30 December 2010

Frankfurter Buchmesse 2011 Challenge: 101 Reykjavik by Hallgrímur Helgason

Genre: Lad-lit
Year of publication: 1996
Setting & time: Reykjavík, Iceland; contemporary
German and English title: 101 Reykjavik

Gex-X slacker Hlynur spends his days moping around, watching porn, chatting on the Internet, bar-hopping and spending his unemployment benefits on booze and Ecstasy, all the while enjoying living in what we Icelanders call “Hotel Mom”. Two unexpected pregnancies precipitate an existential crisis, but in the end he manages to overcome it.

This is a not-so-subtle twist on the classic coming-of-age storyline, except the character doesn’t grow and doesn’t learn anything and just stays the same. The language is creative and verbose, sometime overwhelmingly so. For example, the Icelandic version has one sentence that is over four pages long (can anyone confirm that this structure has been kept in the English and/or German versions?). There has been some mention of the language in the English translation coming across as stilted and unnatural at times, but rest assured, it is sometimes like that in the Icelandic original as well.

Hlynur is not the kind of character readers are likely to have neutral feelings about. Either you will find his narcissism and bumbling incomprehension of other people’s feelings and motives endearing, or you will be like me, who found him slightly unsympathetic in the beginning and repulsive at the end (Really: Can any right-thinking feminist like a guy who values women solely according to how much money he would pay to have sex with them?)

Hlynur himself is the narrator of this roller-coaster ride of verbosity, a narcissistic thirty-something who collects second-hand chewing gum like others collect coins or stamps and likes to play potentially harmful pranks on people. He covers up his feelings with linguistic gymnastics, puns and wordplay and reveals himself to be totally shameless about his self-centeredness and refusal to grow up.

If you are the kind of reader who likes a story to have a definite conclusion, to have a heroic central character and a point and for the protagonist to learn things and grow as a person, you would do well to avoid this book. If you like dark humour, warts-and-all storytelling and creative use of language and don’t mind meandering story lines and characters that are neither sympathetic nor capable of growth, go ahead and read it. 3+ stars.

P.S.
I was surprised to discover that this novel seems to be filed under Erotica on Amazon.com. If this is erotic, than I’m the pope. I concede that it is occasionally profane and some very short passages could be defined as porn, but I thought that to be defined as erotica/porn, a book had to be mainly about sex, which this one is not.

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