About fifteen years ago I discovered Richard Brautigan's In Watermelon Sugar in a charity shop in Saltcoats. I had never read anything quite like it and pretty much never expected to again. Even today I never see his books in any of the mainstream bookshops despite their being reprinted over here by Rebel Inc. and everything I've bought since has been over the internet – three cheers for the internet – and I didn't imagine I would ever read anything comparable until one of my nice American relatives bought me Naïve. Super by the Norwegian author Erlend Loe for my Xmas. It was actually on my Amazon wish list but I'd completely forgotten about it. And I couldn't tell you where I first heard about it – on the Web obviously – but it will have simply been something I tripped over looking for something else, a bit like the Brautigan.
The book jacket states outright that the book is “deceptively simple,” (an overused expression if ever there was one) but there really isn't a better expression for it. The sentences are short and they use as straightforward a language as possible considering some of the subjects that are covered.
I have two friends. A good one and a bad one. And then there’s my brother. He might not be quite as friendly as I am, but he’s OK … My life has been strange lately. It came to a point where I lost interest in it all. It was my 25th birthday. A few weeks ago.
The narrator is an unnamed Norwegian who is waiting for something to happen in his life. As he puts it he's "turn[ed] down the tempo to zero". He's dropped out of an MA programme following a breakdown during a game of croquet and is living, jobless, in his brother’s house while the brother is away on business. He realises that this is only a comma in his life, that soon he will have to make a decision as to what he wants to do with the rest of his life, but he chooses to let the moment have control till then. An endearing quirk is that he makes lists (lists of things that make him happy, things that he liked when he was a kid, things that he has, things that he wants), some more sensible than others but they all reveal a bit more about this unusual young man.
A human being weighing 70 kilograms contains among other things:
– 45 litres of water
– Enough chalk to whiten a chicken pen
– Enough phosphorus for 2,200 matches
– Enough fat to make approximately 70 bars of soap
– Enough iron to make a two-inch nail
– Enough carbon for 9,000 pencil points
– A spoonful of magnesium
I weigh more than 70 kilograms.
He spends the bulk of his time in mindless activities, throwing a ball or hammering pegs into a child’s hammer-and-peg toy – likely there is a connection in his mind between these activities and the game of croquet earlier even though it was only the catalyst. He simplifies his life, quantifying it and compartmentalizing it in an effort to take control of the small things so as not to be overwhelmed by the endless number of large, life-changing things that seem beyond that control. It is almost as if he's regressed back to childhood. He hasn't. He still functions as an adult – he is perfectly capable of buying a car for his brother, for example – but he reduces his analysis of his life asking simple questions like, why don't I have a girlfriend and what am I supposed to do with all the things I know? Eventually he is persuaded to join his brother for a holiday in New York where his plans for the future start to coalesce. It is there that it becomes apparent that the naivety of childhood is not an escape from the complexity of adulthood, but a compliment to it.
Whilst he is going through all of this he begins reading a book by the British-born physicist Prof Paul Davies, a book he describes being about ‘life, the universe and everything’, which only serves to magnify his feelings of intimidation at the complexity of life.
I flipped through some pages, but started sweating and had to put it down. It was too much for me. There are limits to what I can handle right now. I walked around the flat for awhile, feeling uneasy.
The book is never named but it sounds like About Time: Einstein's unfinished revolution. Davies is primarily a theoretical physicist and cosmologist who has had a longstanding association with the problem of time; he is also a highly philosophical writer. It is the subject of time that the book's protagonist finds most fascinating but it is a childlike fascination. When at the top of the Empire State Building he makes a phone call to the ground floor. Eventually a man picks up the phone:
Hello? he says.
Hello, I'm calling from the top of the building, I say.
Yes? says the man.
Are you aware that time runs slightly faster at the top than it does at the bottom of this building? I ask.
No, says the man.
Well, it does, I tell him.
All right, says the man.
Are you impressed? I ask.
Not really, he says.
This is typical of the kind of thing that happens throughout this slim little volume. Davis's questions about the universe are the kind of things the narrator is interested in with respect to his personal universe. Many people ignore these questions and fill their lives as best they can. Loe's character doesn't. He doesn't ignore that questions exist. That said he doesn't worry overly much about not getting all the answers right away.
I am convinced that it's all about eagerness. That it's missing.
I must find it. Get it back.
It's out there.
It's probably pointless to talk about it.
It's a bit Zen.
I'll never make it as long as I try to.
Only when I don't try, will I make it.
Fucking Buddhists. They think they're so bloody clever.
There is a review on Amazon that is just perfect and it evokes the style of the student:
After reading the first couple of lines … I was hooked on to it and now I am in need of something similar to read.
This is definitely one of the best books I've ever read.
Because it made me re-believe.
In trees, and bikes and in people.
It's simple. Nothing too bad happens. Nothing too exciting.
It's everything we're short of in today's society.
This book will make you think. Thinking is good. People should think more. And often. About all sorts of things.
A number of people liken it to Catcher in the Rye. I can see why, the young hero on a quest towards self-discover, but Salinger's book knows it has a serious message and the humour is by the by; Loe's book never takes itself too seriously but it is also a serious book, one, to be honest, I'm really too old to benefit from fully. Like Holden, the character is alienated but the strange thing is that we don't feel alienated from him. Holden seems only to be able to relate fully with his sister Phoebe; in Naïve. Super an important part of the story is the narrator's friendship with the five year-old Børre. Both protagonists have big brothers but only Loe's character interacts with his and, of course, both characters are brought to New York to meet their destinies. There are differences too, Holden actively alienates himself, he is cynical and angry whereas the Norwegian student is naïve and goes out of his way to please people. Both characters are, in their own ways, trying to cling onto childhood but Loe's creation is perhaps a bit more up front about it.
The book is still in print. Search it out if you missed it the first time. Books come and go all too quickly: two months, six months, a year at best. All the publicity, all the hype, all the fuss has now died down. It's at times like this books can get forgotten and this is one that shouldn’t be. I would recommend it to everyone. Find a copy and pass on the word.
Erlend Loe had written six children's books before his first foray into the adult world with Naïve. Super which was a huge success in his native Norway, and a bestseller throughout Europe. In March 2006 Loe received the Prix Européen des Jeunes Lecteures for the novel in The European Parliament. He has since published another seven novels for adults but none of these have been translated into English.