Brilliance in search of an author
TORSTEN Krol’s new novel has already excited reviewers in Britain and a dozen European countries. Callisto is described as ‘‘ satirical and terrifying’’, ‘‘ hectic, highly entertaining’’, ‘‘ bizarre, thought- provoking and funny’’, ‘‘ brilliantly succinct, dry and subtly hilarious’’. The praise goes on. Clearly this new Australian writer has talent.
The novel causing the sensation is set in Callisto, a town in northeast Kansas, somewhere very close to the geographical centre of the US.
Morally and politically too, the novel is set deep in the heart of America. Its narrator, Odell Deefus, is one of those Forrest Gump- type hicks whose innocence draws out the worst mistreatment US culture can deliver. Odell is vulnerable, and therefore a victim.
Odell is possibly the world’s unluckiest man. Inoffensively setting off to enlist in the US army — because the pay is good in Iraq and he needs the money — Odell strikes car trouble on a lonely stretch of blacktop, so he seeks help at a solitary roadside house. Unfortunately, by walking up the driveway to professional lawn- mower Dean Lowry’s place, Odell walks into a maelstrom of murder, terrorism, drug smuggling, police corruption, political skulduggery, religious fanaticism, military torture and more.
The enjoyment of this novel lies in the reader not knowing what’s coming next. However, it’s not giving away too much to mention some of the stock items employed in the plot: the corpse in the freezer among the TV dinners, the gravesite where the body is reburied several times, and all the crooked dealers who have walk- on or bigger parts: the drug smugglers, politicians, police officers, FBI agents, soldiers and televangelists. Odell continually outsmarts his adversaries, at the same time enmeshing himself ever more deeply in the corrupt system. Siding with him, the reader too is quickly ensnared in the story’s web.
It is alarming that we recognise all this ugliness from the daily news and understand it readily. We identify with Odell, with his need to lie, flee or suffer in the name of protecting his innocence. Odell’s plight is reminiscent of that endured by Kafka’s Josef K. More than threequarters of the way through his narration, Odell sees himself — as he did at the start — ‘‘ swept up in Something Big that I still don’t understand how big it really is’’. The fact that so many reviews of the novel so far have used terms such as ‘‘ hilarious’’ or ‘‘ black comedy’’ to describe the work is particularly worrying, because the reasons for laughing at this story are the same reasons for nervously laughing at the idea that
the CIA staged 9/ 11. Such conspiracy theories remain laughable unless they are exposed as fact.
The identities of those behind the forces that suck up, crunch on and ultimately spit Odell out are not the only mysteries attached to this book. The work is a comprehensive whodunit because we don’t know who the author is.
Torsten Krol, it appears, is a new writer living reclusively in Queensland. It is reported he ( or she) has a New Zealand agent, who is saying nothing, while the book’s publishers claim not to know the author’s identity.
Following the release last year of his first novel, The Dolphin People, there was a sense that the writer was young, clever, male, with a penchant for the bizarre and nightmarish. The release of Callisto adds another layer of speculation.
This doesn’t feel like the second work of a starting writer. There’s remarkable sureness in the plot structure and handling of suspense. Visual description throughout is superb, but especially in the heightened moments of the explosion, the torture, and the fall from the aeroplane, where the language is so rich and precise the world seems to have decelerated into slow motion. Surely this intelligence and maturity isn’t the writing of a newcomer; more likely the work of, say, a David Malouf moonlighting.
There seem to be few other clues. The only name that emerges as an anagram of Torsten Krol is ‘‘ Errol S. Knott’’. Not well known. However, another anagram is ‘‘ trot snorkel’’. Perhaps that’s what Krol does at the beach beside his Queensland hideaway. And while Torsten means Thursday ( Danish, Swedish) and torso ( German), the one language where the full name could denote something is Dutch: torsten krol might be stretched to mean ‘‘ bearing the shrill noise of a cat on heat’’. A joke, clearly, because this novel is far from caterwauling.
Odell Deefus never finds out who was orchestrating his fate, and by implication who ultimately runs the US. Similarly we do not know who is ultimately responsible for this novel. ‘‘ I don’t know anything, and I didn’t do anything,’’ Odell regularly complains. ‘‘ You’re in the clear. None of this ever happened,’’ the voice at the untraceable end of the phone finally says.
Nigel Krauth is a writer who lives in Queensland.