THE DETECTIVE STORY in Eric Lundgren’s The Facades is not a mystery the reader can try to solve. Should she try, she’ll end up pacing aimlessly in downtown Trude, the decaying Midwestern town where Sven Norberg’s opera-singing wife has gone missing. The reader is just as confused as he is: “People didn’t just disappear,” he laments early on.
But, as the detective warns him — and the reader, “It’s not always a Hansel and Gretel type situation.” There’re no breadcrumbs to follow here, and the plot almost comes off as irrelevant in the metaphysical, post-post-modern world of Trude. The architecture in the city is of special interest: a crazy architect Bernhard is the genius behind the labyrinth design of the mall and the elitist nursing home where residents each write memoirs and live in suites.
As Sven navigates — or, as a billboard suggests, “gets lost in” Trude while searching for his missing wife, the reader may lack the breadcrumbs of a fairy tale, but she has no lack of fascinating details and comic voice to latch on to. Lundgren has laden this novel with puzzling and strange imagery, and the prose is darkly and dryly funny.
As he told me, he sought to “convincingly alter reality.” And The Facades is just that: a realistically strange world, much more than the shape of any one plot or façade. The edited version of our email conversation begins here:
CLAIRE LUCHETTE: Tell me about your process. Was this a work you envisioned all at once, or did you let it gestate for a while?
ERIC LUNDGREN: It was kind of a case of cobbling it together. I had the realist story of the father and son being estranged by religion early on. After moving to St. Louis, I got really interested in architecture, and that inspired some of the more fantastic elements of the city. The mystery element of Molly’s disappearance came last, and made it all start humming.
CL: What research did you do for the details you provide about Molly’s opera career?
EL: Not a whole lot, to be honest! I still have fears that I will be confronted by an opera expert. I grew up around music and played cello very seriously as a child, so I used some of that background in my portrayal of the opera world. But I was mainly thinking about opera as an openly artificial, non-realistic form of art. It provided a kind of wedge to get into the stranger, more fantastical elements of the novel.
CL: Why the attempts to make this novel fantastical?
Most of the fiction I was exposed to as a student was more or less realistically grounded. As I've gotten farther from the academy I'm just, overall, more interested in ways to convincingly alter reality in fiction. So opera was a really good model for me to think about, to psych myself up for a departure from what I was comfortable with. I also like the fact that in opera, the plot is just a pretense for stringing together beautiful songs.
CL: You gesture to a lot of different texts here – Wittgenstein’s mentioned early on, and the town’s name, “Trude,” reminded me of the Grimm fairy tale of the same name. Are these allusions more obligatory or tributary?
EL: Thanks for pointing me to the Grimm story — I was unaware of that! The Trude reference was originally to Calvino’s Invisible Cities, which includes a city of that name. But I’d say on the whole these references are tributary. I like the title of Jonathan Lethem’s recent essay collection, The Ecstasy of Influence. I’m certainly an allusive writer, and part of what I’m doing is entering into a conversation with tradition. My stuff doesn’t come out of nowhere, and I want to pay homage to the stuff that got me excited about writing in the first place. I was really pleased that Laura Miller called The Facades “a book for readers.” I think of myself as a reader, above all.
CL: Tell me about your current library job. How’d you get into it? Did you always know you wanted to work in a library setting?
EL: My mother is a retired librarian, so it was definitely an option from early on. But I’d say my public library work is the result of an on-again, off-again relationship with academia. I’d just come out of grad school and was looking for a different kind of experience, interacting with everyday readers out in the world, and I certainly found that here — and much more.
CL: What's the "much more"?
EL: Oh, assaults, arrests, public urination and defecation, loose dogs, etcetera. I've seen some pretty crazy things, most of them too improbable for fiction, unfortunately.
CL: Do the readers at your library show up in your fiction?
EL: The character of Jimenez is the main public library patron in the novel. His mastery of crossword puzzles is a good example of the kind of erudition you often find here: deep but not very profitable (or remunerative). There's a very subtle nod to a legendary St. Louis library patron that I had to slip past several copy-editors. Only one person has noticed it so far, but that's enough.
CL: What do you like about working there?
EL: The library I work in now is a beautifully renovated 1912 Cass Gilbert building, so it’s a pleasure just to walk through its doors every day. I like the sense of tradition and having the culture tangibly surrounding me. But I also get a lot of enjoyment from the interactions — meeting people from all walks of life, whether it’s researchers, or tourists, or the homeless. Helping someone find what they’re looking for or a piece of information that makes their life easier is a truly rewarding experience for me.
CL: Who are your favorite Midwestern novelists and novels?
EL: William Gass, who lives here in St. Louis, is certainly a favorite of mine — although probably more for his stories and essays than his novels. I still see him filling his cart at the Greater St. Louis Book Fair every year. I love Lorrie Moore’s stories as well, and am looking forward to her new collection. I love J.F. Powers’s novel Morte d’Urban, which is about the spiritual journey of a slick Midwestern priest. Another novel I highly recommend is Tom Drury’s The End of Vandalism. Drury has this wonderfully wry, offbeat sense of humor, which he brings to bear on life in small-town Iowa. I got to read with him on this tour, and that was one of the highlights.
CL: If you could go anywhere in the world tomorrow, where would it be? What would you do there?
EL: This may sound strange, but a few years ago my wife very generously sent me for a week’s writing retreat to this extended-stay motel near Columbia, Missouri. It was across the street from this huge park. I felt like I had everything I needed there, and nothing superfluous. I’d write for several hours then go walk in the fall leaves, then hit the grocery store and pick up something for dinner. It was a very simple life. Right now I’d like to go back there and write for a few months. If I could really go anywhere, it would probably be Rome or Berlin, but I’m sure I would end up getting very distracted in those places.
CL: How do you feel when people ask about what you’re working on now?
EL: Thanks for putting it that way, which allows me to dodge the question. In the early stages of work-in-progress, you obviously feel quite protective. It exists in your imagination in a shimmering, fragile state. A state of pure potential, with none of the flaws that come along with actual existence. But it’s pretty addictive, this whole process of taking a thought in your mind and giving it form, heft, reality. It’s pretty miraculous when you think about it.