Thursday, February 2, 2012

The Animal Surrogate in Karin Fossum's Bad Intentions

I know who did it.

I picked up Bad Intentions (2010) out of curiosity about the widely read Norwegian mystery writer, Karin Fossum. (Her personal website is in her native language for those who want the full Scandinavian  experience; the book's English translator is Charlotte Barslund.)This slim novel fulfills a number of murder mystery conventions. Bodies are found in a remote lake with the ominous name of Dead Water. There is, not surprisingly, speculation that the deaths, which occurred months apart, are linked. The friends of one victim lie to the police, though their motives are unclear since they (and the reader) witnessed their friend’s suicide.And there is a crime solver, the aging, astute, reflective Inspector Sejer who seeks to answer the following. Why did an young emotionally fragile man die in the company of schoolboy companions? What does that have to do with a drunk student of Vietnamese origin who disappeared at a party?
However, Fossum twists certain conventions, not to make a clever postmodern puzzle, but to turn the riddle of the murder into a lyrical exploration of guilt. Several chapters are journal entries that Jon, the suicide, wrote while recovering from a mental break down in a psychiatric care center. While a dominant plot thread of mysteries moves back in time to the source of a murderous intent, Bad Intentions as an illusive forward movement with the rising hope in the journals—which gives the book's conclusion a surprising poignancy. Also, animals and their symbolic potential contribute to the portrayal of the characters and the resolution of the mystery.
Inspector Sejer, a minimal presence in this nearly allegorical book, tries to draw out a reticent waif, a "girlfriend" of Jon's, also under care for mental health concerns. With Jon dead, she regresses into seclusion, retreating from contact with Jon's intimidating friends, and only finding comfort with her small dog. Sejer, stalled in the interview, tells her he finds clarity in judging people by comparing them to animals. He compares her, with her heavily lined eyes, to a raccoon, smart and wily. She then volunteers that one of Jon's friends who had driven off with him for a weekend "break," successful Axel, is a "rat," while drug-dazed Reilly is a lizard--an animal that could be a lazy pet or something more vicious, insights that feed Sejer's suspicions.
A tiny kitten also becomes the catalyst for change by stirring one character's compassion and need to choose help over harm. Like creatures in fables, the dependent kitten is a surrogate, even a scapegoat, in scenes that dramatize the moral conflicts "in miniature."It is not quite right to argue that the kitten is a stand-in for John, but the animal becomes an example of how human character and motivations shape and misshape surrounding life. A debatable feature of animal surrogates is that they speak to the impact of violence in a lower register. Is the beheading of the horse in The Godfather abhorrent in its own right, or is it viewed primarily as a lurid build-up of what might happen to humans? Are animals in such plots reduced to examples, or do their fates matter as well?
We're not just symbols!
         The semiotic and signifying value of animals (I'd throw in metonymic and synecdochic if I thought I could make it work) is ancient and powerful, and it's enormously reassuring to see that our imagination can still be seized by life forms and not just by technological conceits (like blogging your way through a digitalized muddle). Symbolic animals are ancient. They can also suggest ancient prejudices. Is Wolf evil and Lamb pure? Is a rat always bad? Lab rats, for better or worse, are crucial players in vast numbers of medical advances.  
Meanwhile, a new film strands Liam Neeson and cohorts in a frozen North. The native flora and fauna are less than welcoming. The trailer, all I've seen thus far, implies that Neeson's character much prefers the company of his wife (who seems way too young for him and too healthy for the illness that keeps her in bed) to underfed and fed-up wolves. What are people doing in their backyard? We can hope that the film is perceived as fictional horror and not a statement about wolves. The trick with analogies and metaphors, the poet Robert Frost might say, is knowing how far to take them and recognizing when they break down.
Meanwhile, "real" not movie wolves will be hunted in Minnesota. For different accounts of the impact, see the Department of Natural Resources (DNR) decision, which sounds dire for the wolf to anti-hunters, and the concern that not enough wolves are killed from ranchers,  There's also thinking that wolves can quickly learn how not to be shot by sportshunters (not in airplanes). Which wolves will be wiliest--the film actors or the ones truly under the gun?

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