Jan 17, 2011

Monkey droppings - The Three Fates of Henrik Nordmark by Christopher Meades: For the want of a plum. . .

The monkey's been doing some heavy reading lately.

Literary heavyweights. Thick tomes of grand themes and ambition.

The monkey needs a beer and something decidedly lighter, just to take the edge off.

The Three Fates of Henrik Nordmark (ECW Press, 2010)
by Christopher Meades
He was neither young nor old, weak nor strong; not fat enough to be obese, but chubby enough that parts of his sides folded over onto the seat next to him on the bus. He smelled a little, but his musty odor - part mildew, part inside-of-a-reptile-cage - wasn't particularly malicious and rarely did it cause great offense. Henrik had no interesting stories to tell. He'd never run through the streets in the middle of the night in a desperate search for condoms or had a girlfriend force him into a sunflower costume for Halloween. In fact, he'd never had a romantic relationship of any kind. Henrik had lived his entire forty-two years in complete obscurity. He was the weed sprouting out of the wallflower; generic in his generality.
A good loser is hard to find. A great loser is a rare thing indeed.

To qualify that; loser's ain't hard to find, and even easier in literature. But a great loser - a hapless sort who somehow keeps you coming back for more, despite his or her countless faults and social inadequacies - that's a rare beast indeed. Off the top of my head, I would call out Ignatius J. Reilly, Holden Caulfield, the anonymous narrator of Fight Club, Lee Goodstone, and the nameless fact checker from Bright Lights Big City as being paragons of the species. You can't say that you'd enjoy being around them in person, but reading about them can be an exhilarating experience.

It's a fine line, however, maintaining interest and readability in a character that, in any normal situation, you would likely yawn in the face of, hide in the closet to avoid, or run screaming away from. Some clever wags have labelled this genre 'loser lit,' but you won't hear me call it that. James Patterson, now that's loser lit.

I'd be hard pressed, however, to come up with a bigger loser than Henrik Nordmark. A man of no means, no charisma, no distinguishing characteristics, no anything, Henrik is almost intolerably awful as a lead character.

Almost. Christopher Meades finds a way to combat Henrik's loathsome passivity with a breakneck approach to plotting that throws everything into the mix to see if it stick. And while the resulting novel The Three Fates of Henrik Nordmark may not qualify as high literature, it certainly ranks as one of the goofier good times I've had with recent novels.

Three Fates is a novel of mistakes, accidents, and massive coincidence, all revolving around the black hole that is Henrik Nordmark. A forty-two year old security guard, Henrik has never in his entire life done anything remotely interesting. Yet on one fateful day, Henrik comes face-to-face with his own mortality. Dropping a plum during a grocery store visit, he chases the juicy orb outside and into the street, where his life is saved by a mysterious man in a full tuxedo. Recognizing how close he came to death, and how few people would be at his funeral, Henrik comes to a turning point in his life: "He would turn his life around. He would find something interesting about himself. He would become unique if it killed him."

As Henrik goes about trying to get himself recognized for something, anything - including very strange and whimsical slapstick forays into sexual deviance, drug use, unfocused rage, and clipping his toenails in public - other characters who have somehow fallen into his sphere of influence weave their own tales of misery. Roland is a business analyst who quits his job, mistakenly believing that he won the lottery. Bonnie and Clyde are a long-suffering married couple who each have been surreptitiously attempting to kill the other for months. And most oddly of all, a trio of extremely elderly assassins have been hired to kill Henrik, for reasons left obscure. In a way, the novel begins to resemble some of the early films of Jim Jarmusch and Richard Linklater, following characters as they criss-cross each other's paths, and Three Fates has a great deal of the shaggy charm of those low-budget gems.

This is not to imply that Three Fates is high art, but it is damned entertaining. Meades has a lovely bit of fun with dialogue, such as Henrik's meeting with an employment counsellor:
"I want to find a job that makes me unique."
"What's your previous occupation?"
"Security guard," Henrik said.
"Well that's not very unique at all. There are thousands of security guards out there."
"That's my point exactly. I need a job that, by definition, makes me unique."
The man in the green tie picked up the clipboard with the list of occupations. He scanned the sheet for the ones Henrik circled. "Let me see here. Aerospace Engineer. Professional Bodybuilder. Lactation Consultant. Do you have any expertise in these areas? Any aerospace training?"
"No, sir, I don't."
"Any weightlifting or bodybuilding skills?"
Henrik covered his pot belly with his arms. "No."
"What about this last one - Lactation Consultant? Do you have an actual proficiency in this area?"
"Actually," Henrik said, "I wasn't a hundred percent sure what that one was."
Meades keeps his many balls in the air, juggling from each plotline and back again, piling on the coincidences, keeping momentum even when the story veers into terrifically unbelievable proportions and the entire structure resembles a particularly intense game of Jenga. That the story begins to resemble the anarchic narratives of the Marx Brothers (by way of the Three Stooges) is a compliment. The three assassins and their escapades are certainly worthy of plaudits, and Roland's desperately silly dive into despair is marked with high style.

What keeps The Three Fates of Henrik Nordmark from taking off and becoming more than a diversion (although an exceedingly funny one) is Henrik himself. Despite his top billing, Henrik is never more than caricature; he is clumsy when the plot calls for it, he is dense only to propel the plot forward, he is hapless beyond belief only because any believable character would have wised up far earlier than he. Henrik is a foil, a device, but he never becomes human. He's a good loser, not a great one. And Meades storytelling, as enjoyable as it is, isn't refined to the point where he can turn such an oblique character into something more substantial, nor is his style as relentlessly hilarious as the titans of comedic writing such as Douglas Adams and Robert Rankin.

But sometimes, all you want is silly, and The Three Fates of Henrik Nordmark fits the bill. Meades shows definite talent, and I look forward to what his imagination unleashes next. The Three Fates of Henrik Nordmark may not change your life, but sometimes that's not what I look for nor need. I don't want The English Patient all the time. Sometimes, I just want Happy Gilmore. And that's a compliment.


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