Reading Review: The Rabbit Back Literature Society by Pasi Ilmari Jääskeläinen

This is a fiction book about fictional books and the fictional people who write them. The Rabbit Back Literature Society is a prestigious collective of nine writers in Finland, led by Laura White, who is regarded as their literary mentor and saviour. She’s a writing God, essentially. The Society is joined by the unexpected protagonist, Ella after she writes a short story. The writers flock to her and on we go with a story of mystery, writing and sexual tensions and suspected murder and… It’s a weird book. Super metaphysical shit goes down. It has an off-kilter prose style, which is either intentional or symptomatic of translation. Clean cut prose with some major turns in lines that made it hard to stay on my chair.

The Rabbit Back writers follow The Game; a technique they use to extract raw literature from each other. You can’t lie, each writer playing The Game has to spill. These sections, for the most part, switch into a present tense perspective, when the rest of the book is in past, and it comes across as urgency but is a little jarring, making me check what tense I was in beforehand. Maybe I should pay better attention. The spills are the most driving parts of the book. We see the most horrendous parts of writers come to life on their own lips, as they stand there, bleeding out, to someone else who can use it as material for their own work. It’s psychotic and truthful. Makes me think of my poetry lecturer telling me, ‘when you’re being beaten up in the street, you can find solace in the fact you’ll have something to write about after leaving the hospital.’ Why do we do this to ourselves?

In other places, it reads like a record skip. Stuff gets mentioned over and over, like the protagonist Ella, with perfect lips and defective ovaries. Nothing comes of these details. Jääskeläinen even mentions her job title over and over within short spaces of time. Turn the page, he’s reminding me she’s a lit grad. Again. This is all there really is to her. She’s a vehicle for the incredibly well-fleshed characters around her but I felt no arc in Ella throughout, so even though the journey is only possible because of her and what she learns is threatening weird and fun, she doesn’t progress as a character. She is still a researcher/lit teacher with perfect lips and an inability to have children. WHY MENTION IT?!?!!?! I mean, there is loose symbolism that I could tie it to in relation to the creation of work in the novel but it’s way loose…

Jääskeläinen has crafted a literary-mystery farce, loaded with heavy moments that are worth the read. But this is a book I was constantly asking myself ‘what is driving me to read this?’ The characters are worth it but if you want plot, stay away. It’s nice that Jääskeläinen gives you an opportunity to just be with characters, something that is undervalued BUT the plot still needs a sense of progression. Maybe if Ella changed more it would have been better.

Read When: You want character, visceral dream sequences, mystery, oddity, symbolism, some killer lines.
Don’t Read When: You want driving plot, conclusive endings, you’re avoiding ‘writer on writer’ type stories…

The Rabbit Back Literature Society, Pasi Ilmari Jääskeläinen, tr. from Finnish by Lola M. Rogers Pushkin Press, 2013

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