Book: Naïve. Super
Author: Erlend Loe
Type of Book: Fiction, gently weird
Why Do I Consider This Book Odd: Well, it isn’t as full-force odd as some of the books I discuss here but it is definitely off the radar of what is mainstream. And to be perfectly blunt, it was a book written from a place of goodwill, of belief in the idea that life can be wonderful. Given that even most lit fic, even if it has a happy ending, requires a wallow, this book is unique in that regard. Don’t get me wrong, because I love a good wallow, but at the same time, a wallow-less book that does not pander to the reader is so rare that it is odd by default.
Availability: This translation was published by Cannongate Books in 2005, and you can get a copy here:
Comments: Ah, sometimes you just need things to be sweetly odd. Just a little strange, a little left of center. I ordered a copy of this book because I asked a clerk at BookPeople to tell me the oddest book he had ever read. His answer, obviously, was Naïve. Super. He was a tragically hip young person, as are most of the clerks at BookPeople, but this is Austin and I am getting old, so no condemnation. He described it as being the story of a man-child who spent all day bouncing balls. So you can see why I had to get it and then wait two years to read it. I wanted to read it but dreaded it.
There was nothing to dread. The tragically hip young man was describing with no small amount of irony the most irony-deficient book ever written since Jane Fucking Eyre. And again, not his fault, because when you’re a hammer, all the world looks like nails and when you are a hipster, earnestness may be hard to identify. I’m just glad he recommended it to me because I am unsure otherwise I would ever have known about this lovely gem.
And ignore any of the official reviews you read about this book. Some utter asshole said it recalled Holden Caulfield and while I am not one who dislikes The Catcher in the Rye (actually, I love Holden and I love Salinger), I have to wonder if people are put off by that idiotic statement. The protagonist of Naïve. Super has about as much in common with Holden Caulfield as I do, and as a middle-aged woman who lives in the ‘burbs in Texas, I have remarkably little. We both dislike phonies and that’s about it. And that, dear readers, is why I seldom like to read reviews of any kind before I read a book and discuss it. I can’t imagine the number of books I would not have read had I taken anyone’s word on it. Having said that, I can see how it would seem very arrogant that I maintain a book review and discussion site. But while I know I am right, a sign of a certain amount of arrogance, I also write far more than the average reviewer because I’m verbose as all hell, but also because you should never take my word for anything. You should just read my words and hopefully I give a look at the book that is more than comparing it glibly to another book in a facile attempt to make myself understood.
Anyway, enough with my reviewer’s disgust.
This book should come in prescription form for me. In fact, I think I may reread it once I finish this review. It is the most strangely peaceful book I have ever read. I suspect I love this book because I adore the protagonist, a quiet, strange, ultimately golden-hearted man (and we never learn his name, though some believe his name is Erlend because of an e-mail produced in the book). The protagonist has dropped out of grad school because everything has suddenly become meaningless to him (maybe that’s why that moronic reviewer made that stupid comparison to poor Holden…). He house sits and buys a car for his older brother, who is traveling on business and gives him instructions and money to buy the car. He makes a ton of lists. He meets a little boy and hangs out with him. He meets a girl and wins her heart. He travels with his brother and enjoys New York. At the end, he realizes he has a good heart, but he comes to the conclusion a bit tentatively as it is not something easily quantified, but, even so, he leaves the book with a better, if still elusive, grasp of what constitutes the meaning of his life.
If it seems like I spoiled the novel, I didn’t because you can really sum up the plot in its entirety in five sentences. The plot of this book is not the reason to read this book. The reason to read this book is to watch as a man who lacks all forms of pretense tries to quantify everything and explores the world around him, finding the meanings to things that eluded him until he dropped out and began to measure even the simplest of things.
Of course, this is the sort of novel that could only happen in a relatively benign place like Norway where a grown man playing with a little boy doesn’t inspire the need in every passerby to call Chris Hansen, and to a person who has a brother with an empty apartment. The protagonist is the most earnest character an American like me can possibly hope to read. With so many novels so sickeningly drenched in irony, the protagonist in Naïve. Super is completely devoid of it. And because he is not self-referentially hip in his depression and his attempts to make meaning of his world, it is tempting to write him off as simple, possibly stupid. It means something when, confronted with earnestness and a complete lack of irony, it is tempting to dismiss it as lacking intellect. I’m too tired to discuss what that means, but believe me when I say the protagonist is not mentally retarded or otherwise lacking in intellect. He’s just finding himself in a manner that does not involve self-destruction and the delivery of oh-so-clever one-liners. That having been said, in the midst of such simplicity, this is a deeply funny book.
The protagonist begins the novel explaining that he has two friends, one good and one bad, and a brother, who is less friendly than him, but a good guy nonetheless. One has to agree that his brother is a good man, because he permits his 25-year-old brother, a man who rather enjoys spending hours playing with Brio toys and making seemingly pointless lists, stay in his apartment in exchange for just giving him his messages. When his brother returns from his trip, he realizes the protagonist is having a gentle nervous breakdown combined with a mild existential crisis, and cares for the protagonist, including taking him on a trip to New York. Perhaps the brother senses that brutally beating the protagonist at croquet was what initially made the protagonist feel like there was no purpose to life. Even so, it’s hard to fault the brother. People who need a villain in a book will not like Naïve. Super because this is a novel filled with nice people. Nice, quirky and not entirely familiar people, but nice people nonetheless.
So the protagonist is living in his brother’s apartment after quitting grad school, and is puzzling out both the meaning of life and what it is he wants to do. This involves analyzing what he likes doing, and the pros and cons of everything he considers worth doing. By drilling the protagonist’s considerations down to what seems like an absurd level, Loe allows an existential examination of life that seems humorous on its face but is actually filled with a depth that is surprising when I think hard about it because this book raises and tries to answer the question of why it is we do anything. The protagonist may spend an inordinate amount of time bouncing a ball, the key detail that remained in the mind of the man who recommended this book to me, but bouncing that ball is an answer to the question of the meaning of life. It is a physical activity that requires thought and action, a beginning and an end, and all actions lead to other actions and in the things we do, the simple and complex, there is the answer to the meaning of life. The meaning of life is not love, fulfillment, money, sex, or deep internal contemplation. For the protagonist, and most of us for whom philosophy can too often be the talk on a cereal box, life and meaning come from simply thinking about what we want to do and then doing it.
I hope this explains why it is I found this book so deep and utterly non-Salinger-esque. But let me share some of the humor in this book, some of the intensely funny or just silly moments in the book. As I said above, the protagonist makes lists. Lots of them. Take this one, a list the protagonist made after wandering around restlessly in shops, unable to find what he is looking for because he has no idea what he is looking for:
After a bit of thinking it becomes apparent that I’m looking for an object which:
–Is small enough for me to carry easily
–Costs no more than a hundred kroner
–Can be used many many times
–Can be used indoors as well as outdoors
–Can be used alone or with someone else
–Gets me active
–Makes me forget about time
He takes some time, thinking about the list, then it comes to him.
Suddenly it is clear to me that what I seek is a ball.
A ball, plain and simple. I feel a sting of eagerness.
It’s been a long time since I thought about balls. I’m happy that it came to mind. This is the way to go. Now I just have to find a ball.
He goes into a sports store and views several balls and, if you haven’t ever been in a mental state wherein the next sentences I quote ring hilariously true to you, this may not be a book you want to read. But if you do get it, if the next quote makes you think, “Christ all-mighty, I thought I was the only one who was this daft!” then order a copy post-haste:
They have a overwhelming selection of balls. Nice, expensive balls. Made from leather and other durable materials. I examine them but find them too demanding. I’ll be feeling a lot of pressure to perform if I buy a ball like that. The time is not ripe for a quality ball.
So I guess what I am saying is, if you haven’t tried to make a quilt and ended up making soft, cat toys, or tried to draw but found yourself coloring in your Holly Hobbie coloring books with wax crayons, mainly because the time was not right for serious endeavors, this book may not be for you. At least our unnamed hero takes the time to understand his limitations before he mindlessly buys a ball too advanced for him.
And it’s right about there that the ball-bouncing begins.
But he also reads a book by a man called Paul, a book about physics, and this book annoys him because it shows him that his education has been limited, but, then again, he dropped out of physics.
The reason I opted out of physics was because we sat drawing protons and neutrons without grasping how it all really fitted together. I was bored. I’d much rather turn to face the girls and make a ring with my left thumb and index finger, and then move my right index finger in and out of this ring repeatedly.
It’s good to know the protagonist has his bad side. I spent college physics trying to draw perfect circles in the margins of the notes I scrawled down from time to time. (I almost met Mr Oddbooks in a physics class in college. He came to the first two classes in Physics 101 but managed to find a way to graduate without it and dropped the class. Had he stayed in the class, perhaps he would have found me distasteful because I drew circles for two hours and squeaked by with a D. Luckily we met after I had graduated and it was only later he realized how mentally undisciplined I am.)
As he makes lists, the protagonist faxes messages back and forth with his friend Kim, who is stationed on an island north of Norway monitoring the weather (this novel pre-dates wide e-mail usage). He spends time with the child he met, a little boy called Børre. And he thinks and thinks and thinks some more.
A human being weighing 70 kilograms contains among other things:
–4.5 liters of water
–Enough chalk to whiten a chicken pen
–Enough phosphorous 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.
The protagonist is sickened by the amount of data he has crawling around in his head. To paraphrase a passage in the book that I recall clearly but cannot seem to find it to quote it, he has a lot of stuff in his mind, facts he has learned. He simply does not know what to do with the information, how it might all link together, and it makes him a little nuts. And I came to the conclusion that knowing this about him explains a lot of the mind jumps we get in this book. In one scene, the protagonist is thinking of a painter, but then segues into the following, a thought process clearly jumbled and easily interrupted.
Sometimes I envy the goldfish. Apparently, they only have a few seconds’ worth of memory span It’s impossible for them to follow a train of thought. They experience everything for the first time. Every time. As long as they themselves aren’t aware of their handicap, life must be one long happy story. A party. Excitement from dawn to dusk.
This is what I would paint if I were a painter.
–People who are late for the bus
Now the phone is ringing. I answer it.
While the protagonist is wholly without irony, the author is not. The protagonist has a hard time seeing that he cannot hold onto a thought, much like the goldfish he envies. Of course, he just wants the newness of experience that he had as a child. He wants the endless amount of pointless knowledge he has to link together or to go away and leave him alone. He eschews experiences that mean little. But even as he has a clear objective, he is as disjointed as that which he envies.
He trades more lists with Kim. He finds a lot of fault with the list of animals Kim has seen. He thinks his friend must have led a very sheltered life, indeed, to have seen so few animals. He engaged in a list making contest with Børre to see how had seen the most animals and since Børre is so much younger, he gets to use the animals his father has seen as well and wins.
And it goes on in this manner, as the protagonist dissects every thought in his head, dissects the thoughts of others, makes lists, plays with Brio toys and his ball and Børre. He sends an e-mail to the Paul who wrote the book and meets Lise, a girl we sense early on will be perfect for him, as she obliges him in his compulsive list making by writing out on a napkin all the things that would excite her when she was a little girl. He meets her because Børre, the little boy, saw a list of toys a little girl named Jessica was selling and the protagonist ran him over to the house, meeting Lise, Jessica’s older sister. Lists, lists and more lists happen.
Then his brother comes back and takes the protagonist to New York so lists can happen in a new country. A series of unlikely events cause the protagonist to be in charge of a stranger’s dog for a while and the vague ridiculousness that plagues the protagonist’s life continues because as he takes the dog for a walk, people who know the dog let him know what the dog’s name is, how much it should eat, and how to take care of it. He is the human but he is unknown while the dog is a beloved member of a community, a known entity. When the dog craps in a park and a woman shows the protagonist how to pick it up, the protagonist suffers yet another existential and epistemological surge of thoughts.
Now I’m standing with a bag full of dog turd in my hand. It’s absurd.
This is a completely different life. People must think I’m a dog owner in New York. That I live here and have an apartment and dog. That I pick up dog turds like this one every day, before and after work. It’s a staggering thought.
Seeing as I’m not a dog owner in New York, that also means everybody could be something other than what they seem to be. That means it’s impossible to know anything at all.
And before we get too deep, just know that the protagonist goes to the New York Public Library and does computer searches on rude Norwegian words just to see how they would come up in an English directory of subjects, titles and authors.
So, what we have here is a novel wherein a strange young man drops out of graduate school, sends faxes to a friend, does chores for his brother, and analyzes all his thoughts and motivations without any sense of irony or pretense. He comes to conclusions, comes to more conclusions, then wonders if there are any conclusions to be reached at all. The book ends with him flying back to Norway from New York, thinking his endless thoughts. He is in love. He has a few good friends. He hopes that Paul, the author of the book about physics, has replied to his e-mail (and Paul Davies does, or rather his assistant does, explaining that Professor Davies cannot answer questions from random strangers, and one wonders if Loe actually sent the man a message in real life, as it is reproduced on the last page of the book). The book ends thusly:
When I get home I’m going to buy a bicycle helmet. And I want to call Lise and tell her that life is a bit like a journey, and that I am maybe, but only maybe, a really good guy.
I agree with this assessment, but only if he stops making rude hand gestures to girls in physics classes.
All in all, I adored this book. I want you all to read it, but only if you found amusing the content I provided from the book and don’t mind all this passive, and at times pointless, philosophy thrown your way. Because as the protagonist shows us, thinking and making lists is all well and good, and philosophy and science go a long way toward explaining things, but, really, all that matters in life is doing things, like bouncing balls, taking chances and reading books recommended by hipsters.