Child Wonder by Roy Jacobsen

Child-WonderRoy Jacobsen’s novel smells not like Teen Spirit, but like a dismal council estate, and like change and growing up. The story is set at the beginning of the 1960s, and the protagonist is Finn, a boy about 10 years old. Finn lives with his divorced mother in a depressing, smallish apartment, until one day his mother decides to sub-let one of their rooms to earn some extra money. After a little bit of renovation, and after meeting a couple of less-than-desirable potential tenants, she finally finds a suitable person – Kristian. Kristian always pays in a timely manner, so that’s good, but according to the mother he’s still a rather strange figure: for instance, he owns a TV set but he never watches any programs; sometimes he speaks like a university professor, and sometimes swears worth than a street-kid; and even though he’s full of stories about his past jobs, no-one knows for sure what he does for a living now – and all this baffles Finn’s mother enormously.

Not long after Kristian moves in, the family circle is extended by yet another person – Finn’s half-sister, Linda arrives. Linda is the daughter of Finn’s father from his second marriage, and her mother is incapable of taking proper care of her, so Finn’s mother agrees to take the girl in. Well, if Kristian is strange, then Linda is even more so: she’s unbelievably slow and drowsy, she barely opens her mouth to speak, and for a long time she doesn’t make friends with anybody – all in all, she’s not like a typical child at all.

Because of the presence of Kristian (who considers himself something like a family member, and from time to time behaves like a husband and a father) and Linda (who doesn’t trust anybody, and requires a lot of care), and because of their sometimes legitimate, sometimes hardly understandable claims on Finn and his mother, the hitherto wonderfully harmonic and honest relationship between mother and son slowly begins to change. Old pains and hidden memories resurface (for instance, after years of carefully hiding the photos of her ex-husband, the mother finally brings herself to show the pictures to his son); the mother sometimes disappears mysteriously – to which her son reacts by shedding his customary role as mummy’s nice and obedient little boy, and he himself disappears for a while, and gets involved in a couple of violent pranks; and of course there’s the fact of Finn’s impending adolescence – he experiences the first schoolyard crush and the first disappointment, and all this naturally puts a distance between him and his mother.

The story is told from the (partly naive-childish, partly adolescent-adultlike) point of view of Finn (who is often very mature for his age), so it’s not surprising that a whole lot of events and details of the novel remain unexplained or inexplicable – since a boy of 10 probably doesn’t fully understand the importance of the things he witnesses or experiences, no matter how clever and mature he is. Of course, being an adult reader, I can usually understand the majority of the events Finn naively describes, but still – I often felt that it would have been good to get some more details to be able to understand what happens, and, more importantly, why certain things happen. Again, an example. The relationship between the mother and Kristian presumably goes well beyond what you would usually expect between a proprietor and a lodger, and their relationship is an important plot-line in the novel. Yet, apart from a couple of very vague hints, we don’t get to know anything about their affair, and this way it’s rather difficult to properly understand the nature and importance of their emotional outbursts and quarrels.

Certainly, I can understand (or rather: I can come up with an explanation) why nothing is ever properly illuminated here, and why the novel is so vague in terms of its emotional content. The reason for this is (or might be) that this book is mostly about the unbelievable complexity, ambiguity and inexplicability of human relationships and feelings – and Jacobsen himself seems to have decided to write a novel which is emotionally ambiguous and hazy. Yet – I would have been glad if he had tried a bit harder to explain the unexplainable.

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Trist som faen [Sad as Hell] by Ari Behn

tristAri Behn’s short story collection contains very short, minimalistic stories – some of them are actually shorter than an average post on this blog, and perhaps this is the reason why I feel that I cannot write a long review about them. For instance, I wouldn’t be able to engage in a lengthy analysis of contemporary Norwegian society, of the crisis of the nuclear family, or of the newly emerging gender roles which – according to the blurb of the Hungarian edition – are the major themes of these stories. I don’t mean that the blurb is misleading, Behn’s stories are indeed about these topics, but they are so short and seemingly simple that for once I feel it’s much easier to read the book than to imagine what it might be like, based on my post. Of course I still write something about them – contrary to Ari Behn I’m unable to create minimalistic writings of any kind.

Behn’s short stories concentrate on small but important life events. In one story, a young husband who spends a lot of time away from his wife comes home to find that someone dug a pool in his garden and it turns out that it was his father who did it, without asking for his permission. In another one the protagonist is staying in Las Vegas and he’d like to find his luck there – but all he wins is a night with two whores and their pimps, sleeping away on the couch of the hotel room. There’s one in which the career of a young and promising sportswoman’s comes to an end in three seconds. And there’s another one where the protagonist, a football fan/football hooligan (it depends on your point of view) finally has to decide whether it’s football or his wife which is more important to him. And so on.

These stories are very condensed and thick, and of course they leave a lot of things unsaid. But their minimalism doesn’t leave me wishing for more information, their thickness is not suffocating, and the things they don’t say can be imagined. For instance, I don’t have to know the name of the protagonist in the story about the pool in the backyard, I don’t have to know how long he’s been married or exactly what kind of tensions exist between him and his father – without all this information, I can still imagine very well why he’s upset because his father dug a pool in his garden, or why he resents the fact that his wife is happy about the new pool.

By the way, Behn’s short stories are often very beautiful and expressive. The last couple of lines in the story about the football fan (which describe a photo of his wife that he threw in to the field during the match) are astonishing. And the „typically” masculine day-dreaming of the protagonist of another story about a woman he meets by accident and who is immediately willing to engage in wild sexual intercourse with him is also fascinating. And it’s enough for Ari Behn to write a single sentence to show me the violet-colored American sky and the brightness of Las Vegas where huge limousines cruise up and down the streets day and night.

To keep it simple: this is a good book. (As far as I know, Ari Behn hasn’t written anything as good as this ever since.)

Naïve.Super by Erlend Loe

After reading Doppler and its sequel, I grew to love Erlend Loe very much and I could hardly wait until I had the chance to read another one of his books. And Naïve. Super was no disappointment – just like in the case of the two Doppler novels, I read this with a constant smile on my face, the only difference being the quality of my smile. While the Doppler novels were often screamingly funny or made me laugh in a sarcastic/slightly evil kind of way, Naïve.Super put a soft, glowing, happy smile on my face throughout.

The novel doesn’t have a story proper so I won’t dwell too long on the plot – partly because it’s forgettable, and partly because Naïve. Super happens to be about non-action and not about action. Just to give you some idea though, the novel is about a couple of months period in the life of a 25-year-old young man. During these months, our unnamed (?) protagonist systematically burns all the bridges between himself and society, he drops out of university and moves into the temporarily empty flat of his brother where he spends his days day-dreaming, throwing a ball around, playing with a silly children’s toy which involves some hammering, compiling lists and, in general, doing nothing. In the meantime, he tries to figure out how the things of the world are interconnected and whether it’s possible that there’s a happy ending to the events going on.

Maybe it’s only because I read Doppler before reading Naïve. Super and I tend to compare everything by Erlend Loe to it, but I feel that this novel is the prequel to Doppler in many respects. For instance, the withdrawal from society is a central theme in both novels, childish/childhood activities play an important role in both of them, and both Doppler and the main character of Naïve. Super tend to stand apart and adopt an ironic, critical point of view, but neither of them takes himself too seriously or pretends to be some infallible wise guy. By the way it’s interesting that some topics are covered in both novels in almost exactly the same way, e.g. the main characters of both novels tend to get involved in long trains of thought about the fact that they know too many unnecessary facts, they are too clever, but all this cleverness is no advantage whatsoever, instead, it makes their lives more difficult.

Anyway, Naïve. Super is a good novel on its own as well. It’s a nice and simple read which makes you wonder dreamily about life and the world. And even though the main character might be a trifle too naïve for a 25-year-old, I was happy to live in his mind and to wonder with him about questions such as where his childhood enthusiasm (which enabled him to ski for hours until he fainted because of hunger) drained away; and I enjoyed reading his lists about important and not so important things, or his musings about the nature of time.

Speaking about time – the nicest thing in the novel (for me) is that the protagonist gives himself enough time for everything: time to think, to play, to rage, to day-dream, to categorize things – and to find his peace with the world while doing all this. I believe it’s a truly amiable personality trait if someone can get lost in all this – perhaps useless – wondering, thinking, path-finding to such a great extent as the main character of this novel can. Perhaps I’m just jealous of him, because I’m not like this, but I definitely grew to love this boy very much.

Finally some words about the postmodern traits of this novel. Naïve. Super is full of unusual textual elements, such as lists, the results of library catalog searches, faxes and emails, and these are not there by accident at all. For instance, I think it’s a lovely episode (and it shows us how innocent the protagonist’s mind is) when the main character and his brother run searches in the library catalog for fun, and while his brother searches for obscene words, the protagonist runs a query for „ball” and „clock” – he’s interested in such ingenuous things. So I think it’s worth while to pay attention to these small details which may seem to be there only to fill up some space – if you do this, you may also find out the name of the narrator at one point, which could make you question and reinterpret everything you’ve read that far – but I shall leave this up to you.

Doppler by Erlend Loe

A few years back I used to see this novel quite often in the bookstores, but its oft-criticized cover baffled me and I had never felt the slightest inclination to read the book. Then I came across a review of Doppler peppered with some quotations from the text, and I realized that Loe’s book is something I might be interested in. I got hold of the novel soon after and quickly read it, and it turned out that Doppler is everything I expected and even more than that.

The anti-hero of the novel is Andreas Doppler, a middle-class husband and father of two children, who lives an uneventful, normal middle-class life. Then one day, after a bicycle accident he decides to suspend his boring life for a while and move to the forest surrounding Oslo, in order to stop being a smart-ass, to avoid communication with people and to bring the art of idleness to perfection. However, his solitude is not unperturbed: Doppler finds himself in the company of the young moose, Bongo, the scale-modeling Düsseldorf, the bourgeois Bosse who is busy organizing a peace festival in the forest, his cartoon-junkie son, Gregus, and the burglar Roger who was just thrown out by his girl-friend, and finally Doppler leaves his tent to search for a quieter place, as the forest has become too crowded for his taste.

The novel abounds in extremely funny episodes: for instance we can witness how Doppler goes about killing a moose then uses the meat to trade it in for his daily liter of low-fat milk; we see Doppler in his house, jovially chatting and drinking away with the burglar who is just about to steal his belongings; and we can also see how Doppler erects a monument in order to commemorate his late father. And apart from the grotesque quality of the events, we also read hilariously amusing and self-ironic meditations on the bad effects of TV, the ubiquity of popular culture or the harmful consequences of being a wise-guy.

Judging from the beginning and the general topic of the novel, Doppler could easily have been a moralizing, gloomy and cynically told story which wants to hammer in a lot of serious truths. Fortunately, Doppler is everything but this. Rather, it is an outstandingly entertaining read. I hardly ever laugh out loud while reading, but I giggled through Doppler from the beginning to the end. As Kurt Vonnegut says in one of his novels the title of which escapes me now, we are on this earth in order to horse around, and I believe Doppler is the perfect example of „fooling around as a way of life”.

Of course Doppler also contains a lot of social criticism, talks about the emptiness of human relationships and refers to the dark historical background of some of the characters, however, I never felt it to be a distressing work, thanks to the style and self-irony of its anti-hero. Doppler does not take himself seriously for a minute and does not pretend to be the only person in the world who knows the road to wisdom and salvation. On the contrary, he frankly admits that he cannot and does not want to be anyone’s spiritual guide, since his own move to the forest was only due to a lucky coincidence.

Doppler does not want to convert anybody to his lifestyle, on the contrary, he would prefer if everybody stayed at home or kept to the beaten tracks in the forest, and let him carve his monument for his father, play memory games with Bongo or simply do nothing. To preserve his quiet way of life, Doppler can even become violent or start to casually threaten other people with violence. So it seems that despite the apparent similarity, Doppler is not quite a mild, Thoreau-like figure camping out at Walden Pond and peacefully contemplating the beauty of forest animals or bean-cultivation, and in the meantime showing everyone the wonders of simple life and the possibilities lying in passive resistance. Instead, Doppler is the cynical, witty product of modern life who would like to get out of the grasps of civilization, but is only able to do this partially and for a short period, as civilization follows him to the forest (e.g. he cannot get rid of the tune of the cartoon Bananas in Pajamas, which is stuck in his mind) and he cannot cut himself loose from it either, as he is dependent on some of its products, such as low-fat milk.

It is of course possible to interpret Doppler’s failure to create an alternative life in the forest as something tragic, and it is also possible to think that it really must be an awful world where individual values and efforts are doomed to failure, as no-one can get out of civilization completely, however, Doppler is much too ironic and entertaining a novel and I do not think it should be spoiled by too much moralizing and gloomy thoughts. As I already mentioned, Doppler does not take himself seriously, so I believe the reader should not take him too seriously or consider him an example to follow either. This is a very amusing novel, so the best you can do is to be amused by it.