4.75/5 (Near Masterpiece)
In 1968, the moody Canadian psychedelic pop group The Poppy Family released “Of Cities and Escapes,” a haunting song of urban emptiness. The song’s narrator intones: “I live in a one-room apartment, with windows on one side / I stare through the glass ‘cross the water, to where the big, ugly city lies.” In the second verse, later sampled by Deltron 3030 on “Madness” (2000), the narrator cannot escape the death spiral: “I’m caught in the grip of the city, madness and smog.” Twilight City (1974, trans. Joan Tate, 1993), by Norwegian novelist Knut Faldbakken (1941-), delves into a similar dystopian urban gloom. The refugees of a decaying city dust off the entangling membranes of lost paths and the weight of melancholy souls and attempt to chart a new beginning in the city dump.
Brief Plot Summary/Analysis
In an unnamed country, the metropolis of Sweetwater–“an eruption of urban geography” (2) possessed by an “ever-growing urban sprawl” (23)–suffers under the effects of global warming, industrialization, and malignant societal decay.
Allan, his eighteen-year-old wife Lisa, and their four-year-old son named Boy decide to leave the city for the Dump, a long, narrow strip of land filled with abandoned buildings and thousands of tons of garbage that “now lay like dunes in a desert, or lava, crumbling mountains of soil and gravel and stones sloping down towards the dead brackish water” (9). A primitive desire to seek out “new pastures” propels him (69).
Once he sets up his camper between mounds of trash, Allan feels revitalized by the “opportunity of doing something, [and he] felt a sense of freedom” (12) for the first time in his life. He finds himself living a version of his nebulous childhood dream of escaping to the “South Sea Islands” (33). But unlike a distant isle away far away from civilization, the Dump is an extension of the city. His one earlier trip with Lisa into the countryside had terrified him. The Dump with its cast off artifacts of civilization maintains a comforting “concrete presence” (33).
Soon their solitary existence is interrupted by a series of encounters with other refugees. One day Lisa discovers a man amongst the waste. She begs Allan, “perhaps the first time she had experienced something she could show him,“ to come with her and investigate (51). They come across the residence of a former abortion doctor, Anton Fischer, and his dying wife, amongst the ruins. He has small plots with vegetables and sells scrap for a living. In the Doc, Lisa finds a mentor. And when Allan is away in the city working at a gas station, they bond like father and daughter. The Boy, on one of his scavenging trips, meets the mute Run-Run and Felix, on the run from an officer of the Peacekeeping Force. And Allan soon encounters Mary Diamond… a woman he cannot possess.
City as Refuse, Refuse as City
The approaching equilibrium between the decaying city and the Dump, that contains everything “that surrounded and decided human life” (9), is the dominate organizing metaphor of Twilight Country. Faldbakken explains “The anarchy of the Dump was creeping in, showing itself in the cracks, consuming the city, slowly dissolving it into individual basic elements. Allan suddenly realized that these two opposites, the metropolis and the rubbish tip, would one day be identical” (45). While the Dump and the City might someday be indistinguishable, Allan’s conceives of his act of setting out as revolt against the malaise that permeates his soul.
Smiley, Mary Diamond’s pimp, counters Allan’s primitivist formulation with his own nihilistic theory that nothing can be created in the waste: “We are the distillation of what has gone wrong in a society. How could we create anything new and different?” (158). Those who live in the Dump might survive despite their wretched existence but will not create. For him the Dump, “the excrement of technological civilization” (156), is but a vantage point to watch Sweetwater burn.
Over the course of the novel, Allan’s trips to work at the gas station illuminate the city’s palpable entropic slide and his own shifting perception. Less and less people seem to require fuel and car services or want to travel at all. To Allan the city, while never an antagonistic force, increasingly becomes “unrecognizable, as if the content was slowly being filtered out and replaced by something new, a cold and hostile strangeness” (130). Soon the city feels artificial and repellent (146) while in the Dump he “felt his vital force growing stronger” (152).
Faldbakken deploys disturbing signifiers of Sweetwater’s destructive moral and societal slide. Allan’s marriage to Lisa when she was fourteen is the perfect example. No one in the novel, other than a few comments about her youth, point out amorality of Allan’s predatory actions. Their son, Boy, does not even receive a real name!
I am fascinated by densely metaphoric SF “survival” stories within the urban expanse: from J. G. Ballard’s Concrete Island (1974) to Vincent King’s “Defence Mechanism” (1966). And Twilight Country is one of the best. This is a disturbing novel–especially the relationship between Allan and Lisa. Allan is a deeply flawed character with a terrible possessive fury bubbling beneath that surface (191).
The masterstroke of Faldbakken’s Twilight Country is the portrayal of the Dump, a border zone containing the cast off fragments of human existence, as a generative locus. Unlike the mournful narrator in The Poppy Family’s “Of Cities and Escapes” (1968) who can only watch the city die from his window, Allan and his fellow denizens of the waste refashion the fragments into a new living community. Allan and Lisa’s camper becomes the the focal point of a new town. Sweetwater and The Dump act as a closed system. One decays into the other. One creates the other.
There’s a tangible sense of organic transformation within the characters who inhabit the Dump. Allan moves from his rote motions of existence and possession to a sense of purpose and meaning as he attempts to provide for his family and meets a woman he cannot control–Mary Diamond. Lisa breaks free from her husband’s domination and depressive unease and finds meaning in her interactions with Dr. Anton Fischer, the father she never had. The Doc finally has someone to pass on his knowledge and to care for. Boy, often in tandem with the mute Run-Run, hones his talent for scavenging for birds and supplies and weans himself from soft drinks and candy bars. The clashing philosophies of Allan, an impulsive primitivist sort, and Smiley, a Nero watching “Rome burn” (158), reach their own détente in the daily struggle for survival.
My good run with Scandinavian science fiction continues. Twilight Country joins Sven Holm’s Termush (1967, trans. 1969) and Anders Bodelsen’s Freezing Down (1969, trans. 1971) among my favorite reads of the last two years. I have acquired the sequel–Sweetwater (1976, trans. Joan Tate, 1994)–and plan on reading it soon.
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