Friday, November 30, 2012

A self-indulgent conceit I grew to love

BrokenBroken by Karin Fossum
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

While quickly ordering books from the same seller on hoping to get a good deal and save on shipping, I accidentally ordered this book thinking it was another in Fossum's inspector Sejer series. So, initially, I was disappointed, envisioning another heartless experience as when I inadvertently picked up Arnaldur Indridason's *Operation Napaleon* hoping/praying it was another of his Erlendur detective series. It wasn't and after reading 20 pages, I discarded with a bad taste in my mouth, unsure how the amazing writer of Erlendur could write such mind-numbing action drivel.

But...*Broken*, though not immediately, won me over. I got caught up in the sad lonely life of Alvar, a man who has coasted into his 40s, remaining unconnected and above it all until a heroin-addicted young woman, Lyndis, seeks him out and eventually turns his life upside down. Alvar is never comfortable with what most would consider life, poignantly saying at one point "This world will never be a familiar place; everyday I have to navigate it as a beginner." And that captures Alvar exactly--a 40 year old virgin, to quote the irresistible movie title, but more importantly a 40 year old newborn tensing at ever new noise and bright light.

I must come clean now; I'm leading you on because thus far I've failed to mention a key piece of information--certainly most of you learned, especially my literary, friends will dismiss this book as self-indulgent. One articulate Goodreads reviewer lashes out against Fossum's invention, "The book’s concept, that a character is harassing the author to write about him and must face the story she presents to him, is definitely a bit indulgent. It feels like something she wrote while stuck on another project, something that probably should never have been published." Yes, that's right the main character, Alvar, has been quickened because he jumped the line in the author's mind and begged her to write about him. And, yes, it's a self-indulgent authorial exploration of what it means to write and I was absolutely and completely ready to, pun-intended, write it off. But, alas, just as the author, the one in the story that is, can't dismiss Alvar, I couldn't dismiss Fossum's neurotic self-examination.

I became fascinated with Alvar's attempts to be a "decent person" and yet not be completely controlled by Lyndis the young seemingly frail heroin addict. Alvar may be the most inept character I've ever experienced, but still I took up his struggles body and soul. And while I intellectually understand why many will find Fossum's author/character conceit indulgent, for me this heightened my compassion for both Alvar and his creator. Worried that Alvar is going to be tested by the author, he asks about his future and she replies,

"Alvar, my're worse than a child. And I know that you're in a tricky place right now. It's as if you're half finished. You're dangling, literally, in thin air. But if it's any comfort, Alvar, I'm dangling too. I'm halfway through my story...I'm struggling to sustain my faith in my own project. Doubt creeps up on me like an invisible gas...Have I found the right words?"

Grown if you must...but for me, I can only feel compassion for Alvar the pathetic and his nearly as pathetic creator and author. Maybe because it seems to me we are all pathetic and weak. Or maybe because I'm simply pathetic. Who knows. What I do know is that when Alvar contemplates suicide and the author dissuades him, recounting her own failed attempt, the author/character conceit melted. She tries to convince Alvar,detailing each step in her own attempt, that it's much harder to kill yourself than you think--and I, most pathetically, wept.

View all my reviews


shane said...

What bothers me are literary fashions that stress objectivity and authorial distance, where the author stays hidden and aloof, pretending to do something other that what he/she is doing--being self-indulgent! Sharing one's thoughts, ideas, experiences, emotions, and motives and taking pleasure in the process is what you're supposed to do when you write. It's what you're supposed to do when you communicate with others in any sense.

SH said...

I'm happy to see you are still blogging Ron~ I've missed a lot by not reading/following over the past few years. I love the way you described Alvar as a newborn that tenses at every new noise and bright light. Your description of him made me feel simultaneously compelled and curious about the book and the character and yet also repelled by the tension and neurotism! The idea that we are all pathetic and weak also spoke me because, because yeah, I think we all do have the pathetic and weak sides to our natures. I once was so drawn in by a man I considered a spiritual leader (not a Mormon leader) until a huge scandal arose and his pathetic, weak nature surfaced in a very public way. I was immediately turned off and counted him out but maybe I was just reacting to a fear of something I also saw in myself. Maybe that is what characters of books to for us, whether we are writing and taking pleasure in our self indulgence or trying on a different life momentarily. I'm wondering how this Alva character spoke to you personally. Not just in a literary sort of way.

Counterintuitive said...

Wow, a comment from both Shane and SH in the same post--long time no hear from (at least) in the blogosphere.

I remember your experience with the leader you speak of. And I echo your fear--that when I totally discount someone because of their weak nature, I wonder if it is simply a self-protection move. In part that's what I was trying to get at in my review of the novel.

In weeping for Alvar I chose not to reject him as merely pathetic. Personally I think given the right circumstances and setting we are all capable of extreme weakness and fear. I do believe we are all pathetic--infants crawling in our own feces.

to Shane: you take my point and go much further than I would have imagined. I'm not sure how far I could go down that road, but I certainly hear your point I think. All art, even all communication, from a certain perspective is self-indulgent by necessity.