Tuesday, April 28, 2009

Fiction Review: "On the Lake," Olaf Olafsson

This review was originally published on Pol Culture.

Reading "On the Lake," a short story by Olaf Olafsson, is like walking on ice on a pond and suddenly noticing the surface cracking with every step. The cracks become more pronounced as one continues, and one can only think of two things. The first is reaching safety, while the second is wondering when it exactly was that the ice first started to break. Suddenly, one falls through the ice. The water isn't anywhere near deep enough to drown, but the shock of its cold is enough to knock one silly, and it may also spur one's memory of the small, almost imperceptible sound of the ice when it first began to crack. Later, after one is out of the water and safe, that memory dominates all one's recollections of the event. All one can think about is that sound and one's failure to heed it at the time. In "On the Lake," Olafsson portrays a marriage that suddenly comes apart at the seams. It's easy to pass by the moment the unravelling begins when one reads it, but the story's ending brings it back so sharply that one is left slightly stunned. Rereading the story, one finds the memory of that crucial moment reverberating through every sentence and scene.

The story's protagonists are Oskar and Margret, an Icelandic couple spending spring vacation at their lakefront cabin. Jonas, their six-year-old son, is with them, and the story begins after he and Oskar were in a boating accident earlier that day. Oskar attempted to turn the boat too quickly, which caused it to capsize. The water is still dangerously cold, but Vilhelm and Bjorn, their neighbors on the lake, manage to rescue them in short order. No harm is done, but afterward, Margret seems suddenly estranged from Oskar. The two thank Vilhelm and Bjorn by having them over for food, drinks, and cards that evening. However, by the time the night has ended, Margret does something that seems almost calculated to end her and Oskar's marriage, and the moment she lost her faith in him is revealed.

And, as Olafsson makes subtly clear, this is a marriage based on faith, at least on Margret's part. There are women who never outgrow the need for a father figure; the men they take as lovers and husbands are ones whom they're convinced are strong, omnicompetent, and able to take care of them through thick and thin. Before the boating accident, Margret saw Oskar in this way. Olafsson writes:

She had spent her childhood summers by the lake with her mother and her siblings, her father coming out as often as he could. She had hoped it would be the same for her and Oskar. Until this evening, she had been confident that it would.

Marriage for Margret has been a way to maintain the security of childhood. The cabin is something of a synecdoche for what Oskar represents (or had represented) to her. It's the proof that he is a strong provider and protector: he successfully built it from the ground up, and the cabin is an improvement on his father-in-law's--which his father-in-law even acknowledges. Margret has gone from father to husband, with the two men filling the same role at different times of her life.

Oskar's ability and drive have their flipside. He's a deeply egotistical man who looks for ways to demonstrate how much better he is than everyone else. His target before the events of the story has been his father-in-law. But after the rescue, Oskar is clearly humiliated by the fact that Vilhelm rescued him and Jonas, and he never misses an opportunity to belittle Vilhelm later on. He exaggerates his own role in saving Jonas and downplays the danger the two were in from the near-freezing water. He loans Vilhelm some dry clothes after they come ashore, but he can't help but mock how Vilhelm looks wearing them. Much of the evening that follows is spent playing cards, with Oskar boorishly criticizing Vilhelm's playing at every turn. Hints scattered throughout suggest that Oskar senses that the rescue has caused Margret's regard to shift from him to Vilhelm, and he thoroughly resents it. Vilhelm saved him and Jonas when he was helpless to do anything. Margret now sees him as weak and Vilhelm as strong. By the end of the story, it is clear that the foundation upon which Margret and Oskar's marriage was built has been destroyed.

Olafsson masterfully builds the tensions between Oskar and Margret to a climax. He never overstates Oskar's insecuritites, and he keeps the reader guessing at Margret's exact thoughts until the very end, when all is revealed. The repeated references to her looking away in response to Oskar are particularly notable; they almost function like a refrain. Overall, the pacing has the feel of an instrumental piece in which every note is made to count and be savored. Every sentence contributes to the story's momentum and overall effect. Flaws, such as the question left hanging of Vilhelm's exact relationship with Bjorn, are piddling. Olafsson takes a marriage suddenly faced with collapse, and gives it the tempo of a thriller. It's a superbly crafted piece.

”On the Lake,” by Olaf Olafsson, is featured in the Winter 2006 issue of Zoetrope All-Story. It is also included in Olafsson's collection Valentines, published by Pantheon, and in The O. Henry Prize Stories 2008, published by Anchor Books.

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