As a thought experiment, imagine two movie projectors aimed at the same spot on the wall. Each projector shows a different short film: One is realistic, and the other is fantastical. The two films have their own separate narratives, but when projected together with one image superimposed over the other, the resulting composite has a hallucinatory complexity and brightness, as if both stories were engaged in a surrealistic conversation with each other.
For the last three decades, the contemporary Icelandic novelist, poet, and lyricist Sjón (the pen name of Sigurjón Birgir Sigur∂sson) has written several brilliant short novels that are capable of disturbing the reader’s expectations about what happens at the outer reaches of realism. Out there, what is seemingly “real” is hybridized with myth, folklore, and fantasy, as if two or more narrative frames have been compacted together. The fixed idea in his work is that other worlds simply must permeate this one, and so, in his fiction, they do. Because the membrane between everyday reality and its counterworlds is very thin, almost every scene he writes is haunted and intensified by the spectral.
In Sjón’s newest novel, Moonstone: The Boy Who Never Was, beautifully translated by Victoria Cribb, we are given one brief, suggestive scene that appears to instruct the reader about what the entire narrative is up to. The novel’s protagonist, a gay 16-year-old, Máni Steinn Karlsson, is seated in a movie theater when he sees a girl, Sóla G—, with whom he is obsessed, at the moment when she stands up in front of the screen. The theater is showing a part of Louis Feuillade’s epic (seven-hour) silent film Les Vampires, starring Musidora as Irma Vep:
It was when the girl stood up to leave that it happened. The instant her shadow fell on the screen they merged—she and the character in the film. She looked around and the beam of light projected Musidora’s features onto her own.
In case the reader didn’t get the point of this incident, it is echoed later in the novel when the protagonist, ill with the flu and in the grip of fever and delirium, feels a similar projector throwing another image onto him: “The film on his chest shows a close-up of gas blowing out of a heating vent in an opulently papered wall.”
This image serves nicely as a metaphor for the highly charged and compressed energies in Sjón’s remarkable short novels. If a contemporary equivalent of Mikhail Bulgakov’s The Master and Margarita exists, that equivalent would be these books taken together as a group. (Sjón has said that The Master and Margarita is “his favorite book of all time.”) With their talking pieces of wood, semicomical exorcisms, wild flights of invention, and a general atmosphere of “poetic ecstasy,” to cite a phrase from an earlier Sjón novel, these books bring us stories that are equally at home in the ordinary and the fantastical, and most at home when the ordinary and fantastical are fused. Junot Diaz called one of Sjón’s earlier novels “an epic made mad,” but the madness in these books contains a comic equanimity, so that every deviation from the norm seems to be both natural and inevitable. Sjón’s demons, like Bulgakov’s, are often rather good-natured, even benevolent. They grow on you.