Critic Jan Swafford has called the music of Bach “indestructible”—whether performed on harpsichord, on piano, on Moog synthesizer, or by jazz vocal group, the master composer’s soaring counterpoint never fails to impress. Shakespeare’s plots have a similar quality: the Bard’s precisely judged character studies have served as sturdy skeletons for everything from prep-school melodramas to sci-fi creature features. The newest addition to this kissing-cousin canon is also one of the most self-conscious: Lin Enger’s novel Undiscovered Country, which sets Hamlet in the north woods of Minnesota.
Undiscovered Country, a novel by Lin Enger. Published by Little, Brown (2008). $23.99.
It’s a compelling premise, and not just from a local standpoint. The desolate crags, hulking fortresses, and bitter politics of medieval Denmark all have their analogues in the distant realms beyond Duluth. Enger, who teaches creative writing at MSU Moorhead, renders the setting with creditable subtlety—no windy passages about the pines lining the hills like uneven teeth or the lakes that keep their secrets well—but fails to populate it with empathetic characters.
Standing in for the tortured prince is teenage Jesse Matson, who at the novel’s outset loses his father to a seemingly self-inflicted rifle wound while the two are separated on a hunting trip. With reasonable promptness given the circumstances, Jesse’s father returns as a ghostly apparition to reveal that Jesse’s jealous uncle was in fact responsible for the deed, and to charge Jesse with the awkward task of exacting vengeance. Jesse is then left to determine how, and whether, this can be done without angering his doubtful mother or getting himself (at best) dumped by his frustratingly scrupulous girlfriend or (at worst) jailed by the boozy local gendarme.
The novel is a compelling read, but for reasons that have less to do with character development than with Enger’s unwillingness to let the fact that he’s writing a work of hardcover literary fiction for a major publishing house keep him from popping into the pulp-fiction toolbox. In one scene, Jesse and his girlfriend are waiting for his uncle to arrive at a shadowy rendezvous—when suddenly something appears behind them! Oh, wait, it’s just a deer. Then Uncle Clay shows up. In another scene, Jesse is trying to extract information from a source who will yield no secrets—until Jesse turns in frustration and walks away. Then the reticent Dwayne stops Jesse. “There’s one thing, he said.”
The wheels of the plot spin, but the characters fail to transcend their archetypal roles—and Enger has chosen to make them painfully aware of the fact that they’re playing out a storied drama. “How could I have been so dull?” asks Jesse. “Hamlet had everything in it. Everything.”
Jay Gabler is the Daily Planet’s arts editor.