Review: ‘A System So Magnificent It Is Blinding,’ by Amanda Svensson

A SYSTEM SO MAGNIFICENT IT IS BLINDING, by Amanda Svensson | Translated by Nichola Smalley

At first, the triplets at the center of Amanda Svensson’s novel “A System So Magnificent It Is Blinding” appear to be archetypal siblings: a boy and two girls born in 1989 to a slightly neurotic Swedish family that’s eventually splintered by divorce. By 2016, though, Sebastian is working as a scientist at a shadowy medical research institute in London; Clara is foraging on remote, forbidding Easter Island in the company of a doomsday cult; and the chromophobic Matilda is living in Berlin, fumbling through ersatz stepmotherhood while trying to avoid anything colored blue. The sudden disappearance of their feckless father and an accompanying bombshell announcement by their fretful mother bring them into contact to confess old secrets, heal old wounds and, perhaps, glue the fractured brood back together.

As Sebastian falls in love, Clara falls in line and Matilda falls apart, the siblings’ rotating stories propel Svensson’s chaotic family saga in all sorts of bizarre and involving directions — it’s almost as if you’re being dared to keep up with it all. A camarilla of crackbrained supporting characters only adds to the bedlam, weaving in and out of the triplets’ respective tales. Their ranks include an unhappily married young mother who can see the world only in two dimensions, an anorexic former child star, a smarmy guru, a monkey with an unassailable moral compass, a conceited musician, some soothsaying cicadas and Dakota Fanning. (Yes, that Dakota Fanning.) One half expects Mr. Micawber to show up.

The triplets and their mélange of cuckoo birds may be interesting to gape at, but after rumbling along for 500-plus pages their misadventures and, more important, motivations become increasingly opaque, with Svensson hatching a bunch of literary Easter eggs that end up rather scrambled. She welters in thinky asides, producing a hyper-intellectual fable that riddles you into a house of mirrors from which you wonder if you’ll ever emerge. (Imagine packaging the universe’s most existential questions as Abbott and Costello’s “Who’s on First?” routine.) As a result, the siblings themselves eventually seem neither particularly interesting nor complex, but come to resemble the cliché of insufferable millennials absorbed in their own incessant navel gazing.

Buckling up for Svensson’s long, strange trip does prove kind of worth it, however, if for no other reason than to luxuriate in her nitid descriptions, which coast along the page with the effortless grace of stones skimming a pond (“The air smelled of exhaust fumes and caramelized almonds and expensive perfume evaporating from the sweaty skin of women”). Blasé observations become literary drive-by shootings: “In every family … there’s someone indispensable, and someone you could take or leave”; Matilda walks “out into a city that wasn’t hers, and a loneliness that was.”

The revelation of a long-kept family secret delivers a bracing jolt that sends the narrative off in even more flindered directions before bringing everyone together for an equally knotty, harum-scarum ending. At the heart of Svensson’s tumultuous epic lies a perennial query: Are our lives simply random intersections of space and time, or are they part of a grand master plan of the universe, where we are all but cosmic marionettes and nothing is coincidence? In the end, this vexing jigsaw puzzle of a novel issues a covert wink as it answers. In the words of the colorfully kooky Elif, the former child star now palling around Easter Island with Clara and a ragtag group waiting for the world to end: “Life’s just one big mess.”

Michael Callahan is currently at work on his third novel, “The Letters From Martha’s Vineyard.”

A SYSTEM SO MAGNIFICENT IT IS BLINDING | By Amanda Svensson | Translated by Nichola Smalley | 527 pp. | Scribe | Paperback, $20