Welcome to Trude, a decaying city in the Midwest whose motto is “We Tried” and where it is easier to get a driver’s license than a library card. THE FACADES, which functions as an inadvertent tour guide to the city as seen by one of its more hapless residents (more on that in a moment), is not a long book, clocking in at just over 200 pages, but it’s a deep one.
The novel at first seems to have a dystopian setting, but one ultimately gets the sense that it takes place very much in the here and now. Trude could be any one of a number of cities --- Detroit comes to mind, as does Cleveland, or perhaps author Eric Lundgren’s own St. Louis, where he is employed as a librarian --- or all of them actually. The piece is narrated by a tragic figure named Sven Norberg, who is under-employed at a law firm under the thumb of an implicitly unlikable senior partner, who is a rogue, a letch, and probably incompetent. Norberg is marking the fourth month since his wife’s disappearance. Molly, the missing wife, is Trude’s preeminent opera singer, a professional who dreamed of greater things and larger venues but who ultimately has been forced to settle for being a big fish in a small and somewhat stagnant pond.
"What we ultimately have here is an impressive debut that seems surreal but is grounded in a dark and memorable reality."
Norberg tells the story of their courtship and relationship out of sequence, a method that works well here, given the disjointed environment where the story takes place. The effect is to render THE FACADES not so much a novel as an interconnected group of short stories that seem (and I stress seem) to leave the reader free to skip around a bit. Don’t. Lundgren pulls off a very difficult trick here, revealing more in the implications of what he relates than in the actual telling. As he moves from the present to the past and the remote past before returning to the here and now, one gets the sense of what is occurring long before Norberg does. Indeed, when McCready, the police detective tasked with investigating Molly’s disappearance, describes Norberg to his face as “the sad little fellow,” the reader is not learning anything new; it is already evident from the timbre and flow of Norberg’s narrative.
Resigned and world-weary, Norberg is just a step or two away from despair. And his attitude is contagious. Norberg’s teenage son regards his father with barely concealed contempt. When Norberg is ultimately seduced --- a scenario that the reader sees coming long before Norberg does --- it is by someone who is even more depressed than him. Ultimately, Molly’s disappearance is no mystery at all; it’s been all but self-evident what has happened --- what would happen --- from the first page.
The real protagonist of THE FACADES is Trude, a city that was doomed to failure, ironically enough, from its finest moment. The metropolitan area bears the mark of the eccentric and deranged architect who made a last-gasp effort to revive the city by designing its most prominent and now bizarre buildings --- a mall constructed as a labyrinth that is almost useless as a shopping area (with stores to match), a retirement home with exacting and very exclusive standards for residence, to name but two --- yet his efforts have a destructive, rather than a restorative, effect. It is almost impossible to come away from THE FACADES without seeing some aspect of your own city, particularly if you have the feeling that the center is not holding.
What we ultimately have here is an impressive debut that seems surreal but is grounded in a dark and memorable reality.
Reviewed by Joe Hartlaub on September 20, 2013