Read 8/25/12 - 9/8/12
4 Stars - Strongly Recommended to those who prefer coming in second
Publisher: Seven Stories
Johan Harstad's novel had been lingering on my bookshelves for over a year. Though I cannot recall whether it was a copy I requested or one that was simply sent for review from Seven Stories, there it sat, patient, unassuming, and content, waiting for me to find a reason to pick it up.
And a reason found me
on August 25th, in the form of tweets that alerted me to the passing of Neil Armstrong. I figured, what better way to remember the first man to step foot on the moon than by reading a book that contains a character who idolized the man who stood in his shadow. And so my love affair with the 471 paged translation began.
This awkwardly titled novel
is told in the first person narrative of Mattias, a thirty-something year old gardener whose life goal is to play second fiddle to a world of attention-obsessed people. A loner, a worrier, a daydreamer and supposer, Mattias enjoyed being invisible. Growing up, he took pleasure in being the kid in the class who is easily forgotten. When he made friendships, they were few and fierce. Hell, he chose a career in horticulture because of the peace and quiet it afforded him.
But that all changes when his employer goes out of business, his long term girlfriend breaks up with him, and his best friend Jorn asks him to follow his band over to the Faroe Islands. A creature of habit, and not one to stick his neck out, Mattias deals with these sudden changes as you would expect... not very well at all. On the trip across the ocean, things go from bad to worse, and the next thing Mattias knows, he wakes up stretched out and bloodied on an unknown street in an unknown town in the middle of the night with an envelope of cash stuffed into his pocket and not a clue as to how he got there.
Lost and alone, he wanders the island until he is picked up by a wildly entrancing psychiatrist who delivers Mattias into the arms his crazy-farm (aka The Factory, the re-purposed building where a small group of mentally unstable islanders live and work together in relative peace).
Hang out with head cases and you are sure to become one! Mattias suffers a mental breakdown of sorts at the start of his stay at The Factory, but eventually finds himself taking to this new life:
"...I contemplated how everything had happened so fast. I'd lived through nearly thirty years with barely a couple of friends, I'd avoided other people, I'd snuck away from them or they'd passed me by in silence. And now it seemed new friends were tumbling in, in the pace of just a few hours, two women, and two men, and my unwillingness to talk, my unwillingness to accept them, was ebbing away. I was becoming two open arms." pg.152
This story worked for me in so many ways, and on so many different levels, and I was surprised to read reviews where people whined about it being slow and plodding and boring. Because here is how I saw it: We'd been given a complete backstage-pass to Mattias's brain. He allowed us the freedom to wander through his thoughts and leave no stone unturned and rummaging through someone's personal baggage takes quite a bit of time.
He gives us time to understand his obsession with Buzz Aldrin - the strength of character Mattias places in the ability to stand back and let others led the way, the "gigantic heart
" of those who are content to take second place, as if it is a conscious choice, something people willingly strive for. Rather than something people must accept.
He gives us time to understand his subtle obsession with Tuesdays - at the start of the book, he mentions how Tuesdays tend to be the most overlooked day of the week, yet in Mattias's experience, they are the most notable. Watch for them when you the read the book. I found this to be one of the most fascinating hints he dropped for us.
He gives us time to accept him and forgive him and root him on.
Buzz Aldrin, What Happened to You in All the Confusion?
is a long, hard, slow look at what it takes to overcome your own manufactured obstacles - those barriers and walls you've constructed around yourself, to protect or cushion yourself from things real or imagined. Rather than put himself out there and risk failure, Mattias successfully built a life where he found comfort in second-place. Until second place, and his creative invisibility, were no longer an option.
It's the anti-hero story. It's the cracking of the shell. It's the caterpillar emerging as the butterfly. It's the realization that people need people, whether you think you do or not. It's awkward and frustrating to watch but at the same time it has utterly captured your attention and refuses to be put down.