The opening of Jón Gnarr’s novel/memoir The Indian is a playful bit of extravagant ego, telling the traditional story of creation, where the “Let there be light!” moment is also the moment of his birth on January 2nd, 1967. Then comes sly awareness of the flow from preconsciousness to consciousness, “Murmuring becomes speech and words. Everything gradually clarifies, taking on a fantastic light. You get on intimate terms with your existence.” It is his life story, so why not make God’s creation of the universe culminate with him? This stylistic turn is Gnarr’s immediate signal to reiterate his author’s note: this is both a memoir and a novel. It will tell a truthful story of his life, but the only way to do that, with faulty memories, with absence of memories, is through literature.
As readers, we should interpret it as we do fiction: creatively, poetically, without leaving behind the emotions and the struggles, even the lessons learned, that biography offers. The Indian has everything that people want from mainstream literature: emotions, plot, likeable characters, lessons learned, personal growth, yet it is so much better—the emotions and characters more complex, the writing skillful. This is the type of book that readers deserve, both those who read widely and those who read four or five “popular” books a year.
After the opening, Gnarr leaves that ego aside for a couple chapters to tell us about his family, his parents, his significantly older siblings, his grandparents. He summarizes their lives, tells how they came to live in a suburb of Reykjavík. The Indian will be his life, his story, and he lives it in a private, isolated world, but Gnarr cares for the lives around him.
Gnarr is famous as the comedian who became the mayor of Reykjavík after running a campaign mocking politics, and bringing liberalism and entertainment to his politics. The Indian has nothing to do with his adult life, but the entertainment and compassion is easily identifiable with his future. Instead, The Indian is the story of his young childhood, his struggle with then-undiagnosed ADHD and dyslexia—the reports from the psychiatric ward that break up the narrative show doctors didn’t know what to make of the boy. So, yes, it is a biography of a difficult childhood, of distress, of being sent away from home, of family hardship, but Gnarr handles this differently, and for the best, than many memoirs that fall into these categories. There are no horrors that sell as spectacle.
Gnarr’s finest accomplishment in this book, surpassing others in the genre, is the absolute immediacy of the childhood experience. The first person narration is immersed in childhood, in the reasoning, the emotions, the desperate way that every moment of childhood is overwhelming, and is all that exists. Part of his path to this is the perspective of the narration. There are brief scenes where Gnarr has knowledge of events or changes in his life to come, but most of the time that is avoided. Instead, the first-person is ever the child’s view, reacting entirely as a child would, not judged or even reflected on by a man looking back on his life. But, thankfully, almost heroically, this doesn’t come remotely close to that overwhelmingly popular trope of the precocious, hyper-intelligent child narrator that authors adapt to excuse themselves from writing anything like actual childish thoughts. The narrator is adult and child simultaneously. It’s a style that leads to both beauty and deeply affecting motions. As much as it asks you to relate to young Jón, it becomes impossible to escape your own childhood experiences.
Jón is endearing when he patiently explains the rules of games, “It’s different in shoot and run or cops and robbers. Then if you shoot someone he’s dead. Though some kids never admit they’re dead.” His plain logic is both his way of processing his experiences and sharing them. The conclusions of his reasoning are present in both joys and sorrows. When he breaks his arm riding a bike, it was because he “had just gotten a speedometer and I was trying to set a speed record.” There’s nothing else there. We know the absurdity of the A to B movement, but by leaving it out, child logic is triumphant. It’s impossible not to love that way of thinking, just a little.
When in sorrow, the directness of his expression leads not to pits of suffering that beg for a response closer to pity than empathy, but to closeness as we move in step with his thoughts. The Indian is so much about the great sorrows that are specific to childhood, to those vulnerabilities that, even if you experience them later in life, are always childish in their timidness, in their inward turning. Jón admits “When I was a kid I would sometimes hide from teachers. I liked doing that a lot but I’ve grown out of it now. I’m not as naughty as I used to be. I also don’t feel as bad as I felt back then.” He states facts and feelings, and we read the links he can’t articulate, that shame or the attempt to assimilate into adulthood keep him from comprehending. His feeling bad is something no one in his life addresses, they only see the “naughtiness” that results from it, so he learns that feeling bad is itself a form of naughtiness. It’s heartbreaking, the more so if you remember such experiences yourself. When he condemns himself for being evil, disgusting, hating himself and everyone, I cried and left the book aside for a day or two, not wanting to remember when I thought those same thoughts.
The realism, in emotion and thought, of this life of a child became the most challenging part of reading The Indian for me. Memoirs of abusive childhoods, of trauma and extreme circumstances far beyond my own experiences, beyond many people’s are the most popular. There, the reader’s reach of empathy and connection is a personal accomplishment, a prideful stretch that is always a step away from their own pains. Gnarr’s memoir has the hook with his specific personal struggle of ADHD and dyslexia, but his isolation is utterly familiar. His expression of that, his understanding of the utterly crushing presence of it, the belief, in the end false, that it is inescapable, would have been life-changing, momentous, to read as a child myself.
He is alone when he cries out in his head “I want to go home and into my bedroom. I don’t want to be me. I don’t want to be here. I want to go far inside myself, further, further, deep down where no one can bother me and no one is mad at me.” He wants nothing more than safety and escape, and there is no one who can offer either, who can even understand him wanting these things in the way he does. In other words, there’s no one to talk to, to help identify and process his feelings. It’s a deep, permeating loneliness. The Indian becomes that person to talk to for people who have or have had this in common with Gnarr. It’s a book that triumphs in making us less alone in this world.
As in that intro, Jón’s perspective, his ego, dominates. He constantly turns inward, as a child hurt by the world does. But he does not want to only turn inward. Those notes from the psychiatrist are not just about Jón but about his parents too. They document the struggle of raising a child like him: he is not the only one wounded, and sharing the notes stretch compassion to his parents. This turns to one of the most poignant aspects of the book: the unbearable shame of a child who hurts his parents, but cannot move past the ways those people hurt him. At one point, Jón recognizes that he has hurt his father, sees “His eyes are full of sadness,” but it’s impossible for him to grasp how it happened. Jón feels his father has no interest in anything he says or wants to share, so he does nothing. When father thinks son will open up, but instead only asks for money because he’s afraid, protecting himself, he is pained by this distance from his son. Jón sees his father’s hurt, and it hurts him too, but he can’t see a way past it.
Gnarr’s recreation of childhood is not just of struggle. He brings out the special form of love children can have for their mothers, noticing things: “Mom smiles. She smiles beautifully.” There is plenty of humor, both in the absurd heights of trouble Gnarr finds himself in and in the moments of lightness with his family. He picks out the explosions of children’s imaginations, the way that a few items—a headdress and a knife—lead to a whole new identity, that of Indian. He expresses that innocent fury, the desire for destruction that the child sees no harm in, just play, experimentation, expression. There pains we are all familiar with, but which adults simply brush off when children encounter them, telling them, “That’s life.” It seems wildly immature to be anguished that rules like going to school must be followed, but that is only in the context of adulthood. Gnarr returns those emotions—all the emotions of childhood—to their context, adding the suffering of learning them, finding new restrictions, fearing ones you don’t know, and we relate to them once again. This is the gift of The Indian, the way that it makes the child, our child-self, alive, close to heart and mind, in all his pain and his happiness. The Indian is brave in this gift, and dares me to be brave too, enough to find the child of my past and make him present.