The Rabbit Back Literature Society
by Pasi Ilmari Jääskeläinen
Translated from the Finnish by Lola M. Rogers
Thomas Dunne Books (2015), 352 pp
The Rabbit Back Literature Society taps into the dirty secret of the writing community—authors are cutthroat, enigmatic, and relentless when it comes to their craft. The image of bespectacled, nebbish types wrapped up in wooly pullovers, sipping cups of tea is what we want you to think.
Okay, so perhaps, this introduction is a bit of a hyperbole, but Pasi Ilmari Jääskeläinen’s novel of an exclusive writers’ group is enjoyably bizarre.
Ella Milana is a young substitute literature teacher in a small Finnish town called Rabbit Back who finds herself invited as the tenth and final member of a selective writers’ group, which is sadistically run by famed children’s book author Laura White. On the night of Ella’s welcome party, Laura White suddenly vanishes. Although, barely a corporeal presence in the novel, Laura White is the figure that begins the unraveling of the secrets held by the Rabbit Back Literature Society.
The novel does start off with whimsy. While at school, Ella realizes that a copy of Crime and Punishment is riddled with errors. When she brings this to the attention of the town’s librarian and herself a best-selling novelist—and soon revealed as an original member of the literary society—the woman pooh-poohs the whole matter as a typographical error and run-of-the-mill in the publishing world,
These things happen sometimes. It’s not commonly spoken of, but there are quite a few pranksters working in publishing. Thank you for calling it to our attention.
I imagine a harsh, angular older woman of my school days affirming that publishing houses are run amok with Mad magazine aficionados rewriting classic works of literature. Somehow, this doesn’t sound entirely absurd to Ella, but it still begins her down the screwy road that will reveal certain secrets of the well-regarded Rabbit Back Literature Society.
As the youngest and newest member of the society, Ella is the reader’s surrogate. She doesn’t know much more than the audience does on the onset and pulls on the story’s many threads. The book is mostly concerned with an uncomfortable activity known as The Game, where members challenge each other to spill information, whether it be revealing personal secrets or history of the society itself. There are no restrictions. If the challenged does not answer the question to the fullest or most honest, the challenger can resort to any method they desire to get the information (there are a bunch of sore cheeks in this book). For the nine other members playing The Game, the idea has always been to elicit inspiration for their own books, but for Ella the activity is an opportunity to try and make sense of the missing Laura White and so much more.
The Game is a marvelous way for Jääskeläinen to reveal information about his characters, especially concerning events that had taken place decades earlier. In their daily lives, the members are egotistical, vain, and selfish, however, they uphold the rules of The Game and when they spill we must take it for what it’s worth. As the novel progresses, what is first presented as a pseudo-therapy session becomes quite cruel and ruthless. The momentum builds and the whole process has a feeling of being cold-blooded, but Ella must take it on if she needs to find the answers to the question that is Laura White and the Rabbit Back Literature Society.
There are several mysteries at the core of the book: who (or what) is Laura White? Was there possibly another long-dead member whose name can’t even be remembered? And what about these shelved books with their plots changing?
The latter is an unneeded MacGuffin to get Ella involved. But once she is, the idea of a possible book virus changing the words and ideas on the pages of classics gets brushed back. It is an intriguing premise and is sporadically re-examined at a few points in the novel. The connection, however, doesn’t really bring any importance to the outcome of The Game.
Rather, the device reads as a curious idea that Jääskeläinen used to get himself rolling with this book, but is a leftover from another draft. It becomes a distraction; occasionally, it’s brought up with seeming importance only to be shunted away. It does give the novel a fantastical texture that Jääskeläinen is playing with, but somehow fails in this regard. It is unfortunate, because the result is an unevenness that takes away from the slew of questions it raises and the vicious plan to answer them.
A particular pleasure is the role of memory: what is remembered, how is it remembered, and whose memory should be trusted. The Rabbit Back society members use their fading memories as a defense against revealing too much to Ella, however, they are more than willing to spill, some even going so far as to take a truth serum, which they seedily refer to as yellow. Until the final pages, it is fragmented memories that Ella builds the story upon and it will finally be a memory, which reveals so much to both her and the reader.
The members of the Rabbit Back Literature Society are viewed as celebrities by the residents of the town and among the Finnish reading public. They are unknowable entities grinning from their dust jacket photos. The real pleasure in the novel is seeing the facades of these characters chipped away. Ella unravels the clandestine motives and actions of the group, and in doing so, shows that there is a pulsating darkness in Rabbit Back, one that is unexpected.