Per Petterson’s I Refuse (Graywolf Press) is, as the title suggests, a novel concerned with egoism and repression. It is also about suffering, and the two protagonists, Jim and Tommy, suffer similarly for their self-centeredness—they are middle-aged, alone, and miserable. Tommy has a vague career in finance: he works with “money that barely existed, that was liquid and flowing this way and that at random,” and is paid “an embarrassingly large sum of money”—he lives alone in a mansion on an island in the middle of a fjord and was once engaged but “drew back at the last minute.” He drives a Mercedes, drinks too much, and takes pills for blood pressure. Jim, a former librarian (as Petterson was), has been on sick leave for a full year (this is possible in Norway) after collapsing into a shoe rack mid-panic attack (an event made tortuously literary with long breathless descriptive phrases and doctor characters oblivious to mental health—this brand of convenient subtlety is endemic to the novel and wearying). In the year, his anxiety has devolved into a full-fledged depression. He lives alone in a two-room flat, has fallen further into sex and nicotine addictions, and contemplates suicide. His only happiness is fishing on a bridge at daybreak. He drinks too much and takes pills for his condition.
Both Jim and Tommy are mired in themselves—and in what they once were to each other. They grew up best friends in the 60s, in the nowhere-ville town Mørk, an archetype of blue-collar bible belt Norway so technologically remote and backwoods-y that home telephones are American dreams (though, oddly, every Mørkian seems to have a television). It is a brutal, backward town where bibbers and bumblers beat their children and women, grind through manual labor, and worship a Christian God because “there was nothing else.” “The thing about Mork,” Petterson wants us to believe, “was that it could have been anywhere.” It is in this void of sameness, Jim, who never knew his father, and Tommy, whose mother abandoned him and his three siblings to their father, a garbage man and vicious abuser, find one another. They are different—thus they become aligned and inseparable. They share in the horrors of their childhood (and it is horrible—Petterson makes us intimates, too), they bear them together. But they grow up and apart. Tommy works a full time job at a saw mill, Jim is a star student—their friendship is strained and finally, as Jim grows ill and finally attempts suicide, ruptured, along with whatever defense against these demons their love provided.
It is precisely those demons, long-repressed and long-torturing, that emerge in the “present” the novel takes place in, as Tommy, by chance, drives down the very bridge Jim fishes on, and they meet, for the first time in thirty years. What emerges in the following hours is, for them, in a very real sense, the novel. That is, the novel is their lives, there is no distinction—the novel is a representation of the consciousness unpacking the moment of reunion. As is such, I Refuse is, formally, a strange book. At first blush, it seems entirely whimsical and even sloppy—key exposition is repeated endlessly, characters repeat phrases from chapter to chapter like refrains, clichés such as “everything was different” and “everything had to change” riddle sentences, many of which are strung out exasperatingly by “ands” and dependent clauses begging for a period. For that reason Petterson’s sentences are tricky to get a handle on— not because they are grammatically complex or verbose, but because they don’t seem to ever resolve. He is always indeterminate. Similarly, he flits freely and willingly between first- and third-person narrations, sometimes going over the same event twice or even three times—once as an objective observer, again as the “I” who experienced it, again as another ancillary “I.” Supporting actors get one or two chapters to themselves and go no further—Siri, Tommy’s younger sister, gets to close out the novel. If the attempt is high-art parallax à la Ulysses, it doesn’t usually appear that way. It appears almost accidental, like an error, or a bad draft. To an American writer and reader rooted in a type of academic-conservative contemporary tradition that demands sentence diversity and “round” characters, that makes cliché anathema and “control” apogee, such choices are odd, almost unsettling. Is the book bad? Is it well-written?
Petterson does not have those roots and does not belong to that tradition. He is interested in something less confectionary, is more involved in texture and tone and depth than intellectual precision. He isn’t even interested in writing good sentences per se—his sentences are not refined, though they are rarified. What he seeks is emergence, a coming-to-life, and he does so relentlessly. The New Yorker’s literary critic James Wood has said, “[Petterson’s] sentences yearn to fly away into poetry; it is rare to find prose at once so exact and so vague,” and he is correct—Petterson is a rare stylist whose prose, like the best poetry, is impossibly fragile. It exists only in contradiction—it always isn’t. To launch definition at the work is to lose contact with and thus shatter its vision, or let it go (a crime of which these words are necessarily and consciously guilty). But there is always that something to contact, it is immovable, and it is precisely the intensity of this presence that makes the book so achingly personal, so animated, however “imperfect” it is. Because there is that suffusing the pages, the repetition and perspectives and cliché are not empty, but rather embolden the book’s humanity like paintbrush strokes embolden a painting’s color. And this suggestion of depth—the becoming-of those depths—is Petterson’s power. His tableau is rigorously aesthetic and alive.
The question then is this: is it worthwhile to read a book whose brutality and repression and anger is so personally expressed, so expressive? I Refuse is humorless. The men, and the men get the overwhelming bulk of treatment here (though Petterson is not a bad writer of women), are disintegrating into stews of old-fashioned vice and despondence—their destitution, monkish in its extreme Christian ethos, is so felt. As Jim says, repeatedly, “You had to make yourself worthy, that was the point.” But: how to create worthiness out of a self that is fundamentally unworthy? The novel’s hopelessness is so thematic it is almost absurd—are people that miserable? Of course, they are, but they are rarely portrayed so honestly in the novel, rarely portrayed as that miserable. Yet Petterson’s egoists are grotesque, but real. Their final epiphanies are slight but monumental. If I Refuse is limning some depth of misery no other book limns, it is not only worthwhile, but necessary—but whether it really opens new horizons remains to be seen. It might. It might also be true that many, after a hundred pages of drudgery and hopelessness and anguish, brutal egoism, and a circular ethos demanding of the flesh an impossible transcendence, they will shut the book and toss it aside, saying, “No—I refuse.”
Per Petterson won the International IMPAC Dublin Literary Award for his novel Out Stealing Horses, which has been translated into forty-nine languages and was named a Best Book of 2007 by the New York Times Book Review.
Don Bartlett lives in England and works as a freelance translator of Scandinavian literature. He has translated, or co-translated, Norwegian novels by Lars Saabye Christensen, Roy Jacobsen, Ingvar Ambjornsen, Kjell Ola Dahl, Gunnar Staalesen, Pernille Rygg, and Jo Nesbo.
Benjamin Carter Olcott is a recent graduate of Boston College, where he majored in English Literature with a concentration in Creative Writing and managed to learn and unlearn most of his French. His work will have been forthcoming on a lovely and entirely unexpected platform sometime soon, he certainly hopes. He currently works for Oxford University Press and The Froebe Group, a freelance publishing company in New York City.