My sleeper hit for 2011 is the amazing Buzz Aldrin, What Happened to You in All the Confusion by Johan Harstad. I stumbled across this novel while browsing in Denver’s Tattered Cover Book Store. It was highlighted as a staff pick. I had never heard of the novel before, and it’s put out by a press that I had never heard of before either (Seven Stories Press). It is translated from Norwegian by Deborah Dawkins. It has a wonderfully odd title, and it opens with the memorable line “The person you love is 72.8% water, and it hasn’t rained for weeks.” A book on my shopping list was immediately bumped and Buzz Aldrin leaped to the top of my reading stack.
Buzz Aldrin figures into this novel due to his stature as the second man to walk on the moon. Our anti-hero Mattias was born in Norway during the moon landing, with dad in the delivery room straining to hear the details on the radio out in hall. He grows up obsessed with space travel and Aldrin in particular. What’s unique about Mattias is that he doesn’t want to stand out in any way. He wants to be invisible to the world but useful. He describes it as wanting to be a cog in a machine – a cog in an important, contributing machine – that is never noticed. Buzz Aldrin, the man completely overshadowed by Neil Armstrong, is his perfect role model in this regard. Buzz Aldrin’s later problems in life also serve as a nice mirror for what lies ahead for Mattias’s own life.
Mattias’s approach to life seems to work pretty well until he loses his girlfriend of several years due in part to his need to be invisible. Mattias comes unmoored when he loses his job at a gardening center shortly thereafter. A trip to the Faroe Islands to lend support for a friend’s band goes seemingly very wrong when he finds himself face down in the middle of the street with no idea what has happened since the ferry ride over.
The silver lining to this misadventure is that Mattias is found by a psychiatrist who runs “a post-psychiatric” facility in the bucolic town of Gjógv. In an isolated corner of one of the world’s most isolated countries Mattias may have found the ideal spot to disappear from the world while being a small cog in small machine. When Mattias learns that the Apollo 11 astronauts once visited the islands in preparation for their moon landing, it seems that he may well have found his true home. Life is rarely that simple, however.
One of the many things that I loved about this novel is that I was completely unfamiliar with the people and places where the novel takes place. I frequently pulled up Google Earth to check out the Faroe Islands locations being discussed. If I ever found myself in need of a post-psychiatric facility to regroup, I think I would like it to be in Gjógv. I’m sure that I’d like to find myself there some day regardless. Check out these pictures so see what I mean. Gorgeous.
One of the characters has “an episode” after viewing a painting at the National Gallery in Tórshavn. The painting, by artist Sámal Joensen-Mikines, is called ”Hjem fra begravelse” (Home from the funeral). This is it:
It apparently takes most of a wall in the gallery. Well no wonder she had an episode.
Another fun thing about the novel were frequent mentions of the Swedish band The Cardigans. I’ve been a fan of the band for years, and it was cool to realize that the perfectly apt section titles were taken from the band’s albums. That the same four titles also feature prominently in the story is a nifty trick.
This is an amazing first novel that rarely takes you where you think it is going to go. It’s an inventive narrative that repeatedly surprises the reader. I will read anything by Johan Harstad that is translated into English. I loved it. Check it out. And I should mention again: I never would have found this book were it not for the efforts of the Tattered Cover staff to get it noticed. So hooray for independent booksellers!
Audio Bonus: Since The Cardigans are featured prominently in the novel, it seems fitting to add some of their music here as a mini-soundtrack to the novel:
The Cardigans – My Favourite Game
The Cardigans – Erase and Rewind