By Steve Finbow.
Siamese, Stig Sæterbakken, Dalkey Archive Press, 2010
Edwin Mortens, ex-rest home managing director, lives in his bathroom; nearly blind and wielding a colostomy bag, he sits in a rocking chair chewing gum and waiting to die. Meanwhile, his hard-of-hearing wife Erna flirts with the building superintendent and administers to her monster of a husband. If one considers Scandinavian literature bleak, then Stig Sæterbakken has turned down the thermostat. Edwin and his sister Erna are the Punch and Judy of 21st century literature, gnarled and nasty, they take potshots at each other while both willing and dreading the end of each other’s existence.
Stig Sæterbakken’s Siamese is a mini-masterpiece of post-Beckett and post-Bernhard prose, a domestic grand guignol that oozes from the page with its obsession with body parts, bodily fluids, and human emissions. A broken man, wishing that his body be reduced to just a skull with a mouth, Edwin is a fantastic creation, fantastic and grotesque – think A Confederacy of Dunces’ Ignatius J. Reilly transported to Jean-Philippe Toussaint’s Bathroom. Made redundant from his job, Edwin rails against the world, the world made flesh in the form of his put-upon wife. But could they exist without each other? The reduction of the body to organs that consume and secrete is possible because of the symbiotic relationship between Edwin and Erna – Siamese. Edwin, literally, chews up the world and spits it out, Erna cleans after him, provides him with more to ingurgitate. Visceral and emetic, Siamese is also, in places, tender and funny.
The prose, limpid and crisp, surges with rage yet is pitch prefect. Siamese urges the reader to look at old age, to consider our lives in relation to our marriages and our jobs, to understand how alienated one can become without colleagues and friends and how the person you love or have loved is possibly your worst enemy – and your best friend. The pettiness of life becomes a narrative tool in which small actions are written large and the hunt for a creature among the litter of chewing gum wrappers becomes a mini-safari of despair and deceit. Erna, mostly deaf to her husband’s abuse, looks for chinks of light in snatched conversations with the building superintendent and a woman who comes in once a week to help with the shopping. These are desperate lives but desperate in the sense of banality, of waiting out the last days of a boring and tired existence.
If all this sounds like slash-your-wrist time, I apologize because it is far from that. Edwin Mortens is a monstrous creation – a Moses E. Herzog of the toilet – a Leopold Bloom of the bathroom. His problematic relationship with his body (and his wife) punctures the vitriol and the morbidity with humour and candour. The terror of growing old, the horror of being alone, the fear of losing one’s mind are all treated honestly and realistically, however absurd the situation. And that is because existence is absurd – as Edwin says, “I’m afraid I’m losing my grip on things…” As the end approaches, Erna becomes worried about losing Edwin and Edwin – in a rare moment of compassion – considers recanting his vicious remarks.
The superintendent – Olav Martiniussen – like Edwin, loses his job and, invited by Erna to move into the apartment, takes Edwin’s old room. However, unlike the feelings of desire and lust Kath and Ed feel for the lodger in Joe Orton’s equally claustrophobic Entertaining Mr. Sloane, Edwin and Erna both end up distrusting the young man, Erna moving swiftly from thoughts of seduction to suspicion and Erwin from indifference to jealousy, these emotional twists and reversals showing the close bond of the husband and wife despite their seemingly mutual loathing.
Siamese is an intricately developed world of claustrophobia, fear, and bitter love. I would like to say it is a hate story but it is not. I would like to say it is depressing but it is not. I would like to say it is an easy read but it is not. It is not all of these things because it is about the vicissitudes of love and relationships, the heartbreak of growing old and drifting apart, the incapability of humans to change the inevitable and the fear at the realization of that, it is about the reality of our lives and of our loves. Siamese forces us to look at our dependency on others, at the conjoined-twins of hate and love, of life and death, of sanity and madness.
The Scandinavian thriller might be in vogue but Stig Sæterbakken’s novel is a reminder of how life really is – there might not be thrills and spills, there might only be the missus who is a pain in the arse but she’s the only one you’ve got, right? Who else will empty your piss, shit, and blood-filled ostomy pouching system when you are old and raging against the dying of the light?
First published in 3:AM Magazine: Monday, November 16th, 2009.