Archive for the ‘Alicia Kopf’ Category

Brother in Ice

March 10, 2018

Alicia Kopf’s Brother in Ice (translated by Mara Faye Letham) is a very modern novel. This is not to say its intent is new: a portrait of the artist as a young woman (literally, as Kopf is perhaps best known as an artists and the novel began as a series of exhibitions). Kopf tells us in the opening chapter, as she links her artistic struggle with polar exploration, “I am also searching for something in my white, unheated iceberg studio.” Neither does its modernity lie in the casual mentions of social media, for example when the narrator considers whether to send a friend request to an ex-boyfriend she bumps into at a concert:

“The next day the question of whether or not to add him on the social networks gnaws at me.”

The novel’s modern sensibility begins with its form, a narrative in which autobiography and Google collide to create a series of factual blocks floating in a sea of individual memories. Perhaps the best example is the chapter ‘Snow Globe’ which begins with the discovery of a snow globe (the chapter titles are generally explanatory headings) “at the back of the drawer in an old dresser.” This is not, however, the regret reviving snow globe of Citizen Kane (which is, of course, name-checked) but the stimulant instead for a series of internet searches on the topic.

We see the same process on a larger scale when it comes to Kopf’s central metaphor of polar exploration. While books have been consulted according to a brief bibliography (including Fergus Fleming’s wonderful Ninety Degrees North), much of the information has been found online. (One chapter begins, “Comparing the Amundson and Scott expeditions on Wikipedia…”) The ‘Research Notes’ chapters, which are often dated, generally consist of a mix of diary entries and articles she has read online: ‘Research Notes III’, for example, is an extract from a Spanish scientist’s blog.

Neither a good or bad thing in itself, instant access to information can be a temptation to writers, leading them down search-engine rabbit-holes in pursuit of one more interesting fact. There are times when it feels as if Kopf is tumbling in this way, her fascination with polar exploration outstripping her artistic use of it. Though never dull, it does feel that a disproportionate portion of the text is a cut-and-paste of other people’s stories and that Kopf’s own life becomes the interruption.

Kopf also uses her arctic symbolism in reference to her autistic brother, though the title oversells the idea that it is about him or their relationship (I assume it also encompasses the polar explorers, whom she sees as ‘brothers’ too). True, he is occasionally mentioned (referred to in his first appearance as “a man trapped in ice”) but his story is tangential to the real purpose of the novel. In a Postscript Kopf states explicitly, “this book isn’t about your life, which is only yours.”

“I can only make only make images, fictions, only you know what you’ve lived through…”

This imaginative fatalism might go some way to explaining the preponderance of facts, and the absence of characters. Most other characters are reduced to initials, and their development is as limited; only the mother is partially visible, most suddenly when filtered through the narrator’s anger:

“I’m not asking for money. And asking for a ride to IKEA shouldn’t have to mean begging on my hands and knees.”

Such scenes of interaction are rare, however, even though the novel covers family breakdowns and broken hearts. The drama is in the portrayal:

“Doubt and loneliness are persistent. I don’t know if writing all this is worth the effort, or whether I have any right.”

It may seem I am criticising Brother in Ice for not being the novel I want it to be; in fact, my assumption is that Kopf’s has succeeded in her intention, a novel which is not so much a portrait of an artist as of an artefact. Rather than describing the narrator’s development from childhood to creator, she details the created object. In doing so she presents a modern sensibility lying somewhere between solipsism and narcissism, a shining landscape of ice, endlessly reflecting.