Reviewed by Sarah Death in SBR 2014:2
Review Section: Fiction
This linked story collection grabs us with its oddity from story one, a tale of a group of teenagers talked into a summer job of ‘being in a book about vampires’. They find themselves a cast of crudely drawn characters acting out stereotypical B-movie scenarios as puppets of some unseen media conglomerate. Then there is talk of scriptwriters walking out and the main protagonist is left literally hanging in mid-air. We proceed (with new writers?) to a series of unsettling stories all set in a place called The Animated City which, it gradually emerges, is located on the coast in northern Sweden, accessible to the rest of the country but in something of a parallel dimension. The stories are narrated mainly in the first person by young inhabitants of the place, perplexed, frightened and lacking confidantes; teen issues such as bullying and peer-group pressure are in evidence. All the plots remain unresolved, raising more questions than they answer. Some of the characters recur on the periphery of subsequent stories and there is a sense of an entire fictional world that could eventually be tied together.
Somehow the whole scenario put this reviewer in mind of the film Who Framed Roger Rabbit? We see ordinary human protagonists tussle with obstacles thrown in their path by the creations of a commercial entertainment industry. In this case they are not doing battle with malevolent ‘toons’ but with a range of phenomena, from luminous supernatural beings to a strange virus that gradually turns its victims into large white birds. Some of the stories have a distinctly Daphne du Maurier-esque grotesqueness; others could be labelled science fiction or dystopian. In the memorable ‘Maiko’,the eponymous teenager realises all the important people in her world are actually robots.
The term ‘magical realism’ cropped up in various Swedish reviews of this book so it was not a complete surprise to find ‘The Colin Blunstone Lookalike Contest,’ ending with spontaneous combustion provoked by passion – a possible reference to Laura Esquivel’s Like Water for Chocolate and the film of that name? But the central conceit of the book is that it is simultaneously a set of readable if far-fetched stories and an account of their genesis: ‘Mats Kempe’ and two real life fellow Swedish writers, thanked in person in the acknowledgments, have been commissioned to produce this set of spine-tinglers.
After half of the sixteen stories, the fictional facade crumbles as we are yanked into the narrators’ territory. Their conditions seem like those of migrant workers: separated from their families,they live in low-grade accommodation and are closeted by day in a hotel room, writing and rewriting. They have minders, profit-hungry men in suits, and checklists of sensational phenomena that must be included. Eight have been ticked off but a disheartening number still remain, such as a man-eating tree, the resurrection of a deep-frozen mammoth,and a predestined lightning strike. The mutinous writers continue their task,some of their themes taken from the checklist (déjà vu for example, hence the book’s title) but others apparently not.Even when sticking to his brief, ‘Mats’ seems inclined to let the stories develop in more humane directions. The writers argue over a soft-hearted tendency to allow female protagonists to escape out of the stories back to their ordinary lives, even though good women characters are in short supply. The whole thing starts to fall apart as the fiction/reality boundary grows more porous, but there is no escaping the financial imperative and in the closing pages the publishing corporation takes a desperate gamble to boost sales – a twist which for obvious reasons cannot be revealed here but which could appeal particularly to contemporary British readers.
Kempe is of course making a point about authors’ exploitation and commercial pressures in the modern publishing industry. The sum of his book is more than the parts, though these are pretty engrossing in themselves, and the jokey premise does not prevent the work touching on a range of thought-provoking themes, particularly those affecting the younger generation. Sometimes referred to as a writer of books in which little happens, Kempe certainly makes up for it in this unusual and action-packed volume.