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.
A man’s country may be cramped or vast according to the size of
his heart. I’ve never found my country too small, though that isn’t
to say my heart is great. And if I could choose it’s here. . .
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