By Gwendolyn Dawson
“The person you love is 72.8 percent water and there’s been no rain for weeks.” So begins Buzz Aldrin, What Happened to You in All the Confusion?, the impressive debut novel by Norwegian author Johan Harstad and translated into English by Deborah Dawkin. After losing his girlfriend and his job, first-person narrator Mattias leaves his home in Stavanger, Norway to travel with a friend’s rock band to a concert on the remote Faroe Islands, located halfway between Scotland and Iceland. Following a series of events he can’t remember and carrying an inexplicable pocketful of cash, Mattias ends up living in a kind of commune for people existing somewhere between a mental institution and normal society. Their limited interaction with the world matches Mattias’s own desire to disappear:
“I’d decided I didn’t need to be the best, the most popular, or even liked, I just wanted to find myself a vacant space and stay there, do my thing, maybe I was just frightened of disrupting something, of knocking the world out of its delicate balance by being in the way, in the wrong place, if I was too visible, tied people to me.”
Buzz Aldrin is a long, blowsy, meandering novel crammed full of digressions and unnecessary scenes. Mattias’s extreme passivity and self-destructive tendencies have the potential to annoy readers, and, near the novel’s end, Harstad introduces some plot elements (including a journey and some secret psychiatry files) that seem overly contrived. Nevertheless, these narrative flaws are more than made up for by this novel’s abundant charms. From the very beginning of Mattias’s story, I was hooked by his voice, a compelling mix of humility, melancholy, earnestness, and humor:
“It is a Tuesday. There can be no doubt about that. I see it in the light, the traffic outside the windows will continue to stream all day, slowly, disinterestedly, people driving back and forth out of habit rather than necessity. Tuesday. The week’s most superfluous day. A day that almost nobody notices among all the other days. I read somewhere, I don’t remember where, that statistics showed there were 34 percent fewer appointments made on an average Tuesday than on any other day. On a worldwide basis. That’s how it is. On the other hand a much greater number of funerals are held on Tuesdays than during the rest of the week. They sort of bunch up, you never get on top of it.”
Buzz Aldrin is filled with an emotional exuberance that’s rare and a joy to experience. Deborah Dawkin’s translation preserves that exuberance along with the brisk pace of Mattias’s narration. Over the course of almost 500 pages, I became thoroughly immersed in Mattias’s world, and even though I finished reading Buzz Aldrin more than a week ago, I still wonder how he’s doing. My strong emotional connection to this story proves what Mattias eventually realizes: “[E]ven an invisible person will be seen in the end, as a white aura flickering through nature, and there are no places to hide.”
Buzz Aldrin, What Happened to You in All the Confusion? by Johan Harstad is translated by Deborah Dawkin and published in the United States by Seven Stories Press.
Gwendolyn Dawson is the founder of Literary License.