I wasn’t prepared for Finna and Defekt, the two novellas so far comprising Nino Cipri’s LitenVerse. It’s hard to find stories that effectively satirize consumer capitalism and combine that with penetrating portraits of relationships, but here they are! These are absorbing and insightful stories skillfully blending emotional realities of dealing with gender, love, and loneliness with wonderfully absurdist takes on commercial culture that remind me of the crazy capitalism in Philip K. Dick’s novels. Nino Cipri is a talent to watch.
Both Finna and Defekt take place in what seems like the limited confines of the strange box store called LitenVärld. It’s one of a chain selling home furnishings arranged along vexing pathways of fully equipped showrooms that sit next to each “like habitats in a hyper-condensed zoo.”
“Here was the habitat for the Pan-Asian Appropriating White Yoga Instructor, complete with tatami mats and a statue of Shiva; next to it huddled the Edgelord Rockabilly Dorm Room, with black leather futon and Quentin Tarantino posters.Finna, Kindle edition, Location 28
In Finna, we see the store first through the eyes of Ava, a young woman who works in customer service mostly to avoid having contact with her recent ex, Jules. Jules is a Black trans offspring of immigrant parents, who never feels at ease in the world, and their general feeling of displacement became too much for Ava. Jules also hates their job. They became frustrated with having to explain to customers about their gender and trivial questions about home furnishings and so transferred to assembly. Now they spend frustrating days trying to piece furniture together from unreadable diagrams.
One day, a young woman comes up to Ava to report her missing grandmother. Ava’s supervisor Trisha at once takes over because this is not a simple case of someone getting lost among the dozens of weirdly-themed showrooms. No, she explains to her assembled staff in her office (“a purgatory of fallen LitenVärld fashions, a claustrophobic island of misfit furniture”). This is a case of someone stepping through one of the wormholes which pop up in the store from time to time. Two “volunteers” have to go find the woman, using a device called the Finna to guide them through the multiverse.
So it is that Ava and Jules, despite their efforts to avoid each other, set off together in search of the lost grandmother. They pass through one wormhole after another, sometimes running for their lives in a pursuit that forms the core of this novella. It’s a wild ride that builds to a great climax, but what makes the story especially interesting for me is the focus on the tensely caring relationship between Jules and Ava.
They are so brittle with each other, blowing up over minor misunderstandings, that it’s clear there is a lot of feeling left between them. Not only that, Cipri has a great gift for capturing the chaotic mix of emotions they struggle with. Ava asks at one point: “Do you think there’s a universe out there where we didn’t break up?” In thinking about the multiverse, Jules reflects:
“Infinite iterations,” Jules said. Their voice was hardly more than a whisper, but Ava could hear everything Jules was feeling in those two words: grief, but also acceptance, and just a hint of the wonder that always animated Jules, an abiding surprise with the world.”Finna, Kindle edition, Location 7646
I love this character! Their fraught relationship with Ava and the world in general gets more and more real as the surreal setting they plunge through gets more and more bizarre. This is a beautiful story that skillfully weaves together a deep look at relationships, an exciting chase through other worlds and a satiric rendering of consumer capitalism at its grotesque worst.
Defekt switches focus to the “perfect” employee, Derek, whose unheard-of day off sparked the action in Finna. The author brilliantly frames this longer novella around a special employee manual. Who’d have thought that would work? But it does! In a recent essay, Cipri talks about rhetoric as world building, and they carry that off perfectly here.
The manual is full of fake family rhetoric and endless euphemisms barely concealing the readiness of those in power to punish and remove anyone who steps out of line. It’s a true corporate dystopia.
Derek prides himself on being a diligent employee who even lives in a re-purposed shipping container on the edge of the store’s parking lot. But he has a problem getting along with other people. He constantly checks the mirror to see if he can shape his mouth properly in a convincing smile and say the words of greeting and family camaraderie (as spelled out in the manual), but he seems to make everyone around him uncomfortable. He is profoundly alone. In many powerful passages, Cipri captures Derek’s feelings:
“Derek sometimes woke up to crushing loneliness, a shocking sense of isolation that made his chest feel as hollow as an empty cardboard box; as if all that held him together were thin slices of cheap packing tape and inertia. In the middle of that loneliness, he couldn’t remember who he was or what his purpose was, why he was in a narrow bed in a small room, and most pressing, why he was alone. His solitude had mass, and shifted Derek’s personal gravity toward it, pulling him down into a spiral of despair.”Defekt, Kindle edition, Page 31
As someone who has written for years about depression and loneliness, I’d say that’s one of the most incisive and moving descriptions of this state of mind I’ve ever read.
The story gets going when Derek is locked in the store to do overnight inventory along with a team he’s never met. Their job is to seek out and destroy “defekta” or “animate, murderous, mutant furniture” caused by a self-replicating mutagenic defect. Seems that LitenVärld has been saving money by bringing in items from alternate worlds through wormholes, and defekta are the unexpected problem that comes with these imports.
Derek’s team forces him to face truths about himself he never understood and also help him find peace and acceptance in the world of defekta. It’s a remarkable and deeply human story about the ultimate capitalist trick of finding a docile workforce. Fortunately, it all backfires on management in an engrossing narrative. My only problem was the disappointing ending, which just brought the story to a close abruptly and left me wanting a lot more.
Despite that, I recommend these two short books highly. Cipri is a true original, and I look forward to the next projects they produce from their teeming imagination.