"Krusoe's whimsical, ironic debut novel (following his story collection, Blood Lake) conjures up Kafka on antidepressants..."--Publishers Weekly
Dalkey Archive Press
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The debut novel from the author of Blood Lake, a collection of short stories that was critically acclaimed and landed on the Los Angeles Times best-seller list. An adventure in the absurd, Iceland begins with our narrator, Paul, arriving at a mysterious "Institute" to pick out - on doctor's orders - a new internal organ. There he meets Emily, a young, bikini-clad
The debut novel from the author of Blood Lake, a collection of short stories that was critically acclaimed and landed on the Los Angeles Times best-seller list. An adventure in the absurd, Iceland begins with our narrator, Paul, arriving at a mysterious "Institute" to pick out - on doctor's orders - a new internal organ. There he meets Emily, a young, bikini-clad woman hired to stimulate the organs preserved in a nutrient-enhanced swimming pool, and falls in love amidst a flurry of chlorine and kick-boards. In Jim Krusoe's world, this is about as simple as life gets. Paul's brief interlude with Emily sets the course for his extraordinary adventures, which involve a troublesome stain on Paul's rug, a volcano, Paul's marriage and children, six years in a piano bar with a girl named Calypso Sally, and a long stretch in the State Penitentiary. But throughout it all Paul keeps re-imagining that first afternoon by the poolside with Emily, his one true love. Iceland is a novel of melancholic hilarity that raises serious questions along the way about the nature of memory, imagination, and desire.
"Krusoe's whimsical, ironic debut novel (following his story collection, Blood Lake) conjures up Kafka on antidepressants..."--Publishers Weekly
Dalkey Archive Press
Copyright © 2002 Jim Krusoe.
All rights reserved.
I had been dying little by little and bit by bit, I thought. On some days I felt fine, as if the animal, or machine, or whatever I was at that moment, could easily believe that the whole thing, this dying business, had been only a bad dream, although a waking one to be sure, which had somehow leaked into my mind while I was waiting at a street corner for a traffic light as all around me cars went about their business, their exhaust spewing into my lungs, their radios hurting my ears. But the catch was that they would continue on doing this forever, and I would not.
My name, by the way, is Paul.
But then the light would change and I would be somewhere else, in a pet store, or sitting on a stool in a piano bar, and I'd been wrong; I was fine until the next time I blinked again, when there it would be, back and grinning. So I had been suffering for a long time, in one way or another, and at last it seemed as if the end was growing near: I had finally given up resistance to the idea of going through life carrying someone else's organ inside of me and either the procedure would work or it wouldn't.
So it was on Dr. Pearlman's advice I finally boarded the big, blue bus that passed by the Institute, where I was supposed to, as he put it, "look the organs over," and to find one that I liked. Then came the first surprise. No sooner had I stepped off the bus straight onto a rolled-up newspaper than I twisted my ankle, and when I looked up I saw that the place looked nothing like I'd imagined. I checked the address. When Dr. Pearlman had mentioned that the Institute was housed in a former villa, I'd pictured something out of Pompeii, light and airy, and full of vines, with maybe even a baby volcano looming in the background. But there it was, right in the middle of town, built on classic lines but of dull, gray granite, dark and solid, next to an ice-making plant and surrounded not by vines, but heavy, leafless trees, their arms stretched hopelessly toward the sun. Worse, its narrow windows looked as if they'd been stabbed into the walls by a knife, or possibly an axe, and its corners were anchored by four huge stones, like four heavy cenotaphs yet to be inscribed. The overall effect, it seemed to me at that moment, was that the whole building was slowly sinking into the ground.
I limped up the stairs to the huge, bronze doors, and looked for a buzzer. Where there should have been one, there was only a small brass plate, about the size of a business card, with the name of the Institute in capital letters. I knocked, but against the heavy doors was unable to produce a sound. I tried again, with both hands, and again nothing came back. So I pushed lightly against one of them, and lo, it swung open, but the next surprise was that once I was inside there was no reception area, no waiting room with magazines, and no nurse dressed in a starched white uniform asking me to fill out my insurance forms, which I was pleased to have brought, just in case.
Nor were there men in white smocks, nor wall-high stainless steel freezers, nor anything else I had imagined. Instead there was only a bright hallway, done in the pink marble I'd expected to find outside, running from right to left, lined with statues of nymphs and scandalous satyrs, crumbling griffins and shameless naiads. I could find no instructions anywhere, but directly in front of me, on the facing wall, was one more set of doors, this time made of carved wood. I knocked and waited, knocked and waited. Finally I leaned my shoulder into one half (there weren't any handles) and it opened with a screech onto a large swimming pool, filled, judging by the smell, with saltwater.
I stepped inside and inhaled. In addition to the salt, I could also catch the semen-y odor of chlorine. It turned out I was standing next to a red bucket of bleach. Then I blinked, because I had not been prepared in the least for what I saw next. There, twenty feet away, within the blue-tiled borders of the pool, were the very organs I'd come to visit: the bloated, spongy butterflies of lungs, the shy parentheses of kidneys, the lurid exclamation marks of livers, the cheerful blimps of stomachs, the loopy daydreams of intestines, the schools of tiny pancreas, and dark, brooding spleens, all drifting across the pool's still surface like floaters along the back of an eyeball, all sleeping in their Olympic-sized waterbed, dreaming. There was no roof, but above them, about twenty feet off the surface of the water, was a steamy sheet of plastic tarp, hung (it looked like) to keep the heat in, and maybe also to catch any stray impurities.
I stood there watching, and already I could feel the artificial fibers of my shirt gluing themselves to my back in the humid, warm air. But strangely as opposed to my earlier, more futuristic expectations about the place and as unlikely as it seemed, the organs spread out there before me apparently were thriving.
At that very moment my eye caught a movement at the far end of the pool: the most beautiful woman I had ever seen was emerging from the liquid. I stood breathless as her small fingers clasped the two silvery sweating handrails, and her shoulders bent slightly from the weight of her scuba gear. Her full lips, I could see, were ever-so-slightly bruised by the mouthpiece of her breathing apparatus, and the shape of her full breasts was accentuated by the dark, nylon straps across her chest. Panting slightly, she pulled herself onto the tiled deck, and stood dripping, one small foot naked, and the other temporarily concealed by a single black swim fin.
Then she turned, and even from that distance I could see that she was blushing. I remained quiet, uncertain whether I should approach or not, but she waved me closer. "I'm sorry," she said, "I don't get very many guests, and I didn't expect to see anyone today."
She pointed to a thick, pink towel draped over a statue of a mermaid and made a motion, so I half-tossed it over to her. She loosened her hair, rich and luxurious, and rubbed it with the towel as if she were completely alone, and suddenly I was the one who felt embarrassed. Maybe I'd got the date wrong, or even the place. I checked my pocket for the card Dr. Pearlman had given me, but I was correct.
"Excuse me," I said. "I hadn't expected to see anyone here either, and certainly not anyone like you. I guess I imagined this place would mostly be made up of vats and tubes and things. Dr. Pearlman," I said, but the woman seemed not to recognize his name, "suggested it might be a good idea for me to come down to see the organs, and maybe even pick myself out a good one. My name is Paul."
"Oh," she said, and blushed again. "I'm terrible at keeping appointments. My name is Emily."
I waited as Emily unhooked herself from the heavy scuba gear and removed the swim fin (both her feet were slender, with delicate pink veins along their tops, but the one that had been wearing the fin was slightly chaffed). Then she took the tanks and dragged them out of the way, the resulting sound a peculiar, half bell-like, half-heavy scrape. For a brief second I thought maybe I should offer to give her a hand, but realized that she might well be insulted; after all this was part of a medical procedure.
"Well," Emily picked up the conversation where it had left off, "in a way you were right." She told me that the place started out pretty much the way I'd imagined it, with vats and tubes and fancy instruments for monitoring the state of everything, but then the doctors running the business discovered that the organs weren't lasting as long as they'd hoped, that somehow the transition from the sterile vats to a real live body wasn't working very well. Also, even if the organs did last, they just weren't performing up to the doctors' high standards. Finally, after a lot of scientific experiments about antibody resistance and environmental flexibility, the doctors found the answer was something comparatively simple. There was a complicated name for it, of course, but really it just turned out that those organs only really needed to keep in contact with the human body. "All those earlier organs had been lonely," Emily said, "and in between leaving their old bodies and finding a new one, they'd started to pine away, like people in a refugee camp."
Then Emily stopped for a minute, as if she noticed something, and walked over to a wall where a long-handled net with special foam padding was hanging. Putting a finger over her lips to indicate I shouldn't make a sound, she took the net and slowly maneuvered it out toward the center of the pool. Suddenly I noticed that one of the spleens in the middle seemed to be in trouble, and was sort of vibrating. She lowered her net to neatly scoop it out of the water, then in the same graceful motion swung it around to hover above a blue plastic trash bucket. "Would you mind taking off the lid?" she asked. "I'm afraid this little fellow isn't going to make it."
I opened the trash and Emily flipped it in. She hung the dripping net back on the wall.
"In any case," Emily continued, "those first scientists decided that instead of having their organs cared for by machines, it might be better to hire a real person to come by several times a week to vacuum up whatever debris may have fallen into the pool, but mostly to swim around with the little guys (that's what I call them)." She shrugged. "It's my job to skim off sloughed cells, and pull out dead organs, but most important, I brush up against the live ones as I swim, and sometimes I hum to them through the mouthpiece of my breathing apparatus. What I'm trying to say here is that I stimulate them however I can I was a pre-veterinary major and was on the swim team before I dropped out of college. In any case, ever since I started working here, the patients' survival rate has gone way up." Suddenly she seemed self-conscious.
"Can you help me with these weights around my waist?" Emily asked. "I'm afraid the clasp is kind of slippery."
And I have to say it was, the clasp was very slippery with whatever substance they used to keep the organs alive and in the process I found my fingers dangerously close to Emily's skin. Then all at once several of them were actually sliding against it, and then and you'll have to believe me here almost against my will, my entire arsenal of fingers was running rapidly up and down Emily's sleek skin on their own, just as the bottom of Emily's two-piece bathing suit (light blue, a floral pattern) fell to the ground with a thwack.
"Oh my God," she gasped, and then all at once she was loosening my tie (honestly, I don't know why I was wearing a tie that day I guess it seemed professional) and helping me off with my madras jacket, my shirt, trousers, shoes, underwear, and socks. Then the weights fell to the floor, narrowly missing my injured ankle, and then exactly how, I can't say the top of her swimsuit somehow got unhooked, and I found the two of us falling together onto a spare roll of plastic tarp.
Then amazingly what a day this was turning out to be! the two of us, having begun somewhat precariously atop the tarp, moved to the tiled floor, and then over to the throbbing pool pump, where we continued with this believe me completely atypical, even frantic behavior until, still clinging helplessly to each other, as in a trance, we staggered to the kiddy pool at the far end where the smaller organs corneas, testicles, ovaries, and such were kept, and there, in this highly unusual setting, made love again, but this time a lot more carefully.
Stunned, we both sat and, avoiding the glances of the corneas, stared at the ground for a while (who knows how long?), until finally, holding hands in an embarrassed silence, we returned to where we'd left our clothes in two damp heaps, one small and one large, and we dressed.
"Emily," I began, "I don't know what came over me. Once I read an article in Dr. Pearlman's office how when people are placed in a life and death situation sometimes time speeds up, or slows down, I forget which, and they fall in love, and then make love, or whatever, at an accelerated rate...." But I had run out of words, and looking at Emily, it seemed that she had too.
"Good luck with your operation," she said. Then she let out a nervous cough, and handed me a scrap of soggy paper with her phone number. Ir had been hastily written in a brown eyebrow pencil that was already beginning to smudge. I couldn't figure out when she had the time to do it.
"And you, good luck in your job," I said. I knew it sounded stupid, but after everything that had happened I couldn't think of anything else to add. "I'll call you soon."
"Yes," she said, "I hope so."
I tried to tell if she was just being polite, but couldn't.
"By the way," she asked, "did you ever mention exactly which organ it was you were needing? That way, if I come across a good one...."
"No," I said, "I didn't."
"Well, Paul," and she gave me one of her blushes, "I know at least one that's in pretty good shape."
"Thanks," I said, then shutting the door to the throb of the pool pump, I turned as sharply as I could and left.
It was only on the way home that I realized that I'd forgotten to ask Emily her last name. Or to tell Emily my own.
My house, back in those days, was basically a living room, bedroom, bath and kitchen. I rented it furnished, and it came with a couple of picturesa seascape and one of a man praying but not much else. It was, I suppose, nothing special. When I returned home I took a long shower to get rid of the salt, confused by what had just happened. The article in Dr. Pearlman's office also claimed that during funerals and in times of war the human body went into a sort of frenzy to reproduce itself. That must be what had gone on amid the elemental stuff at the organ pool, I decided. Why else did people go to horror movies? But had I taken advantage of Emily, or had she, driven wild by her daily exposure to all those primal body parts, been unable to restrain herself, and taken advantage of me?
In any case, I found myself in a surprisingly unsettled state of mind. As usual when this happened, I gave up trying to explain things, and went to bed early, my fuzzy green afghan pulled beneath my chin. I had had the blanket as a boy, and it was far fuzzier now than years ago, mirroring, in a way, the fraying of my beliefs as I grew older. I tried to sleep, moving the radio station from classical ("Liebestode") to oldies ("Love Me Tender") to country and western ("Love Hurts"), but remained awake, so I put on my navy flannel robe with red piping and walked over to the window.
There, to my surprise, beneath the pale yellow light of the streetlamp, were two men I'd never seen before, talking quietly. Both were dressed in brightly colored ski parkas, and wore identical knit woolen caps. They seemed to be friends, and talked in the way friends often do, without looking at each other. Instead each stared out into the darkness as if he were addressing it directly, or maybe only listening. Not that they were speaking all that much, and what was said, naturally, I couldn't hear.
By then it was nearly two in the morning, and it was unusual for people to be out so late in this particular section of St. Nils, so I pulled up a chair. Given my own unsettled state of mind, watching two strangers seemed as good a way to spend my time as any. Behind me, the radio played another country song, and another. An hour passed. Maybe, I decided, two guys hanging around a street corner, even if it was my own corner, weren't so interesting. I made myself a cup of tea chamomile and when I returned, the men were still there. Another thirty minutes passed, and the chamomile began to kick in. I yawned. Then a car pulled up, an ancient Buick Roadmaster, the kind with actual portholes in the front fender, plus continents of rust, and oceans of Bondo. It idled noisily next to the two men until the doors opened with a heart-wrenching creak, the men climbed in, and the car limped off into the night. At last, I was ready to sleep.
Excerpted from Iceland by Jim Krusoe. Copyright © 2002 by Jim Krusoe. Excerpted by permission. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Jim Krusoe is the author of the novels Parsifal, Toward You, Erased, Girl Factory, and Iceland; two collections of stories; and five books of poetry. His stories and poems have appeared in the Antioch Review, Bomb, the Chicago Review, the Denver Quarterly, the American Poetry Review, and other publications. He is the recipient of fellowships from the National Endowment for the Arts and the Lila Wallace Reader s Digest Fund.
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