If you’re a fiend for story, Alicia Kopf’s Brother in Ice (translated by Mara Faye Lethem) will not necessarily scratch your itch. But if you crave novels that put the “novel” back in novel — here mashing up research in arctic exploration with travelogues, diary entries, diagrams, photographs, text messages, and the economy of Facebook likes — come a little closer, friend.
At the center of this metafictional work is Alicia Kopf, the protagonist, who shares her name (though the character’s name is only mentioned once, late in the book) with the author, whose name is not actually Alicia Kopf, but Imma Ávalos Marquès. The book is dedicated to the author's brother, “who isn’t of ice.” Alicia struggles to make her way as an artist and writer in Barcelona after the 2008 recession. Her older brother, M, is on the autism spectrum; the exact diagnosis has not been pinned down. He is entirely dependent on their mother, who focuses all of her energies on caring for him and working as a teacher.
While some of Alicia’s more well-to-do friends are upwardly mobile and free to live elsewhere in Europe (one in Paris is described as a “post-modern dandy”), Alicia teaches language arts at a posh private school where “affection [is] the most highly valued asset,” where from kindergarten on, students are given a healthy sense of self-worth, though not necessarily an interest in the welfare of others. Full-time teaching, Alicia grumbles, suggests to others that her artistic ambitions have died, as compared with municipally funded “teaching artists” brought into schools because, the cultural institutions assume, there aren’t any actual artists in the classroom. She’s a prickly character, with prickliness founded upon, among other things, the precariousness of capitalism — and a growing jealousy of artists in northern European countries where there are better support systems for not just artists, but all people.
In her free time, Alicia pours herself into an art project that simultaneously assuages her loneliness and exacerbates it. She is exploring her fascination with ice, icebergs, the North and South poles. A vein of surreality emerges, starting with a dream of a narwhal infiltrating a local pool via a crack in the tiles. A snowflake on the tip of a rabbit’s hair in the lab of Ukichiro Nakaya, a nuclear physicist at the University of Hokkaido in the 1930s, elicits Alice in Wonderland. The history of snow globes creates an imagined French Revolution commemorative piece, complete with a moveable guillotine.
The meta-layers (if that is a term) of this project are so complex that they too are almost surreal. The research appears in the book as the character Alicia’s work — but was also part of the an actual artistic cycle of texts and exhibits called Àrticantàrtic, the culmination of which is the physical book of Brother in Ice. Stories of who first “conquered” the North Pole at the turn of the twentieth century offer insight into how we frame stories of victory. Kopf juxtaposes photos of the two competing explorers, Robert Edwin Peary and Frederick Cook. The declared “winner,” Peary staged a clear photo showing a group of all white men, excluding the African-American Matthew Henson, a loyal part of the team. Cook, who disputed Peary’s claim of reaching the pole first, was determined the “loser” by popular opinion. His blurry photo of the two Inuit people who helped him on his journey was not well staged.
Based on current scientific studies, neither team actually reached the true North Pole. But later, we learn of Louise Boyd, a rich orphan who had the means and freedom to follow her scientific passion for polar exploration. Boyd photographed a glacier insinuating itself between two mountains. It “slithers along, like a silent sexual licking of the known world by the uncharted.” Exploration as exploration, rather than conquest.
Through this gathering of material, Alicia searches for meaning. The plot of the novel, she explicitly tells us, depends upon her discovering that meaning. She declares herself uninterested in the facts of these polar expeditions. Rather, what concerns her is “the idea of investigation, of seeking something in an unstable place.”
This dismissal of her material, at times, takes the air out of her writing. The research notes can drag, just a bit, in the first half of the book. Her declaration made me wonder how the disparate parts would add up to something that would pay off for the reader. What pulled me through was Alicia’s mediations on her brother. She wonders what will happen to him when their parents are gone. She wonders what would become of him in other time periods and situations: “Would the Inuit have abandoned him on the ice?”
As befits the ice metaphor, much of the prose is strenuously unemotional. When Alicia finally sees a psychoanalyst to discuss her difficult family relationships — her feelings of emotional neglect due to her high-needs brother, her father having started another family — her answers to the psychoanalyst’s abstract queries are ellipses. When her tears begin to fall, I felt nothing, and I wondered whether I was supposed to feel something or if the intention was to make me question that moment. The reader is purposefully kept away from the emotional core of the story. The examination of complex emotions is cerebral here, rather than affecting.
Kopf’s conceit calls to mind two other novels that use cold places as a metaphor for emotional distance. Angela Woodward’s post-modern Natural Wonders follows a widow editing her late husband’s lectures on astronomy, geology, ice ages. When he was alive, they never spoke of his work; she was much younger, a secretary, and he took a condescending view of her. His lectures suggest he preferred his students dumbfounded, and at times the notes are illegible. The wife searches for meaning in the husband’s intentionally obfuscated work. Though at first Woodward keeps emotions at arm’s length, her novel eventually achieves emotional heft through a repeated central image:
One morning as I left for work, he leaned in to kiss my cheek, and I swerved sideways. As we both righted ourselves, our cheeks passed each other, only a few inches apart, so that my refused intimacy nevertheless took me through the field of his heat, the smell of his scalp and shaving cream.
Through this repeated concrete sensory moment of lived experience, of regret, I began to feel.
Marcelo Figueras’s Kamchatka (translated by Frank Wynne) follows a boy whose parents attempt to escape arrest during Argentina’s Dirty War. Unlike Brother in Ice and Natural Wonders, it’s not a post-modern puzzle, but a devastating story told tenderly. Maybe it’s a cheat to find a novel centered on a child more affecting, one set during an enormous tragedy no less, but the narration is imbued with Harry’s warm voice. (Harry is not actually the boy’s name, but the name he gives himself, after his hero Harry Houdini, master escapist.) It’s also filled with the sort of intimate multisensory detail that puts you inside of a fictional place, makes you feel part of it. A fan of the game of Risk, Harry retreats into the cold, distant fiction of the region of Kamchatka, as a way to protect himself. Perhaps what I found so moving was the shift into the ice, rather than an emergence out of it.
I don’t mean to value traditional storytelling over experimentation. I don’t. But experimentation does require a different sort of faith on the part of the reader, and Kopf is banking on her readers offering her that faith.
When Alicia gets outside of herself, by climbing the Pyrenees with friends, the physical strain of the hike opens her up to sensory experience and the “ice” literally melts:
In mid-June, the day is overcast and showery, and amid the rocky masses and fir trees you can see the melting snow in its full spectrum of states: calm, stagnant, violent, transparent, clouded. Streams, waterfalls, small marshes camouflaged in the fluorescent green grass.
Soon after, in a chapter titled “Geyser,” a text message argument with her mother erupts. Alicia demands some help, simply a ride to Ikea, but in this request is a desire for attention, and her mother reminds her that her brother is “disabled. In case you’ve forgotten, and I’ve suffered with that for the last forty years and I don’t complain.” Five pages long, it is quite an elaborate argument to be had over text messages. Brilliantly, Kopf has Alicia’s mother shut it down with heart emoticons. This moment is the perfect articulation of why I find heart emoji so disconcerting (even as I am guilty of using them as shorthand myself). That use of digital life is one of the sharpest aspects of Brother in Ice, essayistic dives into comparing how many likes one gives versus one receives and the notion of the “stingy” liker (such as a crush she calls Iceberg) having the upper hand: “The internet and our own marketing of our personalities, all of us converted into followers and followed (lovers and beloveds), stars and stalkers at the same time.”
Alicia’s school lays her off, and she travels to Iceland alone, staying in hostels with tourists who are obnoxious social media friend–collectors and a bit stereotypical, mostly of the ugly American variety. But away from the hostel, in the volcanic landscape of Iceland, the sensory language returns to something incandescent. She enters a cave: “The black hole is covered in stalagmites and dripping stalactites, brown layers of rust overlap with the lava and mineral formations. Lilac iridescence from magnesium, yellow layers of sulfur.”
Alicia comes out on the other side. To what, I will not tell you. The intellectual exploration of the artistic process will be satisfying for some, a bit too theoretical for others. But, I think, just about anyone can appreciate the sharp depictions of how we relate to one another in this age of alienation, where disconnecting from Facebook has become, for a growing number of humans, a relief, even as we use that medium to try to persuade the cynical to care for others not like us, to care for the vulnerable, and just, simply, to care.
Anca L. Szilágyi is the author of the novel Daughters of the Air, published by Lanternfish Press in December 2017. Her work appears in the Los Angeles Review of Books, Electric Literature, Gastronomica, and elsewhere. She is the recipient of awards from Artist Trust and 4Culture, among others.
Follow Anca L. Szilágyi on Twitter: @@ancawrites