Pasi Ilmari Jääskeläinen - a strange chimera of snow-bound noir and creeping surrealism that reveals itself with the unassuming gestures of a children’s book
Pasi Ilmari Jääskeläinen, The Rabbit Back Literature Society, Trans. by Lola Rogers, Pushkin Press, 2015.
A highly contagious book virus, a literary society and a Snow Queen-like disappearing author
'She came to realise that under one reality there's always another. And another one under that.'
Only very special people are chosen by children's author Laura White to join 'The Society', an elite group of writers in the small town of Rabbit Back.
Now a tenth member has been selected: Ella, literature teacher and possessor of beautifully curving lips.
But soon Ella discovers that the Society is not what it seems. What is its mysterious ritual, 'The Game'? What explains the strange disappearance that occurs at Laura's winter party, in a whirlwind of snow? Why are the words inside books starting to rearrange themselves? Was there once another tenth member, before her?
Slowly, disturbing secrets that had been buried come to light...
In this chilling, darkly funny novel, the uncanny brushes up against the everyday in the most beguiling and unexpected of ways.
The fictional Finnish town of Rabbit Back is the setting for Pasi Ilmari Jääskeläinen’s The Rabbit Back Literature Society (tr. Lola Rogers), a strange chimera of snow-bound noir and creeping surrealism that reveals itself with the unassuming gestures of a children’s book.
Rabbit Back is the home of the bestselling (and reclusive) children’s book author Laura White. White’s Creatureville books, widely lauded for their striking treatment of local myths, have brought worldwide recognition to the town and to the coterie of nine protégés she hand-selected at an early age to be the members of her Rabbit Back Literature Society—young men and women who have, by the time of the events in the book, matured into the upper ranks of the Finnish literary scene.
After decades of quietly searching, White has elected a new member to the group, the young substitute literature teacher Ella Milana. On the night of the official announcement all the local writers are in attendance at a party at Laura White’s house. White, who only appears in the novel in others’ accounts, or as seen from a remove, is notably absent.
When the time for Ella’s official induction into the Society comes, the group gathers to await Laura White’s arrival. As she descends the stairs, though, she loses her footing and falls. As she does, a window somewhere in the house bangs open. A blizzard rampages through the party, putting furniture in disarray and bowling guests over. When the mayhem dies down, it is discovered that Laura White has disappeared.
White’s sudden and inexplicable disappearance forces the reader into darker, more complicated narrative ground. Local gossip about the goings-on in the Society has always been widespread, if innocuous, and though stories abound of the odd happenings in town, these are recounted with an antic twist—a children’s book technique that Jääskeläinen uses to haunting effect. The author’s prose has the uncanny ability, in the hands of translator Lola M. Rogers, to seem both plain and resounding. She employs the smooth phrasing of a children’s fable to striking effect, pairing it with the eerie machinations at work between lines.
Ella’s father, who is suffering from the onset of Alzheimer’s, has an accident in his garden—his wife finds him prostrate and bloodied, his glasses broken and its pieces scattered across the flower beds. They can’t fathom what might have happened to him. After he is released from the hospital he takes to reciting lyric love poetry that no one can identify. Jääskeläinen’s facility with style allows the episode to shift easily from the poignant into the unusual and back:
Ella’s father sat in his office looking out the window. Ella and her mother had led him there, and he sat in his chair like an obedient son. His cuts and bruises were healing quickly, but his skin still looked messy, like mischievous, heartless children had drawn on it, scribbled and smudged all over it.Harmless plot objects take on sharper contours as the book explores the history of the Society and Laura White and burrows deeper into the ground beneath Rabbit Back. The town is overcast with the specter of the author. She has taken inspiration from her surroundings for her books; now their fairy-tale spirit seems to have inoculated the town itself. The local parks and gardens are fitted with sculpted grotesqueries spun off from the work of Laura White and the town embodies the same worrying mixture of charm and menace as the books, which recount the exploits of a cast of merry mythical creatures with names like the Odd Critter, Mother Snow, Bobo Clickclack, and Dampish. The cheery tales of their high jinks, though, are shot through with a desperate, psychological life, and cast in a shadow by the presence of Emperor Rat, a bogeyman that lurks behind every tale in the Creatureville books.
Ella remembers the “going-to-sleep” passage in one of Laura White’s books, which combines fond memories of being put to bed with the childhood fear of the dark and the unknown:
Mother Snow tucked Bobo Clickclack, the Odd Critter, Dampish, Crusty Bark and all the others into bed. She kissed them gently and called them her “own little creatures”, which always made them smile under the blanket with pure contentment, and for a moment they all forgot that Emperor Rat stalked the night, whispering dark secrets that no living creature could hear without being badly broken.As Ella begins to talk to the other members of the Society, fragments of a hidden history begin to shake loose: an unexplained death in the early years of the Society’s existence, perplexing accounts about the writers’ young lives spent with Laura White, and beneath it all, the suggestion of something sinister that binds the town, Laura White, and the Society together.
Then Mother Snow went into the kitchen and made herself a cup of hot cocoa.
When she first meets with Martti Winter, the most celebrated member of the group, he introduces her to the ritual that he and the other writers call “The Game.” Initially conceived by Laura White as a writer’s exercise for her young students, the Game persists among the now adult members of the Society. Once a member is challenged to the Game, he or she must comply, on pain of expulsion from the Society. The subject must don a blindfold and answer questions with absolute honesty; Rule 21 of the book recommends the use of physical force to compel a subject to answer truthfully. Once the interrogator is satisfied with the answers he has received it is his turn to willingly don the blindfold and be questioned.
The various sessions of the game are among the book’s most compelling moments. Laura White’s unsparing, vivid advice to the young writers is shocking, and the interrogations are often unremitting and brutal. Winter recounts how, as they grew, the writers began to stalk each other fervidly, looking for opportunities to plumb the lives of their friends for stories. By the time Ella arrives they are stripped clean, naked of appeal to each other. Jääskeläinen’s exploration of the magpie habit of a writer is thorough and complex—his writers engage in a masquerade where answers, questions, and identities spin from truth into untruth, where ransacking another’s memories can mean depleting ones own.
As Ella takes part in round after round of the game, it becomes clear that the game reveals truths not just about its players, but about itself, too. Ella delves deeper into the Society’s past and a troubling picture emerges of the cost of this unceasing examination. And the reader begins to wonder about the kind of woman Laura White was, who would arrange a group of children to play out masques of painful truth-telling under her watchful eye. This concern with the cryptic, distant figure of Laura White is what sets this smart, mercurial book on a razor’s edge. And it is in this central obsession that the book’s most intriguing failing presents itself.
Despite its focus on writers’ exercises and their shoptalk, Jääskeläinen is tightlipped with his own literary rules. The device that sets his book in motion defies capture, even in a session of the Game. It stays on the margins, lurking outside Martti Winter’s window at night, glaring up coolly from a forest pond black with ice at the foot of Laura White’s house, stalking the woods of Rabbit Back in the dark. The animating myth of Rabbit Back is profuse and its outline is covered in shadow. Its uncertain shape supplies the story with great force—it is nearly impossible to set the book down once it has you in its grasp. The reader can’t help but get caught up in the lurid fear of what the truth about Laura White might be, or the sordid details behind the death of a young boy many years in the past—because both are vague and profound; inscrutable and terrifying.
It is an accumulating curse that a book so full of allusions, red herrings, and secrets is expected, at its end, to make an account of all its allegations. The book reveals, piecemeal, incongruous distal parts of the mystery of Rabbit Back. We surmise its shape as a man in a dark room, blindly feeling out the edges of an improbable and fearsome-seeming beast. The Rabbit Back Literature Society, thus, must end in a quandary, since a good myth requires the shadows to thrive. By the time of the book’s epilogue, the town mystery has achieved such frightening improbability that any kind of revelation could only seem disappointing, and Jääskeläinen is savvy enough to know this.
He is careful about preserving the ambiguity that the book has so assiduously maintained, and yet, the book’s denouement is the one disappointment in this fine tale. As the dust settles around Ella’s investigations, Jääskeläinen stages a third-act reveal which can’t help but seem overplayed. It is a sop to reader expectations—a pyrotechnic flare-up that diffuses many of the much realer phantoms in the book’s construction and which seems at odds with the deliberate and well-measured merits of the rest of the story.
It is no small credit to Jääskeläinen that, despite this misstep, and a conclusion that fails to tie up all the flying threads in this ambitious and overfull novel, it is impossible to shake off The Rabbit Back Literature Society’s persuasive fretfulness and intrigue. Jääskeläinen plays mirthfully with the conventions of children’s books, the noir-ish procedurals that Scandinavians are so famed for, and a scrutinizing sort of fiction about the lives of writers; if we can’t always discern how these subjects cohere, it is in part because the author has concealed the seams between them so masterfully, and does such a virtuoso job of entertaining his reader with the headlong, captivating pace of this commendable book. - Rohan Kamicheril