Author: Ben Arzate
Type of Book: Fiction, novel
Why Do I Consider This Book Odd: Because I descended into the depths of a rabbit hole as I tried to puzzle out what this book meant.
Availability: Published in 2020 by Atlatl Press, you can get a copy here:
Comments: On the surface, Elaine appears to be a relatively straight-forward read. It’s a fun little book, creepy and frustrating with forays into the incestuous and the priapic. Good times!
But say you’re a woman who has recently been thinking of immigrating to Finland* because you are certain the legislature, the governor, the climate and the slowly crumbling infrastructure in Texas are all teaming up in some god-forsaken superhero quad that will destroy the world in general and you in the specific. If you are such a woman, you might find yourself a bit… uneasy. In fact, I’d finished reading a book about the charming custom of kalsarikanni, translated as “pantsdrunk,” right before picking up Elaine. The Finns take relaxation and drunkenness very seriously, it seems, but mostly I mention this because it seems a bit weird that once I had finished a book about Finnish relaxation, I immediately picked up a book, written by an American, that was populated by Finnish-Americans, most of them named Elaine.
Synopsis: Chris is dating a woman named Agnes, who grew up in a town in Michigan called Elaine. Agnes’s mother just died and Chris is joining her in her hometown as funeral plans are finalized. The roads to Elaine are closed, and the only way he can get there is by train. Every woman he meets is named Elaine, and none of them seem aware that every other woman is named Elaine, too. Agnes functionally disappears for the duration of the novel, leaving Chris in the company of her father in a town that is isolated, empty and unnerving. Chris is disturbed by bizarre, sexual dreams that initially focus on his sister, growing to include Agnes and other women he encounters in Elaine. No one is where they should be, Chris cannot find Agnes, her father eventually disappears as well, the town seems like a ghost town and the train in and out of Elaine stops running. Terrible things happen to Chris at the hands of the Elaines in Elaine, he finds disturbing connections between Agnes and the Elaines that are increasingly menacing and sexually overwhelming, and all of this is punctuated by a creepy, incestuous TV preacher who encourages father on daughter incest. Later Chris finds photos of Agnes with an Elaine who behaved sexually provocatively around him, and it seems very likely that the overall atmosphere of sexual degeneracy in the town caused Chris’ dreams that began on the train into Elaine. Was Agnes a victim of the Elaines herself? Maybe – the ending makes me believe perhaps she was. But all of this doesn’t really help me answer the question of what the absolute hell was going on in Elaine?
It’s a quick and fun read, but my inability to answer the above question plagued me. I didn’t descend directly down into the fear, paranoiacally assuming that the book was cosmically trying to tell me that my desire to go to Finland was a bad idea, Ben peppering the text with clues that would convince me to stay put. But Elaine did raise a lot of questions that I cannot answer. Well, I can’t answer them yet. I finally asked Ben some very generic questions, just outright demanding to know if there was subtext. Ben said there is, that he intends to follow this up with a story that will answer some questions. He didn’t give me any specifics, thankfully, but that confirmation that my instincts are on the mark, that there is something going on and the text gives clues caused me to descend yet again into the rabbit hole and worry all kinds of names and details to see if I could connect the dots. I haven’t connected them yet but give me time.
Some rabbit hole samples:
“Elaine” is a French form of the Greek name, “Helen.” Helen literally means “shaft of light” or “rays of sun.” That might lead one to believe that there is some greater truth in Elaine, a symbolic revelation that occurs when in Elaine, or a beacon that leads people to Elaine so they can experience some form of enlightenment.
But the link to Helen also makes me wonder if all those Elaines wandering around the city of Elaine were the mid-western equivalents of Helens of Troy, possessing such intoxicating beauty that men would engage in all kinds of heroics to possess them. Most of the Elaines were young and very sexually attractive, and seemed more akin to sirens than a beauty so profound wars were fought over her, but the point is certainly worth mulling over.
A young couple goes missing early on in the book. A cat finds their bodies and the cat’s owner isn’t the least bit alarmed when her cat comes back home covered in viscera – in fact, the cat’s first instinct was to eat the couple’s exposed organs, which is weird behavior for cats. I know we all hear the stories about a cat lady dying and her starving cats eating her body, but cats have to be pretty hungry to do such a thing, and the cat, named Prami, is a pet who is presumably fed by its owner. But the cat is its own rabbit hole. “Prami” is a Finnish name that means “the sea” and a variant of this name is “Pontus.” Pontus was a son of Gaia, ruling the oceans before replaced by the Olympian god Poseidon. We also see the name in “Pontius Pilate,” the man who ordered the death of Jesus Christ. There’s so much there but I have no idea how to pull it together, and it’s made all the more maddening that I am doing this with a cat’s name but what would you have me do? Not worry all these details?
The couple who went missing in Elaine were young, and Elaine is an easy town to disappear into, as Chris will himself experience a bit later. Elaine appears to be a ghost town almost, but there are always people around the corner, in a store, scurrying around unseen until they enact some form of violence or create confusion for Chris. The town also has issues with power supply and cellular phone connectivity so one cannot seek help very easily. The couple who disappeared immediately rang a bell for me. In 2005, a young couple became lost in the Nebraska winter. They were on meth, and became so hopelessly turned around in the snow at night that they could not give accurate information to 911 operators, and their cell phone pinged from one tower to the next, making it impossible to narrow down where they were. The couple eventually left their car and died of hypothermia, but this case has some interesting traction because, much like the Elisa Lam case, many have a hard time believing that psychosis is a thing that happens, be it via mental illness or drug consumption. The couple reported seeing people in the trees, dressed in robes, convinced that they were being stalked and were about to be murdered. Some believe the couple were indeed being stalked by a cult of some sort, and were specifically driven out of their car into the snow in an attempt to kill the couple via hypothermia, based on the female’s account of blacks and Mexicans in cult garb moving cars around to confuse them. There is something very dark and cult-like in Elaine, something that obviously killed the young people whose innards ended up as cat snacks. And cell phones wouldn’t have saved the dead couple in Elaine either.
Does this mean anything? Probably not. But maybe?
Last point I niggled around with was Pastor Toivo, the repulsive televangelist whose giddiness describing biblical incest was unnerving. Later the pastor revealed he himself had been having sex with his daughter, named Elaine of course, and had sired children with her. Agnes’s father doesn’t have much of a reaction to any of this and says that he knows Pastor Toivo and that he can introduce Chris to him. Agnes’ father, Karl, says Toivo isn’t that much of a kook once you get to know him. If Ben revealed Toivo’s last name, I missed it, but “Toivo” means “hope” in Finnish. Pastor Toivo was the final nail in the coffin for me, so to speak, where Elaine was concerned. A lot of what is happening in Elaine can be explained away as just a young man experiencing sexual dreams under stress, a sad daughter acting strangely after her mother’s death, a small town that seems strange to outsiders, an overzealous police force with a Barney Fife level of incompetence combined with a demented blood lust. But Pastor Toivo? What father is okay with a man who uses the Bible to justify raping his daughter and having children with her? Who can look at such behavior and call it kooky? There’s something very wrong in Elaine and even the common folk there don’t seem to recognize it.
There’s more in this book to analyze, from the sexual behavior of the Elaines to a cloying figurine with an upsetting spiritual message. But you can also ignore all of my digging around and just enjoy the strangeness and upsetting nature of the book, which is often softened a bit by some of the ridiculous things that happen to Chris. Ben’s style is one I enjoy – he paints a picture without excruciating scene setting. He uses caricatures of specific behavior to paint ambiguous looks at surprisingly complex characters. It’s an enjoyable book that doesn’t require the sort of poking I do to enjoy it. But, if like me, you have a love of Finland combined with a lot of knowledge about weird stuff that resonates with you as you read, this book may become a bit more than a story of a young man in love being swallowed up by a weird town full of malignant people.
I recommend this book and really need for Ben to explain what Elaine is. I’m very likely on the wrong path, not seeing what Ben is hoping to convey in Elaine, but even if I am completely lost, it was still an enjoyable trip. This is a book that invokes a sort of creepy, insular pagan behavior that causes outsiders to call out for a cleansing fire, though who should burn isn’t entirely clear. Have a read and let me know how you feel at the end.
*Invariably, when I mention my desire to live somewhere in Scandinavia, people helpfully mention that it is cold there. It’s evidently very hard for people to believe a native Texan would want to go to some place so cold, and I guess they figure I must not know that Finland is a bit nippy at times and want to save me from making a terrible mistake. To me, the weather in Finland seems delightful because the only time they really seem like they are sweltering is when they specifically recreate in their saunas the conditions I find on my back porch nine months out of the year. Though as I type this I am sort of remembering how awful the February snow storm was, but I suspect Finland doesn’t have the same grid issues we have in Texas and I would have access to heat when the snow begins to fall in Helsinki. Even so, I would consider such cold to be a feature, not a bug.