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It’s a Mad World

The Friends of Freeland

by Brad Leithauser
Knopf,, 508 pp., $26.00

Mister Sandman

by Barbara Gowdy
Steerforth Press, 268 pp., $24.00

In The Friends of Freeland Brad Leithauser suggests something of how the modern world might look from a perspective as disorienting and yet revealing as a polar-projection map is to Mercatorized minds. He proposes an island country where no islands are, between Iceland and Greenland, from which the rest of the globe is “Down Below.” Freeland was founded in 980 AD by someone whose Old Norse name could be translated as “Erik the Squalid” or even “Erik the Shitty,” but who is known to history, if at all, as “Erik the Other,” to distinguish him from a better-known Icelandic counterpart. The history and modern condition of the country, which became independent of Denmark after World War II, lack splendor. Its national epic, The Freeland Saga, was written by a foreigner and has scant literary merit; though the manuscript has never been to Freeland, its “return” from Iceland is a passionate local cause.

The place is mostly lava and ice, and one of its newspapers is ominously called The Daily Storm—here, as John McPhee writes of Iceland, “it is not easy to differentiate between bad weather and a natural disaster.” With the petering out of oil exploration, the main occupations are fishing, subsistence farming, and sheep raising, none of them doing well just now. Drunkenness is endemic, the illegitimacy rate is astronomical, and the other main pastime is “hole-digging,” starting ambitious public works that never get completed. When the narrator of the book recalls himself, in youth, sneaking onto the NATO base to see Astaire and Rogers in Top Hat, one understands why the chapter is entitled “The Birth of Culture.”

Clearly Freeland has entertaining possibilities, and Brad Leithauser accepts them gladly. But this is more than a sendup of the Nordic soul or a satire of “us” in the guise of “them.” Whatever their disadvantages, Freelanders cherish freedom, as their president reminds them on July 4, 1993: “We Freelanders are self-standing folk.” Though he’s half drunk at the moment, with vomit in his hair, his locution has its odd dignity, particularly if one knows that SjálfstÌ?tt Fólk is the original title of Independent People, the novel by Iceland’s Nobel Prize-winner Halldor Laxness which Leithauser has praised (in these pages) as a modern masterpiece. *

Freeland is clearly a smaller version of Iceland, where Leithauser has spent a good deal of time, and this book is among other things a kind of tribute to Laxness and the tradition of epic literature that informed his novels. Like the Icelandic Sagas, The Friends of Freeland is an account of a (modern) hero, of sorts, the aforementioned president himself. Hannibal Hannibalsson, the chum with whom the narrator watched Fred and Ginger in 1958, has by 1993 been in office for twenty years. His administration hasn’t accomplished much, and the voters have wearied of him, even though his honesty and eloquence have held the ailing body politic together and his love of his land and people is unquestioned.

The narrator, Eggert Oddason, now serves as Hannibal’s closest advisor. He is also Freeland’s leading man of letters, with forty-nine books to his credit. Though Hannibal sometimes doubts that the rest of the earth exists or matters, Eggert is more worldly. As a writer and part-time diplomat he has traveled to North America, Europe, and Asia. But his imaginative roots are at home, in his country’s people and language. As head of the Free-landic Language Committee—his only source of regular income—he has to find Old Norse equivalents for new verbal imports like “microprocessor,” “stagflation,” and “carjacking,” and though he despises much of modern culture, especially “youth culture,” which he calls an oxymoron, he does know its terms well enough.

Hannibal’s unexpected and generally unwelcome decision to stand for reelection once again moves Eggert to recount the history of their friendship. A fine athlete and a charmer in his youth, Hannibal had seemed to everyone “a true hero, someone reminiscent of the great Saga figures of old.” He hardly seems so now, of course, and the example of the Sagas raises some formal problems for the novel. Those doomed to notice such things will see that the pastness or presentness of verb tenses doesn’t always indicate past or present action, that while most of the book is told by Eggert some of the sections are in the third person, and that Eggert knows more about Hannibal’s private life than even a close friend likely would. At one point a visiting American philologist asks Eggert if the inconsistencies of verbs and viewpoints in his novels constitute “a nod at the Sagas,” which are similarly unruly. Apparently Leithauser here is tipping his hand.

These and other compositional ingenuities deflect attention from the main characters and their very interesting and amusing country. There is, for example, Eggert’s story of almost beating the invincible Hannibal in the “two-mile” run (is the country not on the metric system?) at the first annual Freelandic Olympic Games of 1958. This event is associated with Hannibal’s “running” for president fifteen years later, and Leithauser’s account promptly gets larded with distracting little word-games: Eggert was “runty” at the time, the girl who inspired his effort was named “Gudrun,” his memories of her now “run together,” he still “run[s] into her” occasionally. At another point I had the awful feeling that the name “Hannibal” had been chosen not just to permit some elephant-and-Alps jokes but so that Eggert could speak of a “Hannibalistic missile.”

The temporal crisscross of the narrative can also be distracting. Eggert cuts back and forth between 1993 and various key moments in his past, with most of the emphasis on the latter. He himself first left Freeland in 1959, finding material for his early novels in Canada and midwestern America and, convinced that he’s repellent to women, beginning his parallel career as an ill-favored and particularly nasty Don Juan. An orphan himself, he in time fathered two children overseas, who later turned up in Freeland and had to be taken in. Hannibal, a natural ladies’ man who is regrettably sterile, started out in the shipping business in Denmark, where he did well but was homesick. Following a “higher,…harder road” he came home, took as his common-law wife a vigorous independent person named Rut—she broke his nose after his first kiss and later ran a waterfront bar with an iron hand—and worked at farming until he was legally old enough to run for the presidency.

Eggert is by his own account personally unpleasing—rat-like in features, rancorous, clever, and verbal. His daughter calls him, not without affection, “you slippery old trickster,” and he does suggest a cross between Loki, Dr. Joseph Goebbels, and some self-lacerating caricature of “the artist.” His drawn-out accounts of his life and loves abroad—in blue-collar Detroit during the Kennedy years, in Cambridge during Vietnam War Resistance days, in Richard Nixon’s Washington—seem parts of some other story, one we’ve heard before.

But Eggert in Freeland in the 1990s is worth our attention. We come to understand that his little defects of spirit may owe more to his way of describing them than to fact. His children, whom he tries to doubt are his and whom he continually belittles, seem unquenchably fond of him and anxious for his approval. His sassy daughter Lilja gets pregnant and, against his wishes, marries her unpromising lover; his sensitive son Sindri reveals that he’s gay and, worse, that he means to be a writer just like Dad. But Lilja hopes that her child will be a boy like her father (he hopes for a girl more or less like her); Sindri, though he almost unforgiveably gets a larger advance for his first novel than Eggert ever did, has worked hard to follow the professional advice his father was unaware of giving him, called the book Not Far from the Tree, and dedicated it to Eggert. Grudging pride in his children stirs in Eggert toward the end.

Leithauser’s story moves more easily once the flashbacks are done with and Eggert can be less the narrator than a character in the unfolding present. Hannibal’s last campaign is fated to fail, especially after he publicly calls Freeland “not real,” a mere “state of mind,” a “dream.” Even so, his idiotic opponent’s importation of blundering “political consultants” from you-know-where offends enough voters to make the election’s outcome amazingly close. Hannibal is reconciled with Rut, and this first defeat of his life leaves him remarkably cheerful. With the short memory and flair for revision of the born politician, he comes to a loony but sustaining new sense of the future: in the age of the Greenhouse Effect, Freeland can remake itself into a haven for overheated tourists and refugees from Down Below. This will demand a leader with “vigor and experience,” a “youthful veteran,” and he has a candidate in mind. “In the end,” he says defiantly in the book’s last sentence, “only Freeland is real.”

Meanwhile Eggert is learning to love the things he loves for what they are—even his often-irritating children, even the deceptive and transient beauty of Freeland itself. “Claimed by a land he has sought to claim as his own,” this romantic egoist resolves to make his native landscape and weather the subject of his fiftieth book, rather as, Carlyle suggests in On Heroes and Hero Worship, the authors of the Sagas themselves did:

In that strange island…, a wild land of barrenness and lava, swallowed many months of every year in black tempests, yet with a wild, gleaming beauty in summer time, towering up there stern and grim in the North Ocean…—where, of all places, we least look for literature or written memorials—the record of these things was written down…. It seems they were poetic men these, men who had deep thoughts in them and uttered musically their thoughts. Much would be lost had Iceland not been burst up from the sea, not been discovered by the Northmen!

Something like this might be said of Leithauser’s Freeland, and this novel, while deliberately, even perversely imperfect, has a poetic beauty and strangeness of its own.

In Mister Sandman Barbara Gowdy, a Canadian, creates a family that seems almost grotesque. The father, Gordon Canary, edits potboilers for a Toronto publishing firm. Intelligent, well born, not very effectual, he’s “a private person, tormented by almost everything he felt,” and among those torments are his memories and dreams of male lovers. His wife, Doris, for whom he feels a protective, sheepish affection, is small, ebullient, vulgar, and managerial. A failed actress and a congenital liar, Doris has a knack for getting things just a little wrong, as when she mishears Gordon’s skeptical adage “The truth is only a version” and repeats it ever after as “The truth is only aversion,” as for her it is.

She and their older daughter, Sonja, closely resemble each other. Both are five-foot-two, with “small, flat-featured faces like faces painted on balloons”; but Sonja is hugely obese, and placid to the point of unconsciousness. She has no interest in sex, but at fifteen she was casually impregnated by a mystery man she knew only as “Yours.” Her younger sister, Marcy, was a childhood religious enthusiast who in adolescence changes her name to Marcia and devotes herself to copulation with a succession of boys; Marcia is as close as the Canarys come to normal common sense.

The fifth member of this very funny and touching clan is Joan. Born secretly to Sonja (whose name is an anagram for “Joan’s”) in Vancouver in 1956, Joan is represented to the world as Doris’s child, though Gordon and of course Sonja—though not Marcia—know better. Even in infancy Joan was a minor celebrity. At her delivery she seemed to shriek “Oh, no, not again!” and was widely featured as the Reincarnation Baby in the press. By another account it was one of the attendant midwives screaming (for some reason) “Flo! / Flo! she’s insane!” but in any event Joan was dropped on the floor in the excitement. Possibly therefore, she has always been tiny, pale, and “flawless,” averse to light and strangers; though she has never spoken on her own, she uncannily mimics the sounds she hears, and Marcia believes herself to be telepathically aware of what she thinks and feels.

Brain-damaged or not, Joan is an idiot savant of no mean order. As a child she could hum, and later play on the piano, any tune she heard, and in time her repertory extends to things like “In the Mood” and (after hearing the Glenn Gould recording) the Goldberg Variations. The jovial family doctor diagnoses “nerves” and thinks a little spanking might straighten her out, and other authorities recommend the Mother Goose Home for Mentally Retarded Children. But Doris resolves to teach her at home, with considerable success. Since Joan seems at ease in closets, Gordon fits out a large one with a radio and the books and magazines she likes to “study” (whether or not she can actually read); there she sits, wearing sunglasses and looking like “some blind midget scholar hiding from the Nazis.”

It will be evident that Barbara Gowdy’s comic sense is both inventive and tough. But the comedy is dark, rooted in sad, alarming secrets and mysteries. Marcia hides her promiscuity from her parents and her contact lenses and padded bras from her boyfriends. She doesn’t know that her beloved Joan is not her sister. Sonja herself tends to forget her motherhood; she calls herself a “born career girl” and lives and works at home, attaching bobby pins to display cards while she eats and watches TV. Neither she nor Gordon knows that Joan’s father, “Yours,” was in fact a thuggish hustler from South Carolina named Al Yothers, who had an affair with Gordon and seduced his witless daughter as a way of punishing him. Doris doesn’t know that Gordon is gay, and Gordon doesn’t know that Doris is too, having found in middle life that she is susceptible to large, black nurses. There are obviously more closets than Joan’s in this household.

If Mister Sandman inclines toward a domestic style as baroque as that of Mary Hartman, Mary Hartman or even The Simpsons, it also takes implicit account of a modern culture in which old-style familiality is difficult and rare. In the Canarys’ world, personal connections are mostly random and unknowing. Joan, who, it turns out, can read, absorbs the encyclopedia just like her culturally challenged father, Al Yothers, who memorized it (imperfectly) as far as “D.” When Gordon learns who that father was, he has a heart attack, but a Presbyterian pastor who visits him in the hospital becomes his next lover. Doris’s mother, an impoverished Anglophile who eats (fried, on toast) the mushrooms that grow in her moldy carpets, was like Joan born a bastard, and she herself says “Oh, no, not again!” as she lies dying on the sidewalk outside the grocery store. The wistful old song Gordon loves to play late at night—“Please turn on your magic beam,/ Mister Sandman, bring me a dream”—is one he first heard in bed with Al, and it becomes a favorite of Joan’s too.

This wonderfully inventive family romance is carried through to 1974. Though they’ve grown taller, shorter, fatter, or louder, the Canarys have done rather well for themselves. Doris has taken a job in a lingerie store and found herself a new nurse. Gordon has entered a religious phase and takes “private Bible-study classes” from his good friend Reverend Bean, though he doesn’t exactly believe in God yet. Sonja has switched from bobby pins to knitting, and she gets good prices from department stores for her scarves and gloves. Marcia, an excellent student, turns down a university scholarship, wanting more time for her amours and more money for presents for her men; she finds a job in an employment agency, gets her own apartment, is promoted to manager (with a secretary), buys books and china and learns about food and wine, and sees two appealing young men on alternate nights.

But Joan’s life has been more remarkable. Virtually unchanged in size and appearance at seventeen, she has otherwise prospered. When in 1965 she hears on the radio a tape made by Gordon of herself playing Bach, her shock either coincides with or causes a blackout of the northeastern seaboard—public fame, which she associates with “evaporation” of the self, is not for her. But she soon finds an alternative project. Learning about electronic composition from a local practitioner, she begins to work at it. Gordon buys her three top-of-the-line tape recorders and converts the laundry room into a studio, where in sunglasses and earphones she sits taping and editing.

It’s clear enough that Joan Canary is another figure of the artist, the detached observer who remakes the world but, at least while on the job, is not quite part of it. Yet the thing created becomes part of the world, which is altered by its arrival. When Joan finishes her composition, in July 1974, she falls into a trance and must be hospitalized. The family can’t resist playing her tapes, and what they find on them is themselves. One tape splices together snippets of their ordinary speech to the rhythm of “Mister Sandman,” while a synchronized second one carries their murmuring voices, which at times flare up into unwelcome clarity: “I HAVE SLEPT WITH SO MANY BOYS I HAVE LOST COUNT” (Marcia), “ALWAYS REMEMBER, BUNNY, I’M YOUR REAL MOTHER” (Sonja), “I LIKE TO HAVE SEX WITH BARE-NAKED WOMEN” (Doris), “I HAVE ORGASMS WITH QUEER MEN” (Gordon). They claim, and try to believe, that they never said these things. But of course the truth of art transcends literal statement.

I am the only one in this room who really knows whether I am guilty or not guilty,” John Ehrlichman is saying, perhaps too confidently, on the tube as the family prepares to play Joan’s tapes. Leithauser also invokes Watergate, having Hannibal call Eggert home from Washington to help with his first presidential campaign in 1973, even as the Fate of Princes begins to play itself out on American TV. But Barbara Gowdy finds more than background irony in making the uncloseting of the Canarys simultaneous with that more famous political outing, when Nixon’s tapes scandalized and shamed the nation.

Like the President and his men, the Canarys at first deny everything. Unlike them, possibly, the family manages to accept and learn from their ordeal, which is also a liberation. When Marcia asks why she taped them, Joan has a fine telepathic answer: “You are so interesting.” And so they are. Gordon the denier and Doris the liar gingerly reveal to each other that they want to stay together despite their errancies. Gordon goes so far as to invoke Christ’s great warning against hypocrisy in Luke 12:3: “Therefore, whatsoever ye have spoken in darkness shall be heard in the light; and that which ye have spoken in the ear in closets shall be proclaimed upon the housetops.” (“Holy, Geez,” Gordon thinks. “Right on the money.”)

Joan survives a five-minute coronary arrest, and all seems as it used to be at home, with her playing honky-tonk piano and reading old Life magazines in her closet. But something has changed. She and Gordon used to play like children in the front yard very late at night; they resume their games, but now Sonja joins in, and Doris and Marcia, after watching and wondering from their rooms, come down to play with them in the dark. Gowdy’s account of this coming together, the last paragraph of the book, is carefully poised between celebration and doubt:

Joan’s echo of the screen door banging is so-so. As if she were expecting them she throws the ball their way, and Marcia catches it and tosses it to Gordon. Gordon tosses it to Doris, who tosses it to Sonja.

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