The Body, Biographies, and Workplace Injustice! [Tómas Jónsson, Bestseller]
On this week’s Two Month Review podcast, we’ll be discussing the IV composition book (pages 32-68) from Tómas Jónsson, Bestseller. As a bit of preparation, below you’ll find some initial thoughts, observations, and quotes.
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As always, you can get Tómas Jónsson, Bestseller for 20% off from our website by using the code 2MONTH. It’s also available at better bookstores everywhere.
On last week’s podcast, I mentioned that I wanted to try and pay attention to the patterns in Tómas Jónsson’s thoughts, try and puzzle out the internal logic to his peculiar stream-of-consciousness. This isn’t exactly the easiest thing to do—how do you not just get swept up in the torrents of prose?—but there was on extended bit in this composition book that does illuminate some of the inner workings of Tómas’s mind. (This is all from one paragraph that begins on page 35 and ends on 38.)
In any case, I managed to wake rested and refreshed after a deep sleep as the clock rang Sunday in. I was in no hurry to dress. I needed to wake, yawn, put in my teeth, release the piss from my penis, lie back under the covers, drink from my half-thermos, and lie still on my back, my hands at my sides on top of the comforter, which swells with air and feathers, take out my teeth, doze for five minutes, wake for another five, turn again to sleep, and wake in five minute intervals. [. . .] Sleeping is not respected except for where there are sick people or the decrepit or those about to die. Before you die, you must be properly asleep. Preferable to die in your sleep. Hospitals usually turn off the lights at ten o’clock at night. I need my sleep dearly. But I would rather die than be frozen inside a retirement home. Once you get to my age, an orderly lifestyle is the surest defense against the force which fills graves. A long time ago I had to give up coffee with dinner. That was a great struggle. Almost impossible. Coffee in the evening, sitting in the comfort and privacy of a divan corner with the chair’s seat clamped between my knees, the thermos within reach on the ground, morsels of letters on the back of the chair and the cup steady in the seat’s depression, alone in your company, my puss, that was my life’s true purpose, my diversion. [. . .] But you remember nothing of this. Feline instinct has little memory. Words spoken to cats in confidence are not used later in retaliation. The absence of coffee in the evenings. Life became empty and my environment impoverished in quality. So it ends. There comes a time you have to give up evening coffee and everything of quality in the world. [. . .] No one can know me in my sleep (except my dreams). I do not need to get to work until half past eight. Until that time, when it is time to prepare for my departure, I potter about in my room, tidying up around me. I am washed and brushed. I have cleaned the sleep from my face, my scrotum, and my hands with a washcloth. I brush the bad taste of sleep from my mouth with a toothbrush. I blow the sleep from my nose with a tissue. I wipe sleep from my eyes by closing them, rolling them five times in the sun’s direction then counterclockwise the same number of times. I never feel comfortable until I have scraped off my stubble. The day begins as soon as the night’s clamminess has left my flesh, the mind ready to start earning money. Dressed, I drink my morning coffee, of which I will also be robbed before long. Once in a retirement home, you get dishwater mix instead. I am prepared for the worst. I face it with the calm and tranquility of my early days. O yes. [. . .] Complete anarchy reigns in the other parts of the apartment. The kids buzz around their parents’ heads, and objects buzz around the heads of both the kids and the parents. Blind, I could go to my closet, stretch out my hand, touch the key, turn it into a semicircle in the lock, open the door, and reach for the green pencil in a jacket’s breast pocket; I could do other tricks like this. Orderliness has come in handy now that I am blind and decrepit. I leave the house as soon as my internal organizing and planning voice says: Tómas, everything is in its ideal place within your room. Even my thoughts sit in an organized series within my cerebral cortex.
Yes, yes, that’s an incredibly long passage. And there’s so much more that I could pull out or point to! But in that bit above, we get a really good overview of the drift of Tómas’s thoughts: he wakes up and wants to put his self/clothes/thoughts into order, since orderliness is a prized attribute in his mind, and at the same time, the idea of sleep (and the Great Sleep) reminds him of his aging, of losing his evening coffee (and soon the morning cup as well), and that everything is working against him, that his life (due to his lodgers and his body’s natural entropy) is falling apart.
This idea—that there are meta-structures behind his thought patterns revealing his character—fits in well with all the references to orderliness and structure in this composition book. But at the same time, as much as he prizes these qualities, the novel itself, the “bestseller” describing his life, is so miasmic, so chaotic, that all these claims to order feel totally specious. Yet, probably aren’t?
I’m still working toward a more complete understanding of how any one of these composition books is structured as a whole, but in this particular case, we have a few mentions or motifs that play off one another and give this chapter a fairly circular structure. For example, Lóa is mentioned twice—at the beginning in reference to being raped, and at the end, when she’s taking the trash out of the bank. The above quoted section about getting ready for work and the way that Tómas organizes his mind and life is a nice complement to the bit near the end about the bank, in which he’s either passed over for a promotion because he can’t keep up with technology (“Faced with the complex electrical accounting machine, I shattered like a thermos. Here in my solitude I have demanded my brain reveal what my supervisors said. Everything is beautifully ordered, but where is the corpse.”), or because life is just unfair. There’re also two invented stories in the book, one a biography, one a sort of parody of a country folk tale. And there’s the relationship between Tómas and his body and his body in relation to women.
In case you haven’t noticed, Tómas talks about his body a lot. So many bodily functions! Not only peeing—which, I feel like he doesn’t take a piss that he doesn’t also feel obliged to write into his composition books—but also references to his oxygen tank, his size, even his daily washroom routine (see above). All you have as you approach the end is your body. And in this particular section, the idea of the body takes on an even greater significance:
I had a body the body is dressed on its exterior in skin under the skin there is flesh on the skin there is hair I touch my body I have a body inside it: bones and entrails But I could find no memories inside the body. I had never thought that my travels were entrusted with memories. I was told that as age increases and the flesh softens, drowsy memories awaken in the mind. That is not my experience. for me, nostalgia awakens in the flesh
Maybe I’m too fat to be able to remember anything for more than a moment. The outer surface of my body is too far away from my soul. Aristotle probably came to this same conclusion after he grew older and fatter.
At the same time that Tómas is happy to talk about his pissing and flesh, he has a strong dislike for even allusions to sex. Like with that opening scene—which keeps being referenced, making me think that a lot of this book is taking place around this one single moment—in which he hears his lodgers getting busy in the hallway, which pisses him off. Not only are they having sex right outside his door, but they have the lights on (!), and end up ruining the cloth hook used to hang up his overcoat (!!). Not to mention that sex leads to children, and do we really have to talk about the disruptive nature of children in an apartment?
This aversion to that particular bodily function bleeds over into Tómas’s uneasy relationship to women as a whole. There’s the aforementioned allusion to Lóa being raped (a central scene to come),
followed by recounting the weird—and very inappropriate—pranks that are played on Gerður.
His thoughts about Gerður are particularly complicated in this section. At times, he describes her in fairly sexualized ways:
She perches one ass cheek on the desk’s edge beside me, dangles a foot, her thickened thighs vibrating and jarring at her old, rusty, arthritic groin. I momentarily become a street urchin her legs have no fat
And then, after running through some of her flaws, refers to her as good wife material . . . sort of:
However flawed Miss Gerður is known to be—and she is certainly a very flawed person—she is still excellently qualified in her areas. As a wife, she would certainly stand in good stead running the apartment, keeping it hygienic and clean: she would brush dust from the baseboards daily, wash the kitchen down after every meal, open a window when she fries, go into all the corners with a floor cloth, clean the cobwebs from all the crannies, and wash her underwear nightly—but surely would neglect me, forgetting to tighten my oxygen mask at the right time.
And although his mind constantly swerves in her direction when he thinks of romance or having a family or whatever, he ends his thoughts on her in this chapter pretty harshly:
She shuffles bundles and stretches a band quick around them. The whole time I was as a joker and mockingbird; a jolly companionship. Our Tómas is becoming a comic, I make people think about me. I watch her behavior and gestures which are nothing because Miss Gerður as a woman has been pasteurized. From now on, I will only write badly of her.
(At times reading this is like reading some of the old notebooks I find that my kids have written in. My daughter one day: “Aidan is a brat and a jerk and gets away with everything.” Then, 24 hours later: “I love my brother and I’m going to write a nice thing about him in here every day and then give it to him as a present.” The next page is torn out. The end.)
All this is great, but really, the part that I love the best is his rant about ghostwriters and biographies:
No chance, then, that I’ll be able to commission a ghostwriter to write a bestseller in my name in time for the christmas market—I will have to write it myself—the way those others did, Schiaparelli the fashion queen, Rockefeller, and old Kalli, the lumpfish king. These are the labors of rich people in this country who do nothing for the arts, when they plead their existence, the publishers and the royalties there on the table to support writers, who do not need to focus on anything but spelling.
And then, after writing a bit of a faux biography of “old Kalli, the lumpfish king,” he drops in this amazing breakdown of those sorts of books that read like something from one of the writer’s guides that Fresán mocked in The Invented Part:
20% places and the names of people; 2% trials, peril at sea, and amazing rescues; 19% scenic descriptions scattered throughout the book’s chapters; 3% poetic sex, which runs together with the poetry of the scenic descriptions (in bestsellers it’s traditional to save sex for near the end of each chapter, so that the reader feels his brain has been mentally masturbated prior to reading the next section the next night. What’s literature but mental masturbation for the emotions?); 7% reflections and conversations with intelligent animals the character has acquired as friends; 11% food and conditions on ships (comparisons of past and present); 15% forebodings and dreams (dream women, Kalli is far too healthy to get dream pussy at sea); 7% Kalli the lumpfish king himself, the creation of this character who is, of course, “driven by powerful contrasts” as the academics term it. A “lively final surge and conflict at the culmination.” This is important stuff.
Alongside this though, there’s an absurd play that he writes for the “Icelandic Opera” followed by a sort of parody of a folk tale about a man who falls for a farmhand, which ends with three people sleeping in a bed feet-to-head and having to avoid getting toes in the crotch or the nose. What do we do with this?
Bit of a spoiler, but in the next few sections there are more of these literary inventions. And, although this is a bit obvious or almost trite to say, I see these as attempts on Tómas’s part to find the right form through which to tell his story. He’s looking for a pathway to writing a bestseller, which could take the form of a biography, or an opera, or a countryside tale in the fashion of Laxness. I don’t know that it’s necessarily that explicit, but this is something to sort of track over the next few composition books.
Finally, I want to end by saying how funny this book is. But that it’s a weird sort of humor in the vein of Samuel Beckett. Sure, there are straight up funny bits (see above bit about literature as masturbation for the emotions, or the story of what happens to the CEO in Switzerland after he loses the 20 million and has to have his blood completely replaced), but a lot of the humor comes from the vacillations of ironic distance between Tómas’s situation and his verbosity.
Here you have a old man, unable to get out of bed or wash himself, who is pissed about people in the hallway banging with the lights on, getting all worked up internally and on the page, but who can’t really do anything. Someone who praises himself with a Gatsby-esque list of how ordered his thoughts are throughout the day, but who loses his job because he can’t work an adding machine. And sometimes he covers up the squalor of his present moment with memories and rants against the new, weak Icelanders, but at other times, everything breaks down, collapsing into a true representation of the present, in which he’s just a man who wanted to be great but is now about to die alone, bringing out all the pathos of a more conventional epic.
And in some ways, this humor is most present when you go back to the book. In the present moment, reading it, I’ve found myself focused mostly on trying to figure out the whats and whys. Is this what’s really happening? But the second I get on the podcast with Lytton and start talking through what I just read, all the humor comes to the surface.