Tuesday, March 4, 2014

Sjón's Blue Fox - not as entertaining as a dried cod's head

Let’s look at The Blue Fox by Sjón, tr. Victoria Cribb, for a few minutes.  It is a little folkloric Icelandic novel from 2004.  In an odd stunt it was released in the United States last April simultaneously with two other Sjón novels.  I do not know why.  Probably to distract from what a huge ripoff the book is.

There are only 115 pages to begin with, and several of those are section breaks.  Then the first third or so, in which a hunter stalks a blue fox, is told in tiny chapters, no more than a page; the top third of the page signifies that it’s a new chapter, so that’s blank; then the chapters are so short that the bottom third is typically blank as well, and once in a while there is a chapter like this:

The night was cold and of the longer variety.  (14)

with almost nothing on the page at all.  I guess "longer" is ironic.  Mentally add in huge patches of blank before and after that single line.  The Blue Fox is almost as poor a value as a book of poetry, and we all know what a waste of money those are.  I might as well buy a Moleskine for the amount of ink I am getting.

As if the empty pages weren’t bad enough, somewhere after the halfway point the action turns into a survival-in-the-wild plot with a supernatural element so exciting that most readers are likely to race through the last forty pages at maximum speed, greatly increasing the dollars per hour of entertainment.  No wonder fantasy fans go for twelve-volume series of a thousand pages per volume.  Speaking of whom, Neil Gaiman readers ought to get a lot out of this book, maybe even their money’s worth.

Yes, he wept sorely for the evil fate that had left him alone, with no one to share the entertainment that is to be had from a dried cod’s head.  (92)

But not as much as they would get from a dried cod’s head, apparently.  That might be my favorite line in the novel – in context, it is not especially absurd – although there are a lot of other good ones.  This is an Icelandic cemetery in 1883:

The churchyard at Botn stands on the banks of the Botnsa River.  This is a middling-size, smooth stream, of a good depth and high-banked, bordered by spongy patches of marsh, with plenty of good peat land and enough of that deceptive surface rust.  After a winter of heavy snow the river runs wild, bursting its banks with such demonic force that the dirty gray meltwater surges out of its course, flooding the marshes and forming lakes in the graveyard, leaving the church stranded on an island in its midst.  The water-ringed house of God remains cut off until the graveyard has swallowed enough of the mountain milk for the water to just cover a maiden’s ankle; by then the sanctified ground is drunk and wobbles underfoot until well into summer.  (70-1)

The next bit is as good or better, but this is enough.  We see a common Sjón move here, starting with something clear but prosaic that becomes stranger as a series of little metaphoric surprises are piled up.  He does something similar with the characters, and with the story, and with the magical blue fox.

I will have to track down those other Sjón novels.  The Blue Fox is not even the right one – the other two have to do with Icelandic sagas.  One of them is even about, or connected to, William Morris, if you can believe it.  That is a Wuthering Expectations must-read if there ever were such a thing.


  1. Poetry books are the worst, am I right?

  2. Ah, 'The Blue Fox', a little gem if ever there was one. Slim, it's true, but if all we cared about was pages per dollar, we'd all be scouring the bargain bins for 50c copies of Ken Follett books...

  3. And I thought my review of Ivo Andric's The Damned Yard was negative!

  4. I think, though, you were negative about the content of that book. The content of The Blue Fox is terrific.

    Tony, those big series of fantasy novels sometimes make me wonder if some readers really do think like that, or something pretty close to it.

    Alison, who has been reading along with Njal's Saga, recently did a kind of Twitter review of another Sjón novel. I suppose it is out there in the Twit-ether somewhere, but I do not know how to link it. Anyway, she made that book sound quite a bit bigger, more packed with stuff, than this one. But The Blue Fox is working on a folk tale model, so it needs to stay close to the ground. It ought to be small.

    1. Of the two others available in English, it's 'From the Mouth of the Whale' which is the meaty one ('The Whispering Muse' is somewhere in the middle). We made it our IFFP Shadow Panel pick in 2012, a solid recommendation if ever there was one.

    2. That's the one Alison wrote about. But The Whispering Muse is built around a William Morris book almost no one has read. How can I resist that?

  5. I was curious to read this after reading one of those other Sjón books, but put it right back on the shelf for exactly the rip-off reason you note here. Maybe the publisher should have had Björk do some illustrations or something.

  6. Or a download code for Björk songs, in which she expresses the feelings of the blue fox through yelps and growls.

    I have had similar feelings about César Aira. I mean, thinking "This book is not exactly a bargain" as I am buying it.

    Maybe you will come across a used copy of The Blue Fox. I hope so - it's a good story.

  7. I feel the same way whenever I go to this place called the Blackboard Bistro. The plates seem enormous! The prices are so high! But the scallops are so, so good.

  8. Yes, the Blackboard Bistro. Celery root fries with blue cheese mayonnaise, that is crazy. Crazy delicious.

    Someday I need to go to Seattle to eat.

  9. I bought this because it was so pretty. I am shallow like that, sometimes. Ah well.

  10. It is pretty! This is an advantage, I assume, of publishing three books at once. Good design decisions.

    I buy more poetry than fiction, easily more. So I buy a fair amount of attractive, creamy, high-ply, textured, creamy paper with thoughtfully arranged words in pleasing fonts lightly sprinkled on it.

    Then I also read poems in Penguin Classics, crammed together as closely as possible on cheap paper. All else equal, gimme the nice paper and white space.

  11. I don't calculate words per page, but hours per dollar. How many hours of entertainment will this bring? Based on a two hour movie at about six dollars an hour if you pay full price these days.

    Books always end up a bargain, almost always. I can read 50 pages in a hour so a 200 page books gives me four hours of entertainment which would cost 24 dollars for two full price movies. I always shop second hand, almost always, so I do pretty well even with a "slim volume" but the thicker the book, the better the value, strictly speaking. Denser, more difficult prose is also a better value since it can take much longer to read.

    Yes, I do spend too much time thinking about these things.

  12. And you can reread the book, or pass it on to someone else. A good deal. I have a copy of Bleak House that cost 25 cents and has been read at least three times. Talk about cheap thrills!

    Your calculation gets at part of my amusement about The Blue Fox. It looks like it will be two hours, and then because of the blank space and thrilling story it is more like 70 minutes. Hey! Now I gotta hang around the mall for 50 minutes until my mom can pick me up. I would go to the arcade, but I spent on my money on that short movie.

    Maybe malls don't have arcades any more. I don't know.