There's a circus tent current of excitement that accompanies the appearance of the new novel I Refuse by Norwegian author Per Petterson (translated into English for Graywolf Press by Don Bartlett, who also translated two of the author's other books), and on the surface, such excitement is just a bit strange.
Petterson was just an ordinary working midlist writer when he shot to first national and then international prominence for his 2003 novel, translated into English in 2005 (by Anne Born) as "Out Stealing Horses." The book went on to become a runaway bestseller in 40 languages, a Time magazine pick for Top Ten Novels in 2007, and a staple of book clubs all over the world. Despite its virtually plotless narrative and dour, tight-lipped tone, the novel managed to speak to thousands of readers, the vast majority of whom, it must be presumed, had never set foot in Norway.
Whenever such lightning strikes in the book world, the consuming hope – among readers and certainly among publishers and bookstores – is that it'll happen again, that whatever combination of traits that attracted hordes of readers once can somehow be re-assembled and do it again. Such is the burden, perhaps unfair, that will now rest on everything Petterson writes, especially the items that get translated into English.
Which brings us to "I Refuse," certainly as somber and odd a novel as "Out Stealing Horses," every bit as obsessed with painful sentimentality and the subtle treacheries of memory. And like "Out Stealing Horses," "I Refuse" doesn't have a plot so much as it has an engorged premise: two men, Tommy and Jim, meet at dawn in 2006 by a desolate railway bridge where middle-aged Jim has gone to fish with a bunch of strangers. Tommy and Jim were best friends as children, and now, decades later, their lives have taken very different shapes; Jim is a frazzled and drug-dependent loser (“As long as I remembered to take my pills,” he reflects, “one day slid nicely into another”), whereas Tommy drives a Mercedes and seems self-assured.
The meeting sparks the novel into what little motion it ever achieves. In a series of flashbacks that mostly alternate between Tommy and Jim's narration (with periodic addition narrated by Tommy's sister Siri and by an omniscient narrator watching Tommy and Jim together), we see the dramas of their teenage years unfold, bouncing back and forth between Jim's claustrophobic religious upbringing and Tommy's savagely abusive father. Throughout these chapters, Petterson performs some very skillfully-done narrative layering, giving us the same events from a variety of viewpoints, none of them completely trustworthy. The same shared incident can be a source of obsession to one character and a forgotten blip to another (one such incident, involving “what happened on Lake Aurtjern,” seems to be a particular focal point for Jim in later years, although on this as on so many other things, the narrative is unclear) – it's an entertaining writerly gimmick, though a familiar one.
Style is clearly meant to trump substance in these pages. As characters, Tommy and Jim are entirely, almost studiously bland; “There was nothing else.” Tommy says at one point about his own Christian faith, for instance. “On a scale of one to ten I was about six, seven at the most, but it wasn't something I wasted a lot of time thinking about.” And when a mysterious fainting illness afflicts the adult Jim, we get Petterson's signature faux-Cormac McCarthy stream of consciousness about what the illness does to Jim (“And then all of a sudden I couldn't breathe and tumbled against the wall and the coats hanging there from their pegs and pulled at least two of them down with me and crashed against the shoe rack, and there was a big plastic shoehorn stuck in behind the rack, and it hit me in the ribs like a spear, and it hurt so much I was about to start howling ...” etc.) but virtually nothing about what it makes him think or feel.
Presumably Norwegian terms are translated into jolting Americanisms like “the Social Security Office” or “Bible Belt Christians,” and the book is full of the same clumping awkwardness that characterized every page of "Out Stealing Horses." At one point we're told that a character was wearing two sweaters, “one over the other” – as if two sweaters could be worn any other way – and when a desperate young Tommy breaks his father's leg with a bat in self-defense, he later informs us, “My father disappeared, no one ever saw him again, and it was strange, considering the smashed leg he would have had to drag with him, that he could vanish, just like that” – a detail as clumsy as it is unbelievable, dropped in simply because Petterson wanted the character out of the story.
In other words, the allure of this kind of artless, phlegmatic Norwegian fiction remains every bit as inscrutable as it was for Petterson's big hit novel a decade ago. That hit novel swept readers into a grim, uninviting world they nonetheless found fascinating, and if it worked for "Out Stealing Horses," it could work for "I Refuse."
“If I knew how any of this worked,” millionaire publisher Bennett Cerf was fond of saying, “I'd be a millionaire.”