In Sweden, according to Lars Arffssen's recent novel, "Nordic Dullness Syndrome" affects millions. The country's mores are hard to parse: While "semi-consensual intercourse with a drowsy woman" constitutes a despicable crime, its citizens conduct adulterous affairs so nonchalantly that the husband is often sitting in the same room, distracted by his iPad. The book's delirious plotlines extend to an IKEA-like company's shadowy past, but the central mystery gets announced early on: "Why would anyone want to decapitate an unpublished author of Swedish thrillers?"
Arffssen's The Girl with the Sturgeon Tattoo, if you haven't guessed, is a shameless spoof of Stieg Larsson's The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo. Larsson's dynamic duo, lithe and lethal waif-hacker Lisbeth Salander and investigative reporter Mikael Blomkvist, has been repurposed as Lizzy Salamander and Mikael Blomberg, an out-of-shape blogger whom beautiful women find irresistible. Arffssen takes potshots at everything Swedish, from ABBA and IKEA to Scandinavian-noir éminence grise Henning Mankell. The compulsive description of hardware makes for gloriously clotted prose: "From her black handbag next to the bed she removed her Ericsson Xperia X10 2.1 smartphone with 720p HD video recording and checked her calendar." In the loopiest sequence, Arffssen channels the POV of a female reindeer.
Another mystery percolates under the daffiness. On Facebook, Lizzy Salamander lists her favorite reads: works on string theory and statistical physics, an Oliver Sacks title, and something called The Vices, by Lawrence Douglas. The last item doesn't register; maybe it's a cultural history of sin? Three pages later, Blomberg finds a copy of The Vices on Salamander's nightstand. Where's the joke? Even minor slackening can stop a three-gags-a-page quickie in its tracks, so why is the parodist taking such pains to call our attention to The Vices?
Blomberg makes a mental note to buy a copy of the book online, and it's fun to imagine that an unwary reader of Sturgeon, some Larsson fan out on a spree, might do the same. For these curious citations are, in fact, the novelist Lawrence Douglas's advertisements for himself. Douglas is none other than Arffssen—or should that be the other way around? In his Scandinavian guise, Douglas has whipped off a pop techno-thriller (that's him in the author photo, with the sword and gonzo stare); as himself (sport coat, jeans), he's just published his second novel, The Vices. Reading both delivers the equivalent of literary whiplash. How can one of our funniest writers also be one of our finest novelists? And why does it seem like no one's heard of him?
A lawyer by training, Douglas teaches in the Department of Law, Jurisprudence, and Social Thought at Amherst College. In his debut, The Catastrophist, an art historian (dubbed "the guru of Holocaust memorials") details his own spectacular flameout, in a voice at once convincingly confessional and completely unreliable. "The real problem was me," he admits early on, explaining a failed bout of therapy. "I lacked material." Then he proceeds to disprove it on every page. Largely overlooked, The Catastrophist was my most exhilarating discovery of 2006.
Five years later comes The Vices. Though it mirrors some key themes, and its characters also shine and toil in academia, this new novel is even more playful and profound than its predecessor. As dazzlingly constructed as it is limpidly told, The Vices is a duplicitous delight that feels at home in this age of YouTube, e-mail, and the myriad other ways we consume and connect with the world.
Beginning in a used-book store, a Nabokovian bromance brews between the narrator (a blocked novelist of Long Island Jewish extraction) and his colleague at Harkness College, the fantastically wealthy philosopher Oliver Vice, whose lineage is Hungarian and English. Vice is "exotic and old world, as far removed as possible from the reform synagogues and suburban afflictions of Great Neck." Yet the two are said to resemble each other, to the degree that the novelist sometimes gets called "Professor Vice."
Imperceptibly, the story of O (as Oliver signs his letters) crowds out the narrator's own literary ambitions; Oliver's suspicious suicide compels the writer to piece together the mystery of his friend's life and death. Oliver Vice is many people: leftist agitator, vegetarian, art collector, mama's boy, womanizer. He rejects his biological father in favor of his beloved stepfather, a stage-lighting wizard for the Stones and other rock legends. (At age eight, Oliver demolished Keith Richards at Ping-Pong.)
Our narrator is so fluently revealing, even as he peppers his conversation with white lies, that it's a shock to realize that we never learn his name. Is he, in fact, not so much a narrator as a narrative device, a way to tell The Real Life of Oliver Vice? Douglas, or his surrogate, creates exceptionally memorable set pieces: a lust-and-magic-ridden party in commemoration of Beggars Banquet; a Christmas dinner in New York with Oliver's bewitching mother and corpulent, Churchill-worshipping brother. And though the novelist has a seamless voice, he allows other characters to reach us, unfiltered, via their correspondence. Oliver's frequent missives from abroad have the bitter-hilarious tang of a Thomas Bernhard rant:
But her apartment stinks of cigarettes, and I can't stand being there—the odor is so vile, it makes me physically ill. But here's the catch. The cigarette odor in S.'s studio is no different from the smell in my mother's apartment, which has never bothered me. In fact, I would go so far as to say that I find the smell in my mother's apartment pleasing.
Even more impressive are the glimpses of Oliver's masterpiece, the Wittgensteinian treatise Paradoxes of Self. It's one thing for a novelist to invent a genius-author character; it's another order of difficulty to include excerpts of said genius's work that are brilliant enough to convince us of the character's literary chops. The five pages of Paradoxes of Self that Douglas presents—i.e., writes—are so good that you'll wish the book existed in full, on the shelf.
Paradoxes is a fictitious work of nonfiction that itself addresses the matter of fiction as inseparable from identity: Are we who we say we are? There are games within games here, and perhaps games without. Knowing that The Vices shares the same DNA with The Girl with the Sturgeon Tattoo destabilizes the latter's status as mere parody. Hints and glints abound: Oliver's mother is called "Twigs"; Sturgeon's vanished author is "Twig." The issue of Blomberg's newfound Jewishness finds vexed expression in The Vices. Sturgeon's pseudonymous authorship, its almost sub-book status ("Most Definitely NOT the #1 Bestseller," declares the cover), plugs right into the gossamer deceits woven through its more serious, more literary counterpart. Oliver Vice's unfinished final project is an exploration of forgery, to be called The Fake. In two dissimilar yet hauntingly twinned books, Lawrence Douglas gives conclusive evidence that he's the real thing.
Ed Park is the author of the novel Personal Days (Random House, 2008).