The King of Sweden by Norman Lock
Just as short stories came with the advent of the newspaper, so comes flash fiction, with what appears to be the permanence of internet publications. As in the past, this new genre comes with its stars, among them is Norman Lock. His oeuvre includes a series of imaginary operas written in prose, as they might have been composed by eccentric American composer Joseph Cornell, a book of metaphysical calculations that in a few sentences try to capture the universe’s totality, even a minimalist rendering of the Grimm Tales, each tale condensed to just a few sentences (available for free download as an eBook).
His most recent novel, The King of Sweden, however, relies on a much simpler plot. Somewhere in the rural United States a young girl, traumatized by the death of her mother, confused with the abandonment of her father, shortly thereafter, and is sent to an insane asylum thanks to her boyfriend, Jake, who she lovingly calls the King of Sweden. The female protagonist, a rustic with a peculiar innocence, could easily fall into the Faulknerian idiot man-child mould, but doesn’t. Rather than being dumbfounded, she’s invigorated by the natural world around her. And thanks to Lock’s poetry, so are we. Snow is “peppered” in sewers. The sun is only a “nickel in the sky.” The protagonist’s breasts are little birds. Lamps “wiggle like water when the sun is standing straight in the sky.” Lock demonstrates a keenness for bringing the inanimate to life, that can be, at its best, reminiscent of Rilke. The fresh language that Lock employs makes reading it more akin to lyric poetry than novel.
Although the plights of American rural poor have been described a thousand times over again, the cadences and descriptions of this rural America feel new. Her lover, Jake, the “King of Sweden,” tells her that her naked back “is like a river.” Even the title’s obscure allusion to a Cab Calloway’s song, that should place us somewhere in the forties, instead denies us any real certainty. We wonder, is Jake really from Sweden? He knows things about Sweden that someone from the rural poor in the 1940s wouldn’t. He has blonde hair. Like a tempered Beckett, Lock avoids the usual markers of time and place, while concentrating on the universality of detail: “crickets make a rusty noise in the grass” or “the sun is white and small in their empty branches.” Only towards the end of the novel does the story reveal the protagonists’ age and the year. She’s thirty-six and it’s 1958 when the story ends. Six of her last years have been spent in an insane asylum, after she murdered her baby, and there are few signs of the once charming “King of Sweden.” It seems that the displacement of time and place keeps the novel from petering off into melodrama.
Unfortunately, as with many of the minimalist pioneers like Amy Hepel, Gordon Lish, and Diane Williams, Lock’s prose occasionally stifles the reader with intended monotony (as is life, we’re to think). Lock writes: “Whiskey’s pretty when the light shines through. I slosh it round inside the bottle and see the yard flood beneath a golden wave. I twist the cork out and swallow some. It burns.” This sort of stop and go can be tiring, but the idiosyncratic narration gives the novel enough dynamic momentum to avoid dullness.
In many ways, this is a bildungsroman. The dovish country bumpkin, that had imagined her fling a king, kills her baby, becomes the murderer of her own child. Despite her naïve natural observations, reality infects her, perhaps starting with her mother who ambiguously tells her “It wasn’t to be,” just before dying. Then she paints the pain and frustration onto her own child, wondering, “Does he see God burnt black as mud in a singed coat?” before performing infanticide. Once in the insane asylum her delightful observations, her dark musing and post coitus cozies are traded for “the man with the crooked teeth” who brutally bathes her, and optimistic fantasies filtered through a cell window.
As with his other works, Lock’s delivers flashy slices of thought that one can scroll through. His poetic punch line-narratives read perfectly on screen. This could in part due to the author’s playwright background (he had a play in the Edinburgh Theater Festival in 1996). Words move action and vice versa, while still maintaining enough stillness to do nothing, to use Auden’s famous description of poetry. However, unlike Lock’s other works this novel is being sold only in paperback version. This may have to do with the writer’s distaste for electronic publishing, having once said, “Electricity is evanescent; paper and ink give to the thing made permanence, which is, I am aware, illusory." Still, one wonders given recent trends, how permanent paper will really be, even more so with the presence of brilliant miniaturist authors, like this one.
The King of Sweden by Norman Lock