Sunday, November 2, 2008

Book of the Week: The Pets by Bragi Ólafsson

Serendipitously, Mumbles mentioned Björk in a post a couple days ago and I just finished reading a crazy, but great, book by her band mate, former Sugarcubes bassist Bragi Ólafsson. I picked it at random off the new-release shelf at the library, as is my wont, and tore through its brief 157 pages in a couple days. My random grabs usually result in disappointment, but I have stumbled across some gems. A history of failures also has lowered my expectations, so the book doesn't need to be spectacular. Kind of like stumbling across a great deli in Brooklyn Heights; it might not have been so great if it was in Hoboken, but in Brooklyn Heights: Ciao! Bella! Which is something Italian I have heard people say and I hope isn't wildly inappropriate in this context.

So The Pets revolves around two fellows, Emil and Havard. Emil has just returned to Iceland from a trip to London when he spots trouble coming to his door in the form of an old acquaintance, Havard. Havard is that guy everyone knows who glides through life in a drunken haze, somehow managing to be just barely productive enough to support a lifestyle of drinking and causing trouble. He was great fun for us when we knew him in our early 20s, but he now represents a serious threat to our current status quo. If this was a Hollywood movie, Havard would be played by Owen Wilson.

Continues after the break...

When Emil sees Havard outside, he reacts as many of us would like to do; he hides. As if it was an ID'd call from a creditor. Undaunted by the lack of response, Havard crawls in the kitchen window and Emil commits to the dodge by hiding under his bed. During a tour of the house, Havard answers the phone and, pretending to be Emil, begins inviting Emil's friends over that night for a big party. One of the two major plots is Emil trying to figure out a way to both get rid of Havard and not reveal that he has been hiding under the bed. The second plot is the backstory of Emil and Havard's relationship revealed through flashbacks to London and the tragic hilarity that ensued there.

Ólafsson writes in clean, direct prose, giving vivid and detailed descriptions of what is happening in every scene. His style paints an realistic picture of the surreal action. In this paragraph, Emil is peering out from under the bed as Havard is poking around the bedroom:
The air under the bed is terrible. When I bought the flat I got someone to sand the rough surface on the walls, and the resulting dust collected in the carpet, where I suspect most of it still is. It feels as if my head is getting stuffed full with dust, which isn’t exactly what I need in these circumstances.

By lifting the sheet slightly higher I see that Havard is still wearing his anorak. It seems to be torn above the lower righthand pocket, which might have happened when he climbed in through the kitchen window. When he pulls the anorak back— probably to prevent it from getting in the way of the stream of urine—I can see he is wearing a suit and a light grey shirt, which I must admit goes very well with the suit...
The straightforward style greatly appeals to me and Ólafsson takes what is essentially a sitcom plot and inserts enough character and darkness into it to really make for a very enjoyable ride. There are some authentically hilarious moments and very few points where I felt the urge to start skimming ahead. Recommended highly as a light, quick read or for a change of pace between denser books.

Check out this interview with Ólafsson , which gives you insight into the kind of mindset that writes this kind of book. Having read the book first, I think he is a person who takes writing far more seriously than he lets on in that interview. The book is clearly the product of a talented, disciplined writer with an offbeat sense of humor. I am glad he made the transition from music to literature and I hope to see more of Bragi Ólafsson's work translated into English.

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