Parsifal, by Jim Krusoe

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Last year, Jim Krusoe completed his Resurrection Trilogy, a threesome of novels (Girl Factory, Erased, and Toward You) concerned with what he called “the spongy turf between life and death,” and offered this observation in an essay about the trilogy:

There are writers who, dropped by a parachute into the most dangerous jungle in the world, will not only be able to direct their chutes so they don’t break an arm or leg, but will also return with a riveting yarn and a little extra muscle mass in the bargain. These writers, I imagine, besides having talent also had well-adjusted childhoods, ones that prepared them to face the unknown with confidence and hope. Then there are other writers, who, dropped anywhere, however resplendent, can only repeat the bleak nightmares they left behind. These latter had unhappy childhoods—and for them each novel is just another failed attempt to make things right; an endless trilogy, or series of trilogies, that lasts their whole lives. They are doomed to stand before a single door, to turn the knob this way and that, and wait in vain for it to open.

Krusoe appears to suggest that he falls into the latter category, and the trilogy and his previous novel Iceland do feature a cornucopia of bleak, nightmarish things: swimming pools full of human organs, women in suspended animation in tanks of yogurt culture, a not-quite-human lost aquatic brother, a dead child trying and failing to talk to the living. But Krusoe’s signature tone isn’t the Kafkaesque one summoned by his allusion to “Before the Law” (or the Bizarro World version of it that mentions a doorknob).  His first-person heroes edge closer to Jerry Seinfeld than to Josef K. in their deadpan gameness, and the stories they tell edge closer to riveting-yarn territory than you’d think their sometimes-grisly happenings would permit.

Jim Krusoe

Jim Krusoe

Parsifal, his fifth novel, represents a departure from that tone, as well as from the formal mechanics that support it. The hero’s story is told in a close third person, highly nonlinearly. The lyric flights of description and gloriously blockheaded “analysis” that stud Krusoe’s earlier work are less frequent, giving ground to fragments that build the book’s world by accretion.  Such changes make life slightly harder for a reviewer trying to extract a representative block quote, but try this one:

The only time Parsifal slept with a woman who was not a librarian he found himself missing their ways: the methodical unbuttoning of their clothing, how they took care to fold each piece after they removed it and placed it on a nearby shelf or chair where they could find it again quickly, their patience as they waited for him to finish whatever he was doing before they asked a question or delivered a piece of helpful information, and the way they never, ever seemed surprised by his appearance. In contrast, the non-librarian threw her clothing everywhere and was full of opinions, which she was only too happy to share. She told him he looked “interesting.”

Parsifal has a little bit of a librarian fetish, and is heavily but not unpicturesquely scarred (I keep imagining Edward Scissorhands) from a physically rough life in the forest he grew up in. The book tracks his return to that place from an unnamed city where he repairs fountain pens for a living. That city is not St. Nils, the quirky home of Krusoe’s earlier protagonists, but a darker place inhabited by mysterious blind people and Parsifal’s distant stockbroker father. Parsifal also has, or had, a mother, who did most of the work of raising him in the forest. But his stated reason for returning there isn’t her, or her memory; it’s his lost childhood cup Fenjewla, a fallen secular counterpart to the Holy Grail of the Parsifal legend.

I mean fallen in its metaphorical sense, but there are many literally falling objects in the book too. The earth and the sky are fighting a war of some kind, with the latter raining auto parts, appliances, and other industrial objects down on the former, which counters with natural disasters. Krusoe is poker-faced about what, if anything, this conflict might be an allegory for, but the explicit oppositions presented between mother/forest/etc. and father/city/etc. (which even appear in convenient table form on one page) invite an interpretation that aligns this cosmic war with a more personal one.

That personal war would be the primordial conflict between Mom and Dad, with an unhappy childhood the more-or-less logical result. Krusoe’s observation about the effects of growing up this way might be as much about characters as about writers themselves. Parsifal’s entire quest might have nothing to do with his cup and everything to do with the lost nuclear family associated with it. This is pretty banal stuff, I know, but it’s also pretty deep stuff, and Krusoe is sufficiently artful at scrambling his oppositions and his timeline that the experience of reading Parsifal is the opposite of banal.

Sacha Arnold is a contributor to The Believer, io9, Big Bell, and other publications. He lives in San Francisco. More from this author →