Little Frozen Yogurt Shop of Horrors
By Jim Krusoe
Tin House Books, 2008
Strip malls, frozen yogurt shops, Kiwanis club headquarters, sex toy stores, and bowling alleys litter the American landscape. Manifestly ordinary, they blur together whenever someone happens to glance out the car window. Most people don’t look twice, but Jim Krusoe suspects that supernatural and twisted events occur in these humdrum spots all the time. In the last two years, he has published Girl Factory and Erased, the first two books in a droll trilogy, that suggest metaphysical oddities roil beneath concrete bricks and behind glass-plate doors.
Each novel begins in the fictional town of St. Nils, the Latin word for nothing, and indeed, nothing seems to happen in the blank expanse of the town’s stores and apartment buildings…until it does. Even then, the reader doubts that what’s happening is really happening; after all, who ever heard of someone receiving postcards from his dead mother? As existential misgivings trouble the novels’ characters, Krusoe overturns reality by calmly introducing absurdist conceits – like frozen yogurt being the key to eternal life – into an otherwise mundane Nothingville.
A light dip into oblivion, the tone of Krusoe’s books almost seems inspired by the Beatles’ famous lyric:
He’s a real nowhere man,
Sitting in his Nowhere Land,
Making all his nowhere plans
Indeed, Girl Factory and Erased both introduce a lonely, observant man sitting in St. Nils, making intricate plans for his uncertain future, and facing an unlikely crisis involving women who are probably dead. The pleasure in the novels derives from detailed descriptions of things like yogurt flavors and postcard pictures as the doubtful hero considers the ridiculous minutia of everyday life – then the plot twists and plunges him into “a tale both darker and more disturbing” than he ever anticipated. For example, as Girl Factory begins, Jonathan, a clerk at the frozen yogurt parlor, Mr. Twisty’s, descends into the basement of the establishment only to find giant metal cylinders running around the walls:
It resembled a seven-foot-tall version of one of those fancy Italian espresso boilers you sometimes see in the trendy coffee bars, hissing and wheezing out of phlegmy portions of java. Between the base and the cap were about six feet of cloudy glass, or possibly Plexiglass.
I placed my hand against it and felt a slight hum, almost a pulse….Then there was a flicker behind the glass, and slowly the faint glow brightened to reveal the form of a young and actual and completely naked woman.
The discovery that his unremarkable employer, Spinner, has been preserving six young women in giant test tubes filled with the yogurt culture bacteria (acidophilus) comes as something of a surprise, and Jonathan copes with the ramifications of finding women stuck in a state of suspended animation for the rest of the novel. And while the revelation sounds macabre, Krusoe’s choice to compare the eerie cylinders to phlegmy espresso machines typifies his style. No matter how bizarre the circumstances, both the author and his protagonists approach the problem with common sense, a talent for understatement, and a wry eye.
We never quite understand the magnitude of the conspiracy and experimentation that led the proprietor of Mr. Twisty’s to preserve the girls, but Spinner’s death forces Jonathan to cover up the results. In his effort to awaken the gooey ladies, Jonathan’s modest means lead him to conduct tests with household products like Dawn Antibacterial Wash, fish tanks, and one unlucky rat. While the novel tells the story in a whimsical manner, the material lags a bit due to the methodical Jonathan. Even though his project prompts long reflections about his past lovers – he’s unsettled because one of the petrified girls resembles his beloved first girlfriend – the yogurt clerk really could be cleaning out a fish tank rather than revitalizing unhappy test subjects:
Despite the fact that the entire story is told from Jonathan’s point of view, and so elicits some sympathy for the character, the resemblance between some of the women and people Jonathan remembers from the past as well as the clerk’s dispassionate reactions to the situation suggest that we might be dealing with a madman. Krusoe, however, never provides an answer to this lingering suspicion about his character’s sanity. Even when dead girls’ bodies begin piling up, Jonathan remains a mystery:
Jim Krusoe; photo by Sean Dungan
For a long, long while I could only sit at the basement table, my head in my arms, and weep. Then, thank goodness I remembered that the following morning was the day scheduled for the truck to come to empty the mall’s Dumpsters. Making sure that no one was around (it was the middle of the night by then, so the chances were very slight that I’d be seen), I wrapped her in several large and heavy towels and lifted her still-damp body onto my shoulders and staggered with her up the stairs. Finally, awkwardly but determinedly, I made my way over to the same Dumpster where I had left the Inuit.
His astonishment at discovering the girls at the beginning of the novel makes the reader side with Jonathan, the hapless nowhere man, but his belief that he alone can revitalize the six women makes him into more of a monster as the book reaches its conclusion. While Jonathan views himself as a savior, it seems more and more doubtful that salvation is possible in a town where disturbing social and science experiments lurk beneath the shiny white floors of the local frozen yogurt shop. By depicting a place where average citizens go about their business without noticing young women piling up in the Dumpster outside the mall, Krusoe obliterates the distinction between unconscious hibernation and daily living.
Girl Factory introduces a world in which dark ironies inhabit the nooks and crannies of normal life, but its cold protagonist holds the reader at an arm’s length. Happily, Erased develops the quirky environs of Krusoe’s America with its existential inconsistencies while injecting some human feeling and warm humor into the proceedings. In an interview with his publisher Tin House Books, Jim Krusoe comments, “My mother died while I was writing the first one, Girl Factory. I was also at the time working on Erased and had begun the third, and I thought her death hadn’t affected me all that much. Then one night I was lying in bed and sat straight up. I realized that all three novels were about the same subject: how to bring back the dead.” I wasn’t surprised that tragedy attended the writing of Erased because the protagonist Theodore struggles to make peace with his feelings of loss as he searches for his own dead mother (who may or may not be contacting him from beyond the grave). But unlike Girl Factory, which loiters in the disconcerting atmosphere of St. Nils, Theodore’s quest for Mom takes him on a lighthearted journey through Cleveland, a cultural wonderland according to Erased.
St. Nils resident Theodore Bellefontaine receives a troubling telephone call from his sixty-something mother Helen, a professional transcriber, late one night. She describes how a stranger with a wet briefcase stopped outside her window earlier that day to say, “You, Helen, who are you looking down on me and all of us at this moment, thinking your thoughts, copying the words of others, has it ever occurred to you that you might not even be alive?” Usually unflappable, Helen fears the words of the grim caller and considers what the end would mean:
That night…my mother told me she’d just finished transcribing an interview with a scientist who claimed that mankind was destroying about eighty species of animals and plants and insects every single day – or maybe that was only the number of animals – I was just half listening because I was in bed by then and I was tired. Then there was a catch, or something, in her voice and she added, “Erased just like that. As if they’d never been alive at all.”
Theodore feels some concern that his no-nonsense mother may be tipping over the edge, but he is too busy filling a flood of garden tool orders (his mail order business has grown hugely popular due to a wave of garden-related crimes) to pay much attention. Although the mother and son have recently reconnected, Theodore doesn’t feel much obligation to the woman who abandoned him as a young child. But when Helen suddenly moves back to Cleveland and dies due to a freak fishing accident, Theodore is overcome by feelings of regret.
Then he receives two postcards from beyond the grave:
The side with my name on it was yellowed, as if it had been traveling for a long while. I looked at the postmark. It had only been mailed the previous week. “Something big has come up. I need to see you, Theodore, and soon,” the message said, and I wondered what the something could have been. In any case, it was too late now, I thought. I turned the card over. The picture side showed a city in winter, with darkened skies and tall buildings like the frostbitten digits of an avalanche victim’s rigid hand poking through a veil of snow. Far below the tips of the victim’s metaphorical fingernails, down on the streets, were specks of men and women, scattered like pepper from a defective peppermill onto a white tablecloth.”
The second postcard simply reads, “Theodore,… I’m not kidding.” Like Jonathan in Girl Factory, Theodore’s reveries imply an off-kilter worldview in which buildings look like a corpse’s “frostbitten digits,” but traveling to Cleveland thaws this St. Nils native. Rather than abet a scheme to preserve women in yogurt or monitor the lethal gardening tools market, Theodore happens upon contentment in a place he eventually terms “The City of Noble Foreheads.”
Krusoe’s tone changes from eerie to loopy as soon as Cleveland comes into view – in many ways, the city becomes Theodore’s indispensible, manic, and charming companion on his quest. Once removed from the St. Nils, the town where the quality of “nothingness” dominates, the hidden secrets of American life (as interpreted by Krusoe) appear quaint and occasionally raucous rather than deeply disturbing:
From the moment my plane touched down on the pleasantly scented tarmac of Hopkins Airport, I could see all around me crowds of vibrant, happy people, of all races, creeds, ad ethnicities, pouring out sweat from healthy pores, writing in the very ink of their perspiration an ode to life that instantly published itself in the underarms of their sheer blouses and across the backs of their plain work shirts until, collectively, each blouse and shirt joined together to become an entire manuscript of poetry, hardback edition or a better-quality paperback.”
Just as Florence inspired Dante and Joyce pounded Dublin’s fair streets, Cleveland stirs Krusoe to flourish his pen. Florid metaphors exaggerate as well as acclaim the city’s denizens, food, and neighborhood treasures. This fantastic Cleveland preoccupies Theodore fully, and the detective story, which includes the silliest trail of clues I can ever remember reading, becomes secondary to descriptions of the city’s considerable idiosyncrasies. Even Uleene, the helpful biker chick who becomes Theodore’s personal Girl Friday, serves as a constant reminder of Cleveland’s liberal, hip personality rather than providing any substantial assistance. But in the end, I cared less about the plot than reading Krusoe’s hilarious appraisal of “real life” in a Middle American city anyway.
Interspersed with Theodore’s quixotic episodes through the jovial cityscape are excerpts from Helen’s transcriptions, which reveal different versions of the classic “going down a dark tunnel and seeing a white light” narrative of dying. The suggestion that the boundary between life and death is permeable prepares the reader for the revelation involving Helen’s ultimate fate. But even at this climatic moment, the action (and supposed focus of the novel) is overwhelmed by a literary showpiece describing Cleveland’s spectacular Rainbow Lanes bowling alley. So fantastic is this bowling alley that the secrets of life and death seem comparatively dull:
To begin with, there were not just five, or ten, or even twenty sparkling bird-eye’s maple lanes to roll one’s ball upon but – a full five hundred…. Also, speaking of sensory overload in general and good taste in particular, in place of the usual greasy burgers and fries I associated with those few bowling alleys I had visited in my past, the Rainbow Lanes possessed at least a dozen separate cafés within my field of vision.… But even from my restricted view I could spot the cuisines of China, France Mexico, Germany, Morocco, Hungary – Iceland, as well—although there had to be dozens more tucked in distant corners, to say nothing of various types of snack bars, some of them entirely devoted to serving yogurt, while others specialized in cookies, corn dogs, various jerkies, or pizza.
The excesses of Krusoe’s images make it difficult to take life or death too seriously – and since none of the ideas he proposes about life or afterlife are particularly compelling anyway, these vibrant illustrations also keep the readers turning humor-filled pages.
Undermining his own stabs at universal truth, Krusoe instead suggests weird and wonderful entities dwell somewhere on the edges of sight. Truth, if it exists at all, sits right in our blind spot. Given the impossibility of predicting the outcome of a single day, frozen yogurt could cause disaster and a bowling alley may lead to transcendence. But even if we meet the bizarre twists of fate head-on, it doesn’t stop us from looking askance.
Sharon Fulton is a PhD candidate in English literature at Columbia University. She is working on a dissertation about the role of animals in the literary dream-visions of the late fourteenth-century.