Thursday, December 1, 2011

Book Review: Buzz Aldrin, What Happened to You in All the Confusion? by Johan Hartsad

I never know how to choose books to read.  I don't read literary publications or really know where to get recommendations from.  I'm also an obsessive spendthrift, so I only get books from the library or borrowed from friends.  That's where I found this book, in the New Fiction section at the front of the library.  I was drawn in by the beautiful cover (classic mistake) and the fascinating title.

Buzz Aldrin, what happened to you in all the confusion?  What a perfect title.  It gives you just enough to pique your interest while revealing nothing about the story.  Buzz Aldrin, second man on the moon.  Famous runner-up.  What happened to you in all the confusion?  What happens to someone who does something amazing, world-changing, and is simply seen as the second person to do it?

So I grabbed the book and was even more excited as I read the jacket.  Turns out it was written by a highly acclaimed Norwegian author who had finally been translated into English.  Yep, this was the book to read.

So the book is not really about space travel at all.  It's about a man about to turn 30, Mattias who lives a simple life in a coastal city in Norway.  He enjoys working hard and being a cog in the machine (as he puts it).  All he wants to do is live a good life and go unnoticed, which is why he idolizes Buzz Aldrin, the little celebrated second man who was actually a better pilot and scientist than Neil Armstrong.  Mattias has two best friends, a girlfriend and a job in a garden and could never want anything more.  But everything falls apart and he finds himself in a mental health facility in the Faroe Islands.

I won't give you any more of the plot because I hate spoilers but also because it's not important.  The quality of this book comes in its structure and flow.  It's very postmodern in the way events are presented.  Pages and pages are devoted to exact details of everyday life, routines, late-night conversations and long drives.  Then life-changing events occur - getting fired, deaths of characters - that receive no more than a paragraph.  I don't think this is done just to be subversive.  This is a book about mental health, and the slow battle for recovery.  It puts us in the head of Mattias and not just because it's written in the first person.  But Mattias is depressed and it's written like the narrator is depressed.  Days drift on and on, the whole book seems to be described through a haze.  Harstad employs a few tricks to do this.  The whole book is divided into short sections, each no longer than two pages.  Some describe the smallest details and give them the heaviest weight.  Other times Mattias will be talking about something mundane and then slip in an observation profound sadness and wisdom.  It's always raining or sunless.  All of this works together to make the book move in a calming, directionless phase with sudden manic bursts of plot.

This style is not unique to Harstad, it's quite prevalent in literature these days, but this is one of the few books I've read where I felt it served the plot and strengthened the characters instead of just looking and sounding cool.  It also made it personally good to read because I could pick it up for a few minutes at a time, read a section, and then go on to something else.  Yes this makes me a lazy reader.  I'm sorry.

There are a lot of pop culture references in this book.  Deep ones and obscure ones.  I noticed this when I read a passage, recognized it and had to spend about ten minutes reflecting on where I knew from.  It was the note that Kurtz sends home 2/3rds of the way through Apocalypse Now, something I would have never caught if it hadn't watched the movie a week before.  This took me aback.  I understand the purpose of all the references, to plant Mattias firmly in my fragmented, connected generation, but references this specific it just made me wonder what else was missing.

Mattias is still lovable.  His role as a happy also-ran, a devotee of Buzz Aldrin, is something I think we all can relate to.  I'm a baseball fan, a Brewers fan, and my favorite player is Craig Counsell, someone who you would never confuse for a superstar.  But I can appreciate the virtue of just being a reliable good person who happily does what is asked of him and doesn't ask for anything more.  When Mattias has this idea of himself and of life shaken so fundamentally, you feel his pain.  You want him to get better.

Ultimately this is a story about healing.  About the peaceful monotony of slowly getting better, day to day.  Most of us don't have an experience as dramatic as losing everything you love and waking up bloodied in the rain in the middle of a street on the Faroe Islands.  But we all know how it feels to have your life shaken and the daunting journey of just living through it, just making it to the next day.  Harstad describes this more realistically than any other book I've experienced.

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