A review of Buzz Aldrin, What Happened to You in All the Confusion by Johan Harstad

Reviewed by Magdalena Ball

Buzz Aldrin, What Happened to You in All the Confusion
by Johan Harstad
Translated by Deborah Dawkin
UWA Publishing
AUD$34.95, Paperback, 480 pages, ISBN 9781742582634

Mattias is 29 years old and at a loose end. He was happy in his obscurity, beautifying the world quietly in his job as gardener and living with the love of his life, Helle, when suddenly everything changed. He loses both his job and his girl, and even his attempts at obscurity let him down. Thrust into a deep disassociation, Mattias finds himself hurt and confused on the remote Faroe Islands between Iceland and Norway, where he only partly understands the language, and has to rebuild his shattered sense of self.

Mattias himself is the narrator of the book, and his first person recount is written with both an immediacy, and a sense of perspective that might come from a wiser, older Mattias’ recount. Despite the novel being a translation from Norwegian, Mattias’ language is poetic and rich, conveying his depression in a matter of fact way that evokes understanding without drawing pity:

“I was going to miss them, and it was a strange feeling, realizing that the only people waiting for me back where I came from were my parents, and they’d wait for me whatever I did, forever tuned in to that station, the frequency of loss.” (166)

Mattias’ own emotional station is tuned into the frequency of loss as he struggles against his talents and desires. By plunging deeper into that frequency with his damaged Faroe Island roommates and new friends Ennen, Anna, Havstein, and Palli, he finds new talents, new emotions, and a new sense of meaning that emerges along with his own growth. It’s a testimony to Deborah Dawkins’ translation that the poetry of the original comes through so clearly, with each transition moving between a drought and rain that evokes the pathetic fallacy. This drought-breaking rain opens the book with brilliant intensity: “The person you love is 72.8 percent water and there’s been no rain for weeks.” Rain again falls on Mattias as he finds himself alone and confused at a bus station on the Faroes Islands:

Rain. The droplets that zoomed in on me from four thousand feet above and landed onto the back of my neck, into my hair, dripped down onto the asphalt and made small puddles that trickled slowly away from me.” (97)

Johan Harstad’s first novel is peopled with quirky, funny and surprisingly believable characters who evoke empathy without losing any sense of their wonderful originality. The prose is written with a funky sense of rhythm that keeps the narrative moving along quickly, between Ennen’s obsession with The Cardigans to snippets of music that range from The Kulta Beats, to David Bowie to REM. A welter of modern cultural references are deftly woven into a story that moves quickly even in the midst of Mattias’ worst inertia, taking the reader on a journey between dreams and reality. By the end of the book, the change in Mattias is so prevalent that the final narrator is completely different from the one that opens the book.

Buzz Aldrin himself and his trip through space is as evocative a backdrop to the story as Mattias’ hometown of Stavanger, Norway, and the moonlike Faroese Islands, where Mattias takes his own life-changing first steps. This is a lovely, delicately written novel whose power lies in the balance between Mattias’ awakening, and his acceptance that there are many kinds of glory, and many different ways to create meaning and leave footprints.

To listen to the author read from the book, visit: The Compulsive Reader Talks.

To read an interview with Harstad, including lots of additional links and info, visit: here.

Pick up a copy of the book here.

About the reviewer: Magdalena Ball is the author of the poetry books Repulsion Thrust, and Quark Soup, and the novel Sleep Before Evening, along with a wide number of other works including anthologies, collaborations, and nonfiction books. Visit her at www.magdalenaball.com.

Article first published as Book Review: Buzz Aldrin, What Happened to You in All the Confusion? by Johan Harstad on Blogcritics.