Case Closed by Patrik Ourednik

Czech Literature Series from Dalkey Archive Press

Translated by Alex Zucker

978-1-56478-577-0, 143 pp.

$17.50

Sometimes, you just have to read a book more than once, not because it changed your life or you fell in love with the characters, but because you didn’t quite understand what was happening.  Such is the case with Case Closed, by the Czech expatriate Patrik Ourednik.  I really liked it–it’s a funny, clever, and engaging novel of the type that appeals to me.  From moment to moment I enjoyed the wordplay, puns, and intellectual and cultural references.

I just wasn’t following the plot.

I take a lot of the blame for this.  Even though it’s a short book, I stretched my reading of it over much too long–a week and a half or more.  And for what is described as a book that “confounds expectations with what seems, on the surface, to be a detective novel” I was not giving it anywhere near the amount of focus it deserved.  To be honest, I have trouble following detective novels at the best of times, even when they’re not “a wily and sophisticated parable about the dangers of language itself, in which the author takes aim at human nature with a devastating arsenal of genre-mixing, wordplay, and whimsical, biting satire.”

So I apologize to Patrik Ourednik, as well as his translator, Alex Zucker.  I really should have been paying better attention.  And the next time I read the book–because I’m definitely going to read it again–I’ll make sure it’s a time when I can really focus on it.

But this is supposed to be a review, not a chronicle of my shortcomings as a reader. So in the interest of convincing you to read Case Closed I’m going to leave you with some quotes from the novel that I hope will spark your interest…

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“You’re right.  They don’t even give their opinions.  They just go on and on about things.  Every idiot.  Before, only some idiots talked.”

“That’s democracy.”

//

Yes, some people toss off blankets while others toss off verse; some make blanket statements and some make blanket loans; some folks have knees that knock with cold and others’ knuckles knock on doors.  So it goes with words, my friends.

//

Mr. Hroznata’s face clouded over with disappointment.  The spoken word is like a fart: it draws attention for an instant, but then immediately dissolves into the ether; whereas the written word is a bequest to future generations.

//

By now our readers have definitively understood that they definitively understand nothing: what could be a more sensible conclusion to our novel than that? Acceptance of fate, acceptance of one’s lot, acceptance of one’s imperfection.  How simple, how biblical!  Of making many books there is no end; much study is a weariness of the flesh.  Yes!  We are born into a novel whose meaning escapes us, and depart from a novel we have never once understood.

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Abandon All But Hope Ye Who Enter

Dread.  It’s the emotion that Alfred Hitchcock built a career upon, and a thousand lesser directors tried to recapture.  Stephen King can channel it with ease.  But it’s not just reserved for thrillers and horror; realist directors and authors also call upon it, some better than others.  One of the most tension-filled movies I ever saw was Miranda July’s Me and You and Everyone We Know, because throughout the entire film, I was certain that something terrible was going to happen to one of the film’s oh-so-vulnerable characters.  July used that sense of dread masterfully, and I was riveted for two hours.

Peter Rock knows that dread can make for a compelling narrative, especially when combined with uncertainty.  In My Abandonment, he introduces characters that we know very little about except that they’re living in very vulnerable circumstances.  Caroline and Father (we never learn his name) are living in the forest park on the outskirts of Portland, Oregon and have become masters of not being seen.  Therein lies the first level of dread that Rock introduces: will they be found?

Why do they live in the woods, in a shelter designed so that even someone looking for it might not see it?  They are different, Father says, with their own ways. Caroline, just thirteen years old, has learned her lessons about surviving in the wilderness from Father, a Vietnam War veteran.  An imposing, powerful man, Father is strict, but affectionate.  Caroline’s mother, also named Caroline, has died, and her sister is living with foster parents, although Father promises that when she’s ready, he will bring her to join them.  Father doesn’t trust outsiders, which includes everyone except Caroline. The story is told through Caroline’s journal, and it is her descriptions of her situation, and her father, that we read.  Their relationship, close but unusual, worried me almost from the first page.  That kind of power imbalance and distrust of others raises alarm bells.  What is the true nature of their relationship?

“Sometimes you’re walking through the woods when a stick leaps into the air and strikes you across the back and shoulders several times, then flies away lost in the underbrush.”  This is the opening sentence of the book and immediately raises the question of whether or not something supernatural is happening in Caroline’s life. Other passages subtly reiterate the idea that Caroline sees things that others don’t, which led me to wonder whether Caroline, as narrator, was reliable.  Uncertainty reigns in this novel.  What is she writing in her journal?  What is she leaving out?  Can her observations be trusted?

Even when questions begin to be answered, new questions arise.  When Caroline and Father are found quite unexpectedly by a jogger in the woods, and the police and child services arrive to remove them from their sanctuary, the waiting game begins as to how long it will take for them to attempt an escape.  Will they leave together or be separated?  The very title of the novel, My Abandonment, kept me guessing and speculating: who is abandoned, Caroline or Father?  The word abandonment, and whether it’s transitive or intransitive, is perfect for the sense of uncertainty that Rock cultivates.

Rock’s skill in creating Caroline, a character so compelling and likeable, contributed to my feeling of dread while reading his novel: I didn’t want anything bad to happen to someone I liked so much.  But I couldn’t help thinking that something terrible was going to happen with the turn of the next page; her life was just too unusual, too vulnerable, too out of her control.  What I failed to fully take into account was Caroline’s intelligence and capability.  And so while I was worried about her, and feared for her safety, what I failed to notice was her amazing strength, a strength I wouldn’t have in her place.  If I had recognized it, I would have never been so full of dread.