Dec 6 2012

Self-Control by Stig Sæterbakken

JW McCormack

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In Self-Control, a novel by the Norwegian writer Stig Sæterbakken, an aging creature of habit named Andreas Felt goes on a rampage. At least he thinks its a rampage. To others, his behavior amounts to a number of small if calculated attacks on social politesse. Vying for the attention of his daughter Marit over the course of a lunch date, Andreas casually (and untruthfully) mentions his impending divorce from her mother. Returning to work, he vehemently upbraids the head of the company. Later, he humiliates a boorish family friend named Hans-Jacob over dinner and grossly over-tips a waitress.

From the "crimes" in question, you can probably gather that Self-Control isn't the newest addition to the voguish genre of Nordic thrillers. No one here takes Andreas's infractions against decorum very seriously: Marit shrugs off her father's lie, his boss is too preoccupied to take much notice, and Hans-Jacob gamely segues into an inane conversation about the Swiss. Still, for Andreas, his defiance of social norms unearths a kind of hell.

Self-Control is the second volume of the so-called S-trilogy to be translated into English (both by Dalkey Archive) and the first of Stig Sæterbakken's works to be released in the U.S. since the author's suicide in January 2012. Self-Control's predecessor, Siamese, also boasts an enfeebled hero, the blind and distinctly Beckettian Edwin Mortens, whose marriage has, by the time we meet him, reduced him to crouching in his bathroom and shouting demands at his wife. If Siamese is about the infantilizing horror of family, Self-Control is about the giddy terror of contemplating any alternative. Taken with an "understanding" young woman upon whom he eavesdrops in a café, Andreas imagines that falling in love with her, and deserting his wife, "would be like dying in the world you know and then being reborn in another:"

It was hard to get away from the fact that there was something enticing about it, losing your wife and everything you owned in a flash, no matter how dreadful it was . . . to be visited by some great sorrow on which to concentrate your emotions instead of continuing to torment yourself with thousands of small ones. Scorched from the surface of the earth as if they'd never been.

But the disaster never arrives—not, at least, as anything more than a fantasy. And despite Andreas's best efforts to offend, he is powerless to provoke society into punishing him or destroying the life that he loathes.

This is how Self-Control achieves its sense of tension and slow-burn intrigue—via Andreas's failure to communicate his displeasure with language, and his failure to make anyone care. It appears to be a novel of unbearable stasis, one suggesting that life is incomplete without an appropriate means to summon outrage. Words here accomplish little, and for all Andreas's aggressive talk, Self-Control is most impressive for its silence, which reminds us that what cannot be expressed is often the only thing worth talking about.

And, as language fails Andreas, Sæterbakken uses environment to substantiate and confound his interiority. When a waitress at the pub Andreas frequents discovers him to be her benefactor, she leads him on a tour of the dilapidated kitchen. It's as literal a crossing-over to the other side of life as anything this side of A Doll's House.

All of which would make for an unusually perceptive social novel, one where words are too feeble to penetrate the usual suburban frustrations. But Andreas's paralyzed cast of mind, riddled with escapist fancy and frequent ellipses conceal a much more ambitious scheme. Lulled into the comfortable assumption that rebellions of language will come to naught, we never realize that the reader is the real target. Much less that we are being lied to. Coterminous with our narrator's deviousness about his divorce is a much more significant deception that flies just under the prose until the novel's final line.

When we finally do grasp the charade (and our unsuspecting complicity in this more-than-twist ending), everything is radically upended, not least our sense of Andreas, who changes in an instant from a whimsical trickster vainly testing the fabric of his comfortable life to a desperately deluded man enacting a violent assault that demonstrates the sway language can exert over an imaginary world. That Sæterbakken is able to keep this secret for so long amounts to a powerful feat of self-control indeed.

JW McCormack is a senior editor at Conjunctions. His articles and book reviews have appeared in Bookforum, The Brooklyn Rail, Publishers Weekly, n+1's film supplement, N1FR and elsewhere.

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