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Karin Tidbeck’s stories of making and un-making

The Swedish speculative-fiction author will give an online talk on February 28 via A Room of One’s Own.

Photo by Patrik Åkervinda.

Karin Tidbeck’s latest novel, The Memory Theater, slides between myriad dimensions of time, space, and reality, all in the most crisp and matter-of-fact writing the Swedish writer has published yet. Tidbeck, who writes in both Swedish and English and translates their own work, made their English-language debut with the 2012 short-story collection Jagannath, and published the English translation of the novel Amatka in 2017. Tidbeck will give an online talk on Sunday, February 28 through Madison bookstore A Room of One’s Own.

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All three of Tidbeck’s English-language books have given them a distinctive place in speculative fiction, testing the reader’s attachment to reason with unflinching prose and a prickle of dark humor. The most important moments in Tidbeck’s fiction aren’t ones of cathartic upheaval or violent epiphany, but ones in which Tidbeck methodically tampers with the rules of the universe. Many English-language readers were introduced to Tidbeck through Jagannath‘s first story, in which a man pursues a romantic relationship with a blimp. Most of Tidbeck’s concepts are far more audacious, blending together worlds that operate on divergent principles, and at times combining Swedish folklore with their own unsettling inventions.

Amatka takes place in a part-noble, part-sinister communal society where people have to continually “mark” their belongings with written labels and verbal rituals. When people neglect their belongings, they’ll dissolve into a volatile gloop. The novel’s protagonist, a put-upon hygiene researcher named Vanja, gradually discovers that this logic—in which language very literally sculpts reality—applies not just to the stuff of suitcases and pencils, but to the very fabric of the world, physical and social. In The Memory Theater, two wayward children called Dora and Thistle escape their captors in a timeless garden, and meet a troupe of actors who perform real-life events in order to solidify the past. As the troupe’s director explains:

“We play true stories. We write them into the book of the universe, if you will, or weave them into the tapestry, if that sounds better. When we do that, the event will live on. It is recorded and will always have happened.”

The Memory Theater opens in the place where Dora and Thistle live as servants and prisoners, where time goes in circles and a group of deranged aristocrats relive the same night of decadent revelry over and over again. Their party games are spectacularly, childishly sadistic—you’ll never think about croquet the same way again. In order to truly free themselves, Dora and Thistle must not only escape “the garden,” as this realm is known (it first appears in two Jagannath stories), but also get the novel’s antagonist, Augusta Prima, to tell Thistle his real name. 

Several characters in The Memory Theater refer almost casually to “the multiverse,” and through it they navigate to Sweden during the outbreak of World War II, a bureaucratic waystation between worlds, and a burning library at the edge of history. But again, this is Tidbeck, so the telling is always prim and pragmatic. At the same time, The Memory Theater can be almost shockingly tender. Dora and Thistle don’t have real families, but they care for each other like siblings, and along the way a series of strangers give them the nurturing and shelter they’ve otherwise been so cruelly denied. Dora, after a particularly bad turn in her cross-dimensional quest, meets a pair of vittra—the “hidden folk” of Swedish legend—who take her in and help her. “Turning to stone is no way to sleep,” one of the vittra tells Dora, a line that at once stays true to the strangeness of the story and reminds us that Dora is, after all, a child with needs. 

Tidbeck cuts right into the essence of speculative fiction: challenging some of our most fundamental assumptions about the world, tugging on threads that feel almost forbidden to the reader, and certainly are forbidden to many of Tidbeck’s characters. When they tamper with the substrate of their worlds, they liberate themselves but also unleash terrible forces they can’t entirely control. To borrow a phrase from a pivotal scene in Amatka, you could say that Tidbeck sings “a song of making and un-making.”

And in Tidbeck’s worlds, nothing is ever made or un-made for good. My favorite story in Jagannath, “Pyret,” concerns a shape-shifting cryptid. The story takes the form of a research report, the perfect vehicle for Tidbeck’s uncannily frank style. Pyret isn’t a dangerous creature, just impenetrably alien and elusive. It has frightened people and set off religious panics, but seems to follow people and animals around in search of comfort or connection. Tidbeck gives us an immersive account of the creature, all while keeping its motives, shape, and very nature unclear. The story is ambiguous, but the reader is never entirely adrift.

During the February 28 event, Tidbeck will be in conversation with fantasy writer CL Polk. Polk also released an excellent novel this year, a rollicking tale of manners and magic called The Midnight Bargain.

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