Book review

If one were to combine the deadpan eeriness of Yorgos Lanthimos, the campy yet grotesque body horror of David Cronenberg, and the Dada-infused homoeroticism of William Burroughs, the end result would look something like “After the Sun” by Jonas Eika.

Translated from Danish by Sherilyn Nicolette Hellberg, Eika’s collection of short stories is his English-language debut. Although a translator’s credit usually doesn’t extend past the small font on a book’s interior title page, the complexity of Hellberg’s task will be clear to any who crack open “After the Sun.”

Often, the mark of a talented translator is their invisibility; a typical reader doesn’t stop to consider the process of translation until a word catches or grates. However, Eika’s idiom is peculiar and disarming by design. It doesn’t move with the rhythm of ordinary language, and it brims with non sequiturs and offbeat metaphors. The effect is bewitching, and a certain level of incoherence is intentional. It would be hard to replicate in any language.

Some fiction seeks to expand your perspective, but Eika shrinks your gaze, pulling it toward his subjects precisely in the moments when distance is most desirable. His writing is scarily intimate, drawing attention to the social atomization that is a defining feature of life in an advanced capitalist economy.

“After the Sun” opens with “Alvin,” perhaps the most welcoming story in a collection that gets progressively more bizarre. When an IT worker arrives in Copenhagen to service the software of a local bank, he strikes up a friendship with a derivatives trader he meets in a café. Bathed in dim blue light, these two strangers lie next to each other with laptops propped on their bellies, casually manipulating the price of consumer goods by drastic margins deep into the night. Their small boosts in serotonin belie the utter banality of capitalism in action, how abstracted their clicks and scrolls are from the actual material goods and services that make up an economy. “Alvin” is an excellent distillation of Eika’s style, an example of his capacity to make sci-fi what is already otherworldly. It also showcases his light touch, the way that his omissions make up half the story.

Eika doesn’t traffic in archetypes or employ recognizable character tropes. Readers who seek a mirror to their own experiences won’t find it in “After the Sun,” at least not in a direct sense. Each story operates with its own internal logic, so as a reader, you’ll find yourself immersed in worlds whose boundaries you’re unsure of.

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In “Rachel, Nevada,” an elderly man performs a gruesome surgery on himself in an attempt to “merge” with an extraterrestrial machine he finds in the desert. In “Me, Rory and Aurora,” a young drifter latches onto the marriage of a pregnant woman who sells drugs at a church-factory-rehab-hospital and her stay-at-home husband. In these stories, the allegories are less graspable than in “Alvin,” and the degree to which these worlds resemble an alternate or heightened version of our reality is unclear. What radiates from Eika’s gritty magical realism is ambient but potent: a grief so profound that it transfigures, a loneliness so abject that it fractures perception.

Eika’s critiques of capitalism are nimble yet rigorous, never slipping into the rote jargon of social media, which can be hard for authors to avoid these days, even in fiction. “Me, Rory and Aurora” depicts a postmodern Dickensian hellscape that reveals itself gradually through impressions. The most memorable story in the collection, “Bad Mexican Dog,” functions in a similar way.

Narrated by a Mexican “beach boy” for whom exploitation is a fact of life, this perspective is perhaps the most unsettling one you’ll inhabit while reading “After the Sun.” He is 15 and describes himself as moving with “a little curve in his back like a panther, small and bashful.” The Cancún resort where he lives and works is filled with wealthy vacationers who he massages, lathers in sunscreen, and indulges in sexual favors. His gaze is hyper-focused and provincial; each day he works toward the high honor of becoming someone’s “personal boy,” and when he notices a change in his close friend, the only vocabulary he can think to describe it is that a “big, stony parasol” has come over him. The resort is “one big economy of the sun,” where even the Earth’s natural resources, especially human beings, are subject to retail logic.

Dreamy, febrile and thoroughly twisted, “After the Sun” is a collection from an author who aims to confound perception through language and small distortions of reality.

The book often reads like poetry, and like poetry, attempting to extract meaning from any one sentence or stanza is not always possible. But what you’re left with are impressions, feelings that break through and haunt you. A bold debut from an author who understands the generative capacity of fiction, “After the Sun” is a glimpse into our brutal world through Eika’s slanted gaze.

NEW FICTION

‘After the Sun’

By Jonas Eika, translated by Sherilyn Nicolette Hellberg; Riverhead Books, 208 pp., $26

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