The great Faroese novel?
By Colin Herd.
Buzz Aldrin, What Happened to You in All the Confusion? Johan Harstad, translated by Deborah Dawkin, Seven Stories Press 2011
So much of our culture centres around getting noticed and getting ahead. From X Factor and Britain’s Got Talent to the Booker Prize, the Booker of Bookers, and any number of ‘Best-‘ lists such as the New Yorker‘s ’20 under 40’ and Granta‘s Best Young American Novelists, our culture over-values attention, celebrity and marketing and under-values the quiet middleperson, the person who does a job well without demanding attention and flies under the radar.
This is the premise of Buzz Aldrin, What Happened to You in All the Confusion?, the 2005 debut by Norwegian writer Johan Harstad, recently released in English translation by Seven Stories Press. The novel follows Mattias, a talented gardener and extremely talented vocalist, determined not to be noticed or attract attention. After losing his job when the plant nursery he works at goes under (even the local hospital turns to supermarket flowers), and losing his girlfriend who has been having an affair with the cycle courier at her office, he takes a trip to the Faroe Islands as the “sound guy” to his best friend’s rock group. Falling out with the band on the ferry (he accepts their money to sing and then refuses), he gets drunk, falls out of consciousness in the middle of the road and falls into a nervous breakdown, finding himself resident in a post-psychiatric care facility, making models of woolly sheep in a workshop, with the ironically Warholian name “The Factory”.
The novel blends elements of psychological realism with a kind of dark, surreal but underplayed humour, in the form of a kind of epic novel that stretches and draws itself out to almost 500 pages. Mattias repeatedly comes back to a conviction that he wants to be like “Buzz Aldrin, the second man on the moon.” This impulse to hide, to become a part of the fabric, is both reinforced and undermined in the structure of the novel. Its meandering plots get lost in unexpected diversions. The rhythm of the novel is of Mattias repeatedly trying to hide and then feeling in danger of being “discovered”, so running away. It’s episodic like a picaresque, and Mattias himself has the outsider-perspective associated with a Picaro, albeit with less vivacity and more desperation, and a complete reluctance to be a ‘hero’ or ‘protagonist’, like Ignatius Reilly in reverse.
Mattias’ extreme reluctance to be noticed comes packaged with its converse desire for attention. He’s neglected by his girlfriend Helle, who works late at her advertising job and socialises a lot without Mattias, who prefers to avoid socializing, except with his friend Jorn and his parents. He is at once frightened and enticed by attention.
“But somewhere inside me, deep inside me, I, the great cog, craved all the attention the world could offer. Just once.”
The novel is waterlogged (as if by the Faroese drizzle) with references to pop culture, from The Cardigans and the T.V. show Friends, to Dudley Moore and of course Buzz Aldrin himself. The Cardigans are the favourite band of a character Mattias meets in the sanctuary on the Faroe Islands called Ennen (in fact N.N. standing for “no name”). Ennen only listens to The Cardigans, and listens to them all the time:
“I just can’t be bothered listening to other bands, when everything I need is in this band. What’s so wrong with only listening to The Cardigans, if they’ve got everything I need? What’s the problem, huh?”
The names of Cardigans’ albums provide the titles for the novel’s four sections. They are set up as a kind of typical, or “average” band, which makes them perfect in Ennen’s eyes. Similarly, Dudley Moore’s talent was as “the second man”, the foil to Peter Cook’s flights of outrageous fancy, and the success of Friends is notable for not having any one “star” that was more important than the rest. It was a team show, relying on the dynamic of the actors together, hence why the spin-off Joey show was so dire. The group of patients and the psychiatrist Havstein at the sanctuary form a kind of Friends dynamic themselves, with genuinely warm and funny set-piece conversations.
There is real tragedy in the novel, a horrible and unexpected death that punctures the creeping heartache of people who find it difficult to function in the world. Perhaps the most disconcerting aspect of how the novel ends is it seems to tail off into a surreal, unlikely fantasy. One reading of the last section, called ‘Long Gone Before Daylight’, is of Mattias troublingly losing his grip on reality.
Reading Buzz Aldrin, What Happened to You in All the Confusion? is an exhausting and pleasantly draining experience. Not only because of the melancholia of an extremely intricate, compelling and delicately balanced portrait of a depressed individual, who doesn’t feel he fits in with the competitive values of his society. But also because the novel itself kind of unzips the appealing (but hopeless in our society) logic of being a “cog in a system” rather than a “star.” Just as Mattias’ reluctance to be noticed is complicated by other emotional needs, Harstad’s novel about flying under the radar has categorically failed to do so, garnering wide praise, being made into a T.V. series, and its author winning a Brage Award in 2008. The novel has achieved the “success” that its protagonist so obsessively avoids.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Colin Herd lives and writes in Edinburgh. He is co-editor of Anything Anymore Anywhere. Poems have appeared in Shampoo, Streetcake, Velvet Mafia, Gutter and Pop Serial, and reviews in the blog of Chroma journal. His chapbook, Like, is published by Knives Forks and Spoons Press and his poetry collection, too ok, by BlazeVOX.
First published in 3:AM Magazine: Monday, October 17th, 2011.