As with years past, we’re going to spend the next two weeks highlighting the rest of the 25 titles on the BTBA fiction longlist. We’ll have a variety of guests writing these posts, all of which are centered around the question of “Why This Book Should Win.” Hopefully these are funny, accidental, entertaining, and informative posts that prompt you to read at least a few of these excellent works.
Click here for all past and future posts in this series.
Buzz Aldrin, What Happened to You in All the Confusion? by Johan Harstad, translated by Deborah Dawkin
Publisher: Seven Stories Press
Why This Book Should Win: Reasons 1-5 listed below.
_Today’s post is by Larissa Kyzer, a regular reviewer for Three Percent and L Magazine. She has an interest in all things Scandinavian, which is one reason why it makes sense that she’d be writing about this book.
When we meet 29-year-old Mattias, the narrator of Buzz Aldrin, What Happened to You in All the Confusion?, he is happy and satisfied with his life. He loves his girlfriend, Helle, who he has dated for twelve years. He loves his job as a gardener at a local nursery—so much that he often comes in early to just sit in the quiet of the garden alone. Idolizing Buzz Aldrin, the second man on the moon, Mattias only wants to “be a smooth running cog in the world. To do the right thing. Nothing more.” Instead of seeking recognition for his talents (he’s a wonderful singer, for instance) or trying to distinguish himself in an impressive career, Mattias instead hopes to blend into the background, “to vanish into the commotion out there, to be number two, a person who made himself useful instead of trying to stand out, who did the job he was asked to do.”
The simplicity of Mattias’ world is upended in short order, however, when Helle leaves him for another man (someone who “wanted to be seen in the world”), and he loses his job at the now-bankrupt nursery. Depressed and hopeless, he follows his friend’s band to a music festival on the Faroe Islands. The next thing he remembers is waking up face down in the rain, in the middle of a dirt road in the Faroe countryside, with 15,000 kroner in his pocket.
Norwegian author Johan Harstad’s Buzz Aldrin, What Happened to You in All the Confusion? was, without a doubt, one of the best books I read last year. Won over almost immediately by just the title, I picked up the book on a whim and then spent the next few days delightedly underlining each wonderful sentence or clever bit of dialog until I realized that if I didn’t stop, I’d soon have underlined the whole book. As I read it, I talked about the book incessantly, reading bits aloud in bars, and generally recommending it to every third person I met on the street. The book is extremely well written, it’s funny, and it’s affecting without being trite. But as is so often the case with books that I’ve truly loved, it’s hard to go back and objectively critique it. What’s easier—and more fun—is to give you a short list of reasons that Buzz Aldrin is a fantastic book that you should go read now, and a great contender for this year’s BTBA:
1. It’s wonderfully written. Johan Harstad is an incredible prose stylist who pays particular attention to natural details. (All due credit to translator Deborah Dawkin that the language reads so fluidly.) Harstad has a knack for intermixing delightfully odd observations (“Tuesday. The week’s most superfluous day.”) with fantastically long, melodic trains-of-thought which fully immerse you in Mattias’ perspective. The opening paragraph of the book has a great example of this:
I bend over the tulips, gloves on my feet, small pruning shears between my fingers, it’s extremely early, one April morning in 1999 and it’s beginning to grow warmer, I’ve noticed it recently, a certain something has begun to stir, I noticed it as I got out of the car this morning, in the gray light, as I opened the gates into the nursery, the air had grown softer, more rounded at the edges, I’d even considered changing out of my winter boots and putting my sneakers on.
2. The Faroe Island Setting: A write-up in Kirkus Reviews embarrassingly referred to Buzz Aldrin as “the long-awaited Great Faroese Novel,” by which they probably meant not to discredit the brilliant (and actually Faroese) novels by William Heinesen, but rather to point out that the Faroe Island setting is as much a character in this book as any of the people. As described by Harstad, the Faroese landscape is not only evocative and otherworldly, it also provides an important counterpoint for Mattias’ isolationist worldview. There are less than 50,000 people living on the Faroe Islands, so it’s impossible to blend into the background as Mattias would like. As he comes to realize, “ . . . for each person that died, there was one less inhabitant, one less person to meet on the road, one less person who spoke the same language.”
3. The Cardigans: Never has a book paid better homage to this Swedish pop band (you know you loved them, too). One of the book’s main characters listens exclusively to albums by The Cardigans because “. . . everything I need is in this band.” Also, each of the book’s four sections is named after a different Cardigans album. (Funnily enough, Harstad said in an interview that he isn’t really a big fan himself. “I chose the band because I couldn’t figure out who would love such a band.”)
4. The Cultural Collage: Harstad brings together a variety of historical and cultural reference points (beyond The Cardigans)—from Radiohead and Top Gun to the unsolved murder of Swedish prime minister Olaf Palme, the start of Bosnian War, the Chernobyl disaster, and the Challenger space ship explosion—not just to prove his zeitgeisty prowess, but also to create a fully contextual background for his characters and their general sense of unease and displacement. The main action of the book takes place between the mid-eighties and late nineties—not so long ago, and yet, long enough to be able to reflect back now on what a unsettling couple of decades it was.
5. The Epic Thor Heyerdahl-esque Escape: Thor Heyerdahl was a Norwegian adventurer and anthropologist who sailed roughly 8,000 km from Peru to Polynesia on a homemade raft (the Kon-Tiki) in 1947. After a particularly unexpected plot development, Mattias and his companions make a similar voyage from The Faroe Islands to the Caribbean. It’s awesome.
In most of us there is the secret (or not so secret) desire for greatness, to be shortlisted for the Nobel or the Pulitzer, to be the answer to the freebie question on a 5th grade history exam. With the advent of YouTube, it seems any ten-year-old with a half-decent voice is on the fast track to virtual fame. Everyone wants their fifteen minutes, no matter how fleeting or ill-merited they are. Which is perhaps what makes the hero of Norwegian author Johan Harstad’s Buzz Aldrin so refreshing and fascinating: He shies away from fame or recognition of any sort.
Harstad’s debut novel (the entire title of which is Buzz Aldrin, What Happened to You in All the Confusion?) chronicles Mattias, an unassuming gardener with a stellar voice and no intention to make anything of it. His idol is Buzz Aldrin, the second man on the moon, who has long gone unnoticed. So we follow this man who wishes not to be followed, tracing him through Harstad’s delectably light but nonetheless impactful prose.
After growing up under-the-radar in his native Stavanger, Mattias finds himself in the middle of a road in the Faroe Islands with a large wad of cash in his pocket. He is picked up by a man named Havstein, who runs a psychiatric half-way house. There, Mattias (recovering from a debilitating break-up) joins a quirky but lovable bunch who make wooden sheep to sell in tourist shops, get drunk and climb mountains, and listen to nothing but The Cardigans.
A large part of the novel takes place in the 90s, a time that, although it exists in recent memory, is now crossing into history. The timeframe allows Harstad to masterfully weave into the text issues of memory, identity, and permanence (especially for readers like this reviewer who grew up in that decade): Will I be remembered? Or, more critical to Mattias, will I remember the places and people I have left behind?
For someone who wants no lasting evidence of his existence, Mattias has a deeply vested interest in what he calls “Kodak moments”, or mental snapshots. Harstad aptly captures our desperation to hold on to moments, especially through digital preservation. In a particularly resounding passage, Mattias listens to The Cardigans over and over again, searching the audio tracks for anything to recall the presence of someone lost.
The novel is steeped in pop-culture: lava lamps, the moon landing, IKEA, H&M, etc. Despite the flood of these moments, objects, and places of cultural vitality, Harstad plaintively and subtly resolves that nothing can fully or even satisfactorily revive the past as we remember it.
Mattias has a peculiar fascination with the almost imperceptible changes of the universe. Every year the ocean rises four millimeters, as he constantly reminds us. From the opening sentence––“The person you love is 72.8 percent water and there’s been no rain for weeks”––to his nightmare of the ocean rising and sweeping him away, there lies the restless fear of the impermanent:
The microscopic cells that formed your face in the photograph your parents have hanging in their living room are gone, exchanged for others. You’re no longer who you were. But I am still here, the atoms may swap their places, but nobody can control the dance of the quarks. And the same applies to the people you love. With almost stationary velocity they crumble in your arms, and you wish you could cling onto something permanent in them, their skeleton, their teeth, brain cells, but you can’t, because almost everything is water, impossible to grasp.
The novel’s finest moments wrap you up in communion with Mattias, as if you are spending a quiet afternoon with an old friend, chatting but mostly thinking. Something makes you want the book, like its narrator, to slip quietly into the forgotten with the crunching of time, to be something that you managed to touch at one point but exists somewhere unattainably, contentedly.
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