Ambiguously, Artfully Affectless


By Jeff Bursey

With fall arriving, it seems appropriate that publishers release books that look at the last days of a person’s life. Dalkey Archive Press, a respected house with a fine catalogue of translated works–it is the best and most consistent source in North America of exciting works from many countries and language groups–is bringing out such a work: Kjersti Skomsvold’s The Faster I Walk, the Smaller I Am, which in 2009 won Norway’s First Novel award. It is the long, final monologue of a widow, Mathea Martinsen, who has had one remarkable thing happen in her life:

It was a cloudless day, I was standing by myself in a corner of the school yard and trying to look busy counting rocks. You’re only fooling yourself if you think you can’t be lonely just because you’re busy, but the most important thing is that no one else thinks you’re lonely. While I was standing there, dark clouds suddenly rushed in, the heavens opened up, and bolts of lightning struck me in the forehead twice. I fell back and everything was dark and very far away, I could hear ambulances and this time I knew they were coming for me… I heard sirens and opened my eyes and saw that the whole school had gathered around me, there was a burnt smell and the principal was there… Two men in white jackets came into view, they put me on a stretcher and carefully lifted me into the ambulance, as if I was someone they cared about. Then we drove away, sirens blaring, and it was as beautiful as Beethoven’s Fifth.

So we have a friendless child occupying herself with a boring pastime so as not to appear lonely and unloved. On returning to class from the hospital she finds herself no better liked or more interesting than she had ever been, and is not even considered freakish, despite her “scorched eyebrows” that she hides by “placing a forefinger over each of them, like the sign language for ‘ox’…” Only one person, a boy named Niels, who Mathea calls Epsilon, befriends her. Eventually they marry, they try unsuccessfully to have children, and settle into a quiet domestic life.

It’s an open question (that’s also ultimately immaterial) whether the lightning strike pushed Mathea to think further along her own lines, increasing the distance she keeps between herself and almost everyone else, or if this path through life would have been taken anyway. Skomsvold doesn’t explore the effects of electricity on the neurological system, and if she had shown an interest in this subject, she would have written a different novel. What we have is a study in willful isolation and a collection of often banal thoughts that become something higher, by virtue of the author’s patience (and perhaps our own).

Mathea is an articulate woman whose thoughts are constrained, at times arid, despite the general contentment she feels by being married. One could guess that her peculiar thoughts and ways have always set her apart from others, including, judging by their almost complete absence, her parents. While looking through a family photo album from her childhood she realizes that she’s “never been photographed alone.” This may seem unusual, but it’s not the most arresting point: “One of the photos in the album isn’t stuck down, it falls into my lap, it was taken before anyone ever gave me a thought, not that anyone ever has, particularly.” There is the nub of the novel. We are put into the mind of someone who deliberately estranges herself from others, or has been estranged; the book doesn’t contain an explanation that would satisfy this curiosity. And there’s no reason for it to do so. Without round characterization or background we are adrift, or more accurately, encouraged to see Mathea in isolation. We could draw on the stories she tells to work up a psychological makeup, but they are rarely from her formative years, and therefore are insufficient. What we have are Mathea’s thoughts and Mathea’s present, and the rest is a mystery.

From that description it might look like the scale of The Faster I Walk, the Smaller I Am is small. It is, and yet it is not. On one side, in dealing with the last days of a woman who could be somebody living in our building or down the street, we are presented with a singular existence that nudges us to ask what richness lies in Mathea’s life as she avoids neighbours, sneaks into the grocery store when few are around, lets newspapers pile up outside the door, and tries to establish herself in this world through telephone calls to director assistance.

I call and ask for my number until the evening news comes on, and I use a different voice every time. When I die, the operators will ask, mournfully: “Do you remember Mathea, she set the all-time record for number of requests, she was number one on our Top Ten list, do you remember how busy we were back then?”

On the other side, who of us is guaranteed that our future selves won’t become like Mathea–anti-social, a bundle of erratic manners, off-putting habits, and a sense of humour that includes commenting positively when words rhyme? When Epsilon first approaches her, nervously, he says: “‘The chance of being struck by lightning twice on the same spot must be less than ε, if ε equals a microscopically small quantity…’” Caught by surprise, Mathea hesitates, “but then I remembered my missing eyebrows, so I made the sign of the ox. I mooed so that it would seem more natural.”

A non sequitur like that brings up an important feature of The Faster I Walk, the Smaller I Am, its sense of humour. In the early pages I wondered, first, if such quick shifts indicated shaky tonal control on Skomsvold’s part, and second, if readers were meant to interpret the remarks as true jokes on Mathea’s part. My first question became answered soon enough; Skomsvold capably renders the quicksilver turns of a mind. The second issue is trickier. Perhaps Mathea doesn’t have a sense of humour and merely expresses herself in ways we categorize as humorous. Her contentment at staying home and doing a bit of housework now and then rather than, for example, walking through a park or working underlines her emotional distance from people; her seemingly humourous remarks may in fact be very straightforward ones that lack emotional content. How they sound to us consequently would be different.

An example might illustrate what I mean. When putting together a time capsule that will be buried in the ground outside her building, Mathea considers what it should hold. Old teeth (about which much is made) would supply DNA, as would hair, and skin, and definitely put her mark on the contents. But there’s a catch. “Every person’s DNA is unique, and I like the thought that I’m unique, until it hits me that every person in China is just as unique as me.” We recognize the mistake she’s made (none of the people in China is exactly like their neighbour, nor like Mathea, so everyone is unique), yet her remark, in the context of her life, contains a truth that changes a comforting thought into one more miserable realization. Wherever the humour in it comes from (and there is a dry humour in this line), it doesn’t save Mathea from most of the pain or discomfort she feels, and doesn’t provide much relief for us, though this is not an entirely gloomy book. Again, without a psychological background we aren’t able to know Mathea or come to a conclusion on this topic, and the result of such careful, hard work by Skomsvold is a delicately done, but firmly made, ambiguity, and a notable work of fiction.

Reviewed from galleys

Dalkey Archive Press | 112 pages |  $17.95 | paper | ISBN #978-1564787026

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Offshore Drilling: Reviews In Translation

Jeff Bursey

Jeff Bursey is the author of the picaresque novel Mirrors on which dust has fallen (Verbivoracious Press, 2015) and the political satire Verbatim: A Novel (Enfield & Wizenty, 2010), both of which take place in the same fictional Canadian province. His latest book, Centring the Margins: Essays and Reviews (Zero Books, 2016), is a collection of literary criticism that has appeared in various publications.