Photograph by Kevin A. Roberts
In Trude, the libraries are set for demolition, and the librarians have donned ski masks. They leave graffiti tags like “EX LIBRIS” and hold the town’s Central Library hostage. There’s a mysterious mall with a labyrinth (home to shops such as Sparkles, Cuz!) and an avant-garde retirement home, both the work of the great German architect Klaus Bernhard. There’s a charismatic church near the underpass (whose members tool around in a spooky gray van) and a grand opera house (people come to Trude just for the opera). There are also blocks and blocks of crumbling buildings. It’s on these streets that rumpled Sven Norberg, a chain-smoking legal secretary, roams in search of his redheaded wife, the great mezzo-soprano Molly Norberg, who’s gone missing.
Trude is the setting for The Facades, a new novel by St. Louis writer Eric Lundgren, who has garnered comparisons to Jorge Luis Borges and David Lynch. In 2007, when Lundgren graduated from Washington University’s MFA program, he left with 40 pages of the book under his arm; in 2009, he had 300, plus an agent who was shopping it around. But the economy was lousy, publishers were gunny, and it never found its right home.
Then, last summer, Lundgren got a huge surprise. A friend and former Wash. U. classmate, novelist Teddy Wayne (author of Kapitoil and The Love Song of Jonny Valentine), had spoken to Liese Mayer, an editor at The Overlook Press, about his book.
“My agent had retired, and so I had no agent. It’d been a couple of years, and I had moved on. I just assumed, ‘Well, this one’s not going to get published,’” Lundgren says. “And I got this email out of the blue, saying, ‘We’d love to publish your novel.’ That was last August.”
This spring—six months before the book’s release date—it was named a Barnes & Noble Discover Great New Writers pick, as well as a BookExpo America Editors’ Buzz selection. Lundgren traveled to New York to be on a panel at that conference, one of only a handful of writers out of the hundreds represented at what’s arguably the biggest publishing-industry event in America.
When Overlook contacted him, Lundgren was working at the Carpenter Branch of the St. Louis Public Library. The Facades has a whole library subplot, but for that, he says, he largely pulled on his years growing up in Minneapolis—his mother is a librarian and ran the bookmobile in Cleveland. And oddly enough, he was transferred to the St. Louis Central Library after it reopened, its closure mirroring a plot thread in the book. While Lundgren says that Trude (the town’s name is drawn from Italo Calvino’s Invisible Cities, and for the cover, Overlook managed to land the German illustrator who drew Calvino’s imaginary cities) is a response to “the sadness and treachery and beauty” of St. Louis, and he’s imported certain details, like the composers’ busts that ring the bandstand in Tower Grove Park, it’s an invented city: not St. Louis, not Minneapolis, not even a strict hybrid of the two.
“Calvino talks about this idea of a continuous city, and I guess I was thinking about this in terms of the Midwest, as well as its invisibility to the larger culture, at times,” he says. The book also riffs heavily—and often hilariously—on architecture and urban planning. Lundgren says he drew inspiration from the Austrian avant-garde architect Victor Gruen, who pioneered the shopping mall (he designed the first mall Lundgren ever saw as a kid in Minneapolis). The buildings can almost seem like characters themselves.
At its core, though, The Facades is about human beings, particularly their talent for self-deception. Some of the most comic moments are in Sven’s back-and-forths with his lippy, rebellious (but increasingly religious) teenage son, though what happens with that relationship, as well as Norberg’s search for his wife, snaps the reader’s heart in two.
Lundgren will be busy this fall with an eight-city book tour, yet he’s already working on a new project—a Midwestern horror novel, in fact, though horror in the same sense that The Facades is a mystery. “I have a friend who’s been getting me into a lot of the Eurotrash [films] like Jean Rollin and [Dario] Argento. So I’d like to do the literary equivalent of those, kind of uncanny and scary,” he says. “Though I don’t know how bloody it would be!”
Eric Lundgren’s The Facades will be released next month by The Overlook Press. Subterranean Books hosts a reading and signing with Lundgren at the St. Louis Public Library’s Schlafly Branch (225 N. Euclid) on September 9. For more info, go to subbooks.com.