DECEMBER 25, 2013
IN THE FICTIONAL city of Trude, it’s easier to get a driver’s license than a library card. Tourists go straight from the airport to Trude’s galactic-sized mall without actually setting foot in the city. Sixth graders learn about their hometown history through a haze of flattering, Instagram-esque filters of nostalgia: “Trude: It’s Brief Glory, Tragic Fall, and Long Decline.” As the tourist board slogan goes, “Lose yourself in Trude.”
The Facades, Eric Lundgren’s debut novel, unfolds in this fading Midwestern mecca. Trude is the emotional equivalent of a monotonous stretch of I-90 with visibility only as far as your headlights — but that’s not a bad thing. Lundgren, a native Midwesterner who works at a public library in St. Louis, possesses a warm tenor and elegant style that makes uncertain territory seem less daunting. Trude, for example, is a nod to Calvino’s Invisible Cities, which Lundgren quotes in the epigraph: “The world is covered by a sole Trude, which does not begin and does not end. Only the name of the airport changes.” Besides, long roads make great stories.
We meet Sven Norberg — yes, Sven, the perfect name for an anti-hero, sibilant and awkward-sounding — shortly after his wife Molly, a mezzo-soprano in Trude’s celebrated opera, vanishes. Sven is left to wrestle with her peculiar disappearance, and his own sense of complicity. His love for her had been “a nervous worship,” and Sven fears his insecurity — how could a talented, striking woman like Molly really love a schlub like him? — turned into a self-fulfilling prophecy: “There was a part of me that refused to accept my good fortune and engaged in a slow, relentless program of sabotage. […] Every admirer, male or female, was a potential rival, and my fits of jealousy were constant, sickening.”
The Facades is not so much a whodunit as a whoamI, driven by Sven’s bumbling search for meaning and purpose. And Trude’s civic catastrophe — the city wants to shut down the libraries, and a motley civilian militia forms to protect them — is its perfect backdrop. Lundgen deftly evokes a parallel between Trude’s loss of civic cohesion and Sven’s personal unraveling; the social forces amplifying an individual’s undoing give the novel immediate tension. But Lundgren doesn’t use this setup as a foundation, but rather as a springboard. Wittgenstein, Schubert’s “Death and the Maiden,” and platzangst (in German, the sense of claustrophobia when going from place to place) — all make an appearance within the first few chapters. What results is an inner turmoil that is all too visceral and familiar. The Facades begins at the end: when the center cannot hold.
But back to Trude. It’s here, among its wayward residents, that the novel’s playful absurdity comes into full relief. McCready and the Oracle, two gonzo detectives, look for cryptic messages about Molly in acrostic poems. The Traumhaus, an assisted living facility where Sven’s mother resides, once accepted residents based on the level of disturbance of their memoirs. Meanwhile, Sven’s teenage son Kyle finds solace in prayer and a Ned Flanders–like father figure, while Sven himself seeks sanctuary at the Ringstrasse Mall, driving in circles around the parking lot. Both the Traumhaus and the mall were designed by Klaus Bernhard, Trude’s modernist city planner — and first resident. His grandiose vision and aesthetic cast a long shadow over Trude, and the novel.
But much like Bernhard’s ornate façades, Lundgren’s Kafkaesque plot twists and offbeat characters are mere fronts. Behind them cowers Sven, wounded and exposed. Molly was “his reason,” full stop. When she’s gone, Sven is “like a tourist in a strange city. No map, no itinerary, no landmarks.” Without her, Sven is quite literally in a no man’s land.
His precariousness is palpable: Sven lets the house fall into disarray, he neglects his son and even longs for the stability of a room in the old Traumhaus, where he “might finally be able to sort through the unraveled text of [his] life and give it shape.” But Sven never quite rises to the occasion — he’s a shitty father, a mediocre employee, an average looking guy. In other words, he’s a real person who can’t figure himself out. In one of his many flashbacks, Sven recalls trying to convince Molly why a botched audition in New York is actually a good thing: “Opera is about failure and heartbreak. Near misses, tragically missed opportunities, yearning, and nostalgia. Is there any better place to cultivate these feelings than in Trude?”
If this were a different book, Molly would’ve landed a role in New York, Sven would’ve followed, and Trude would’ve been the place they left behind. Instead, Sven remains in a place of yearning — a place of wanting more, and wanting to be more. The Facades is not about overcoming loss or disappointment, but burrowing deep in a place of not quite enough — and what happens when you try to put down roots in inhospitable ground. In that sense, Sven is refreshingly honest.
The decrepit Midwest is always the point of departure, never the destination, for people who want to arrive at their lives. Take Franzen’s Belgrunds, who are depicted with a trace of pity for their conventional Minnesota suburban life. Or Eugenides’ Lisbon sisters, who never make it to adulthood, and become the kind of urban legends that gives the Midwest its ghosts. This might be a regional literary trope, but there is also a weight to places where generations have taken root, where people can trace their histories and know they don’t necessarily have to accomplish anything grand to be worthy of belonging.
But what happens when the very totems that anchor a place like Trude — its communities, libraries, free concerts in the park, even its mega mall — start to deteriorate? There’s a certain pride that comes from intimately knowing a city that most people pass through, and from seeing beauty in what most dismiss as dull mediocrity. It is no wonder, then, that Sven becomes enthralled by Bernhard’s genius spiral construction of the Ringstrasse Mall: shoppers must start at the outer ring of department stories and work inward through a series of nested circular arcades. In the center is a labyrinth of tall hedges — “as if the mall wanted to be, at its heart, a cathedral or a seminary.” At least there is one place in Sven’s life where form dictates how he should function.
The comparison between the city’s malls and cathedrals is an apt one; there is sanctity in the ritual and repetition of the visits, even if it’s just going to get a soft pretzel and maybe a nose piercing. Staring at the hedges at the mall’s center, Sven wonders if “the ultimate emptiness at the heart of capitalism was the architect’s didactic joke,” referring to Bernhard’s cryptic message that the mall had a “solution.” Readers will yearn for Lundgren’s Sven: we want him to find the solution, to the mall, to his wife’s disappearance, and to his life, because we want to find one, too.