describes silly positioning in order to eavesdrop on Cesar’s trivial conversations. When G. uses his cell phone to call Cesar, pretending he is someone else, the effect is not the terror that G. presumes. G.’s mother calls him at inopportune times to ask the location of his father, an alcoholic whom G. might more usefully be following. But really the rest of the novel is like that soccer game until G. follows Cesar into the movie. Although Cesar bolts from the bad film, G. says he will return the next day to see how it ends. The stalking ceases soon after when G. watches (presumably) Cesar behind a curtain in a woman’s apartment.
As G. heads home, he’s quite sure that now he is being followed by a man in blue: “G. feels how good it is to have someone concerning themselves with what you do, or where you go.” G. does not, however, conclude that Cesar has felt the same way and for that reason has not confronted his stalker. G. also fails to see himself as Cesar’s partial double, for both have the leisure to walk around the city and amuse themselves. To G.’s credit, he does consider Cesar may be playing a game of “cat and mouse” with G., torturing him with a glimpse at a more sociable and sexual life.
Olafsson narrates a final short section in the first person as G. thinks on the last page — 151 — about the 151-page manuscript he had been meaning to mail when he saw Cesar at the post office. Could Narrator be that manuscript? It’s difficult to say as, like a Mobius strip or Klein bottle, the book twists outside and inside. At the end of “The Man of the Crowd,” the narrator implies that the stalked man’s heart is a gross book that, in a German phrase, does not allow itself to be read. The mise en abyme at the end of Narrator may imply a similar impossibility.
Poe begins his tale with a lot of very specific and seemingly authoritative details as the narrator sits inside a London coffeehouse and analyzes the classes of people who pass by. The presumably British narrator’s judgment of the shabby but also stylish man he stalks may be seen as yet another class-conscious action critiqued by the American author. Narrator contains less local color, though Olafsson does identify streets (with their odd, to the American ear, names) and businesses. In apparently quite homogenous Iceland, Cesar stands out, at least in G.’s mind, because he is half Brazilian, ethnically alien as Poe’s man of the crowd appears socially alien. The ethnic and gender stereotypes of the forty-year-old French movie amuse and interest G. but not Cesar, whose early exit might imply a moral (or aesthetic) judgment of G. At least that’s one way to understand why Narrator opens with a seemingly irrelevant movie. Another possibility is that this reader is desperate to wring some cultural meaning, along with the psychosexual interpretation, from a novel as much concerned with how people read as with what is read.
G. would have stuck with the unbelievable, empty movie to see the ending. I stuck with G. and the narrator to the end of Narrator, and then asked myself why. I didn’t pay for the book, as Cesar and G. paid for the movie. I didn’t have to review the novel and wouldn’t be paid if I did. I believe I pretty much understood in those first 40 pages what Olafsson was up to, and yet I stalked on, which makes me think Narrator is most fundamentally about readers’ appetite for an ending, even if the beginning is unlikely and the middle is repetitive. Stalking the story, we readers will take a lot, to paraphrase Cesar, because we assume that the conclusion will be worth our persistence, give us a conclusion, a new understanding, a novel perception. And if denied, some readers (myself included) will do what Jason Compson Sr. describes in Faulkner’s Absalom, Absalom!: “you re-read, tedious and intent, poring, making sure that you have forgotten nothing, made no miscalculation; you bring them together again and again nothing happens: just the words, the symbols, the shapes themselves, shadowy inscrutable and serene.”
I don’t wish to claim too much for the often amusing Narrator, but if you do re-read you may be left, like Mr. Compson, with “just the words, the symbols.” If frustrated in your pursuit of the narrators’ and author’s intentions, the seeming referents of the words — the characters and actions — could disappear and you will be like the conspiracy theorist QAnon with his “crumbs” or the literary theorist William Gass, who could never remind readers often enough that fiction is made of words on the page and their connections to other words. To make matters even more undecidable, those English words have been translated from the Icelandic. This deconstructive emptying effect could be even more dispiriting than a denied conclusion because referent-desiring readers would be left, basically, with those odd street names and a few allusions to artistic works. Those and the stupid movie, which actually exists and would be Olafsson’s joke — “This, this is what you can hang onto.” — if he has gone beyond Poe’s mockery of his narrator’s confidence in the sticky relationship between words and things.
Poe knew that his “didactic heresy” meant readers expected a moral conclusion, so he had his narrator give them one. G. imagines a prospective publisher of his manuscript saying “Should he not . . . be worrying about the reader?” Olafsson knows what readers want. More than a 150 years after Poe’s story, after modernism and after postmodernism, readers still want to conclude, still want to believe words in fiction refer, so Olafsson’s deconfirming and possibly “inscrutable” games could also be considered didactic, maybe even necessary, for all I know, in the literary environment of Iceland. Compared with the stalker novels I mentioned earlier, Narrator is relatively empty or, more precisely, reductive in its plot and characters and setting. If the book were fuller, readers might be content with its content, the sociology and psychology implied by more extensive detail. But in its contracted form, Narrator ultimately moves from questions about the characters’ lives and the author’s intentions to a Mobius stripping away of illusions about referring and concluding.
Tom LeClair is the author of three critical books, six novels, and hundreds of reviews and essays in national periodicals.