On an early morning in Oslo in 1970, Arvid Jansen shimmies up his high school flagpole and replaces his nation’s flag with that of the Viet Cong. Confronted by the headmaster in front of his classmates, Arvid takes the opportunity to expound on the evils of the U.S. occupation of Vietnam and Norway’s complicit foreign policy, all the time being observed from a far corner by his good friend Audun Sletten. “I guess it’s all very important,” Audun shrugs, “but I am up to my neck in my own troubles, and it almost makes me want to throw up.”
Frequent readers of Per Petterson have by now come to know Arvid Jansen rather well. In typical Petterson fashion, Arvid’s life has been examined in alternating atemporal versions set forth in In the Wake and, most recently, in the masterful I Curse the River of Time. Arvid is often the vehicle through which the author explores and recasts episodes of his own past—“[h]e’s not my alter ego, he’s my stunt man,” Petterson stated in a 2009 interview with The Guardian. Vulnerable, self-absorbed, and made miserable by hindsight, Arvid is an incredibly sympathetic character. If for no other reason than this, then, English readers should be delighted to now have access to one of Petterson’s early novels (first published in Norway in 1992): It’s Fine By Me.
Arvid is a prominent character in the novel, but it isn’t his story. Rather, it’s that of his troubled friend Audun, a young man who, with his “real problems”—a violent and drunken father who is, luckily, often absent; a beloved but drug-addicted younger brother, killed in a car accident; a lonely single mother struggling to support her children; and numbing jobs with long hours and little respect—is the actual embodiment of the working class hero that Arvid has so frequently wished to be. But as seen through Audun’s eyes, there’s nothing in the least romantic about his situation in life.
“It’s fine by me,” (reminiscent of Elliot Gould’s own cynical chorus of “It’s okay with me,” in Robert Altman’s 1973 adaptation of The Long Goodbye) is Auden’s go-to retort, forced in its apathy when pretty much everything that he remarks on is anything but. In fact, Audun cares a great deal about what happens around him—cares about his sister who he thinks may be in an abusive relationship, cares about a neighbor whose brother is getting into drugs, cares about Arvid and his family, cares about doing well in school, and literature, and Jimi Hendrix, and woodsy hideouts where he felt safe as a child. But isolating himself and not caring—or at least giving the appearance of not caring—is far easier and exposes him less.
Although there actually is quite a lot in the way of plot happenings, It’s Fine By Me is a rather familiar, somewhat anticlimactic coming-of-age narrative where the ‘what’ matters far less than the ‘how.’ This is by no means Petterson’s strongest novel, nor should it really be expected to be—it was, after all, one of his first. But although the flashbacks and overlapping memories fold together less seamlessly than in other Petterson novels, although the emotional pitch is generally less subtle (lots of capital letter exclamations when people are angry), and the visual metaphors more overdetermined (a beautiful runaway horse, turning just before it knocks over young Audun and Arvid), the novel is still compelling, and sometimes even quite funny. (A scene in which Audun and Arvid have to figure out how to put gas in Arvid’s father’s car is particularly delightful.) Petterson’s characterizations are always both sharp and empathetic, his prose measured, poetic, and visual. One feels connected to Audun—truly concerned for him—and yet, due entirely to Petterson’s writerly sleights of hand, the reader can distinguish between what has become entirely compressed and unified in Auden’s mind: run-of-the-mill teenage angst and real, emotional (and physical) trauma.
Through it all, Petterson allows for a quiet hopefulness, the possibility a better future for Audun. There is resonance in the clichéd assurances of a sympathetic neighbor: “You’re not eighteen all your life,” he tells Audun. “That may not be much of a consolation, but take a hint from someone who’s outside looking in: you’ll get through this.” ...more
Reviewed for Reviewing the Evidence in September 2011:
Norwegian author Jo Nesbø has made a name for himself worldwide with the success of his crimReviewed for Reviewing the Evidence in September 2011:
Norwegian author Jo Nesbø has made a name for himself worldwide with the success of his crime thrillers starring the down-and-out detective Harry Hole. Arguably, most of the appeal of these novels is not in the creatively gruesome crimes and criminals that Nesbø creates, but in Harry Hole, whose raging alcoholism and determined self-destruction cannot completely obstruct the fact that beneath it all, he's really, as Nesbø himself has said, "a Decent Guy."
Roger Brown, star of Nesbø's standalone novel Headhunters, diverges from Hole in all essentials. An arrogant, chauvinistic, and incredibly successful corporate headhunter, Brown moonlights as an art thief in order to supplement the decadent lifestyle he and his wife maintain, often stealing valuable paintings from the corporate candidates that he interviews for prestigious directorial positions. Brown is, as he tells us frequently, "king of the heap," the best of the best: he's never nominated a candidate for a position who has not ultimately been hired for the job. The secret of his success? The nine-step interrogation model developed by Inbau, Reid, and Buckley for the FBI.
Brown is not a "Decent Guy." Not even his relationship with his wife Diana, who he very nearly worships, reveals a sense of compassion or real devotion. (Women in general are given rather two-dimensional motivations and weaknesses throughout the novel—as one man gruffly remarks late in the novel: "Oestrogen makes you blind.") There's almost nothing likable about Brown, and in some respects, that's okay. Meeting his match in Clas Greve, a Dutch-Norwegian CEO superstar who also happens to own a priceless painting by Peter Paul Rubens, Brown finally has to really work not only to come out on top, but to survive at all. Unable to resist such a score, Brown steals the Rubens painting, only to discover that Greve has been an actual headhunter—trained by the Dutch army to track down drug dealers relentlessly through unfamiliar jungles. Here at last, is someone who is as ruthless as Brown. The reader is left to simply sit back and watch them destroy one another.
The ensuing chase and multiple double crosses are not for the faint of stomach—Brown's attempts to elude Greve lead to some desperate, and in many cases, disgusting measures. For some readers, these episodes will be just farcical and gross enough to be amusing, but mostly, the latter half of the novel becomes sadly tiresome. Nesbø also can't seem to commit to writing a strictly unlikable character, and develops a flimsy backstory for Brown which is meant to provide justification for his callousness and lead him to eventually reform his ways. What transformation does occur is rather flat, though, and Brown remains a pathologically self-serving and self-justifying man.
All the same, it bears noting that Jo Nesbø himself is a Decent Guy, and with the very successful initial publication of Headhunters in Norway, he created the Harry Hole Foundation, which gives out an annual Decent Guy (or Decent Lady) prize to deserving individuals to donate to the literacy-based charities of their choice. All domestic and international proceeds from Headhunters—including those from the film version that was made in Norway— will go directly to the Harry Hole Foundation, to continue to support literacy projects in developing countries. ...more
I'm reading all three volumes of Kjærstad's 'Wergeland' trilogy this summer (The Seducer, The Conqueror, and The Discoverer) and will be reviewing theI'm reading all three volumes of Kjærstad's 'Wergeland' trilogy this summer (The Seducer, The Conqueror, and The Discoverer) and will be reviewing them as a whole in August or September after the publication of the last book. It's an epic task--perhaps more epic than I realized when I started--but even as I was getting a bit exhausted by the end of The Seducer, it ends on such an expansive note that I suddenly feel like I have this new burst of momentum.
Expanding on the story developed in The Seducer, Kjærstad's The Conqueror dispels much of the hero/victim/creator/imitator/murderer mythology surroundExpanding on the story developed in The Seducer, Kjærstad's The Conqueror dispels much of the hero/victim/creator/imitator/murderer mythology surrounding Jonas Wergeland, and complicates both the factual details and the narration enough to keep readers engaged. Perhaps by virtue of the framing story--a professor is commissioned to write Wergeland's biography, but finds himself unable to do so without the unexpected aid of a mysterious woman who knows innumerable intimate details about Wergeland's life--this installment seems a little more accessible. Nesting stories, self-reflective narrators, and a hazy boundry between fact and fiction defines this expansive story, recalling both (forgive me) the 'pre-postmodernism' of Don Quixote and, of course, Kjærstad's beloved Arabian Nights. As this volume deals more with the darker aspects of Wergeland's life, he also feels like a more fully realized, tangible character than beforehand.
I'll be more articulate about this once I've finished the trilogy, but for now, I'll simply note that if you're going to read one of the Wergeland books, my money's on this volume. (I'll get back to you after I finish The Discoverer, though...)
There are a number of books—The Heart is a Lonely Hunter, The Waitress Was New, portions of Music for Chameleons, and, now, Per Petterson’s Out StealiThere are a number of books—The Heart is a Lonely Hunter, The Waitress Was New, portions of Music for Chameleons, and, now, Per Petterson’s Out Stealing Horses—that for lack of a better explanation, I find myself wanting to describe as “soft.” (A related quasi-useless descriptor might be “quiet.”) Where this designation came from I’m not entirely sure, but while I realize the inadequacy of a tactile description for a written work, I can’t seem to shake the term.
If I were to try and explain it—which, well, I’m going to—these “soft” novels and stories all share a quality of prose that allows the reader to sink into them, to be immersed in a rhythmic, almost internalized language that makes few, if any, references to outside literary influences, and insulates the reader within an entirely separate, entirely contained sphere for the duration of the novel. A lot might “happen” in the narrative, or, the book could be relatively plotless. But in either case, the novel’s prose supersedes its action. I suppose if I were going to take this to an even more exaggerated level of tacility (and, yes--forgive me, syrupiness) I’d say that reading this kind of prose reminds me of the sensation of sinking into a feather bed, tucked under a couple of thick blankets.
So, yes, “soft” literature. But moving along…
Out Stealing Horses is a lovely piece of fiction that entirely deserves the praise and attention it has received thus far. Petterson’s evocation of a youthful summer in the life of his isolated, monologue-driven narrator is one that really does rely almost entirely on its language to provide the emotional resonance (my props to Anne Born for her lovely and fluid translation). The plot of the novel has some tear-jerking moments that in the hands of another writer would feel a little empty—a little let’s-cry-together, Oprah-book-cluby. But because of the flowing sentence structure, because of the breathless, train-of-thought, mental-tangents that seamlessly create this story, even some of the story’s more convenient plot points seem connected and natural. ...more
Weaving together neo-Nazi drama, a tragic WWII love story, and police-force intrigue, Jo Nesbø’s internationally acclaimed novel, The Redbreast, certaWeaving together neo-Nazi drama, a tragic WWII love story, and police-force intrigue, Jo Nesbø’s internationally acclaimed novel, The Redbreast, certainly has a lot to recommend it, even if the final effect is somewhat anti-climactic. Our protagonist is the rough-edged Harry Hole (pronounced, I believe, along the lines of ‘Herler,’ though anyone who speaks Norwegian is encouraged to correct me), a semi-recovering (and frequently relapsing) alcoholic chain smoker who, due to his unorthodox methods (he’s a loose cannon!), finds new and creative ways to solve crimes, and occasionally make disastrous missteps. In the opening segment of the novel—arguably the best part of the book—we find Hole and the rest of the Oslo police force coordinating protection for the American president, who has come to Norway to attend a summit with various important world leaders (everyone except for the president, interestingly enough, is named…). A dire error on Hole’s part during this operation earns him a politically-motivated, but entirely unwanted and undeserved promotion, and also provides Nesbø with an opening to completely shift the focus of the novel.
As this promotion allows an entirely new and somewhat unrelated plot to take over the rest of the novel, one might wonder why Nesbø bothered to develop his first line of inquiry—a perfectly serviceable (and possibly preferable?) story about contemporary neo-Nazis in Oslo and bureaucratic corruption within the police force. But of course, we must remember that while it’s the first Hole novel to be translated into English, The Redbreast is actually third in Nesbø’s series. So perhaps this promotion and change of scene plays on a much more dramatic and grand scale for readers who have the requisite background…(Foiled again by a lack of translation!)
Although I was certainly fascinated by new factoids about Norway’s role in WWII, however, I have to admit that I was almost entirely uninterested by the romantic back story that ends up playing such a huge role in the novel. Moreover, I am ready to issue an edict that any novel that finds it appropriate to unleash a Multiple Personality Cop-Out over 400 pages into a novel should be issued with a disclaimer on the cover. (Especially when it’s introduced with a flippant remark about the fact that it’s far less frequent an occurrence than Hollywood movies would have us believe…Ha. Ha.) It’s a lazy plot device for lazy writers, and frankly, with all the balls that Nesbø had in the air, there was absolutely no need to make use of such a tired ‘twist’ ending. Especially—I repeat—after I’ve read 400 pages.
I should note, however, that Nesbø makes some truly delightful shout-outs to Prince, and the secondary plotline—which introduces a completely nefarious corrupt cop—is actually really interesting. In that this plotline and the ensuing chaos is left unresolved (and apparently becomes the crux of some of the other novels in the series), I’d actually be willing to give another one of Nesbø’s Hole novels a go. ...more