Review by Marc Lowe
Translated by David McDuff
Published by Dalkey Archive Press
1989; trans. 2007
"'I became a widow at twenty-three. I was carrying his child then and it was a really difficult time. The baby was kicking in my belly and I still had to clean up my husband's brains. I mean, they could have killed him with a knife, like they used to do in the old days. That would have been tidier.'"
Think: Elfriede Jelinek meets Eric Chevillard. Think: sex, violence, and the grotesque. Think: uncomfortable laughter. Perhaps you'll then have some small idea of what this slim book holds in store for those brave enough to take the plunge.
Originally written in Finnish, the collection-if that's the right word for it-consists of a number of untitled sketches or "flash fictions," if you will, divided between two sections: Domestic and Foreign. I'll begin by discussing the former.
When I picked up Dark Paradise and began to [re]read in preparation for this review, I was immediately struck by how funny some of these short pieces really are. One may understandably miss some of the "humor" in them the first time around, because they also tend to be extremely visceral, or otherwise disturbing in their implications; in other words, they come on like a homicidal razorblade and don't ever fully let up.
Take, for instance, the opening sketch, in which a woman is so discombobulated after her husband's funeral that she smashes the mirror into which she is gazing and dances around the room Ophelia-like, despite the shards of glass that have cut her and continue to cut her until she collapses in a bloody heap. (Yes, this is just the opener, and yes, it's only a page and a half long.) Or the sketch where a woman marries a man (on a whim) who turns out to be an incessant complainer and, quickly tiring of his whining, stabs him with a filet knife, only to pass the murder off as his suicide (no shrewd detectives here to further investigate). Or the sketch that focuses solely on a group of obviously disturbed people who enjoy cutting their wrists for the heck of it. Et cetera.
On the slightly lighter side of things, there are also pieces that, if read in the right state of mind, may and should in fact evoke a sort of uncomfortable guffaw, though not the kind one usually derives from, say, watching late-night television. One such fiction, told in the first person, is a rant about how pissed off the ranter is with the fact that a cop threw out her rubber stamp, the only possession she'd owned that is deemed of any real value to her, as it had taken her a full nine months to fix. Eventually the reader learns that the word engraved on the stamper was Valium, and that the narrator had been receiving said substance illegally for ages. Another vignette is narrated by a man who, like his father, has an extreme case of OCD and cannot stop worrying about germs; yet another about a father whose guilt over sex (among other things) is so great that he commits a heinous crime and then can do nothing but bury his head under a pillow in remorse; while a very different sort of vignette is narrated by someone who claims to be a serious chocolate addict. Not all of the pieces in the volume are violent or grotesque, though the percentage that are is certainly very high (which seems, in some salient sense, to be exactly the point; more on this later).
The second half of the book, which falls under the heading Foreign, continues with vignettes that are written in a similar vein to those encountered in the first half, though one does notice a certain concentration here of religious-themed fictions. For instance, consider the following:
"The woman prayed to the sun to come back and kill the storm, and at the same moment the Christ on the cross began to bleed. The blood bubbled red and thick under the dust and the thin layers of ice. It flowed slowly along the wall and down onto the altarpiece, melting red holes in the snow."
There are a few fictions in this section that feature monks, always profligate (i.e. drinking, having sex, playing with electronics, not so much as uttering a word to anyone when they come across a man lying bloodied in the snow), and in one fiction we see a man (later two men) carrying a huge cross upon his back across many miles to a church. After reaching his goal, however, he simply changes his clothes, gels his hair, and eats a chocolate egg, while the people who had been crying and wailing earlier now "hurry home laughing and joking" to eat mutton (p. 77). These particular pieces seem to be deeply skeptical of religion and religious fervor amongst practitioners, as well as "the devout" in the community, while some of the politically-tinged works in the first section are obviously critical of nationalism and political leaders.
Liksom, like the better-known Jelinek, certainly uses "shock" to wake her readers up. This collection is not for the casual reader of flash fiction, hoping to discover some Lydia Davis-like snapshots of relatively healthy domestic life (here, domesticity almost inevitably leads to some sort of rash act, often violent or murderous). One is unlikely to forget many of these pieces, short as they are, such as the one narrated by a man who binds himself tightly with rope and then dreams of shooting his verbally abusive wife through the head point-blank with an arrow. No, these are not cute little bedtime stories, not light fare to be skimmed in shallow sittings whenever such a mood strikes. Rather, one need first brace oneself, ready oneself for what is coming and then, having taken the necessary precautions, read the collection entire (or, if there isn't time for this, at least one of the two sections entire).
Welcome, then, to Liksom's Dark Paradise
, where things are always quite as bad as they seem, and where, if there is a redeeming quality to any of the situations portrayed, it certainly must be that one is still allowed to laugh.
(As an aside, don't forget to look for the Nick Cave reference.)
Rosa Liksom maintains an English-language website at:
Marc Lowe's book reviews have or will appear in American Book Review, Mad Hatters' Review, Neon Magazine, and elsewhere. He is the author of the chapbook A Tour of Beaujardin and the e-book "Sui Generis" and Other Fictions, both from ISMs Press. Visit him at www.malo23.com.