FICTION: In a fading Midwestern city, Sven Norberg investigates the disappearance of his wife, uncovering conspiracies along the way.
The city of Trude, setting of “The Facades,” has seen better days. Once known as “the Munich of the Midwest,” the city now finds itself besieged by an authoritarian mayor with a viciously populist streak. Trude’s major buildings were designed by an architect contemptuous of the populace, and they may or may not contain labyrinths and secret chambers in which the bodies of the recently deceased are shocked in the hope of divining the answers to critical administrative questions. In the months before the novel begins, Molly Norberg, an eminent opera singer, has gone missing. “The Facades” is the story of her husband’s investigation into her disappearance, but in doing so it also chronicles Trude’s unsettling decline.
Molly’s husband, Sven Norberg, makes for an unlikely detective. One character compares him to a gargoyle; Sven also notes that after shaving, “My face is one of those faces that alarms when unsheathed.” Bullied by his attorney boss, striving to understand his teenage son’s sudden religious devotion, and largely in denial over his midlife crisis, Sven watches adult films with titles like “Card Catalog Confidential” and endeavors to process conflicting information about his wife’s disappearance. These come from sources as disparate as an oracular police officer and a music critic whose interest in Molly may have been more than professional. Acrostics, false confessions and at least one (literal) red herring all make appearances as Sven navigates a city where surrealism seems to be the default theme.
Given Molly’s profession, the heightened levels of emotion and stylized characters on display don’t seem out of place. Among the novel’s highlights are Sven’s descriptions of the lunatic architecture and civil unrest on display in Trude. Literary references abound: One building, designed by a man named Bernhard, features a room named for Robert Walser. Trude’s mayor finds himself in conflict with a group of librarians, in open rebellion following brutal cuts to their budget. There are scenes that echo Detroit’s bankruptcy and Zuccotti Park, and author Eric Lundgren’s dispatches do not disappoint here; they compare favorably to Steven Millhauser’s intricate cityscapes and Ben Katchor’s postcards from surreal street corners.
Less compelling is Sven’s own progression, which over the course of the novel reveals him as far less heroic than his own mental image. To Lundgren’s credit, he does seem aware of this; during one tryst with a much younger woman, Sven muses that “I felt like a boss.” He remains largely passive throughout, the recipient of the stories of others. Whether this passivity is a kind of sublimated penance for failures in his life is a question Lundgren leaves unanswered. But he has created an evocative landscape for his characters to move through, and it’s one that resonates along with those characters’ dreams and delusions.
Tobias Carroll is the managing editor of Vol.1 Brooklyn. His writing has been published in the Los Angeles Review of Books, the Paris Review and elsewhere.