The Other Name
By Jon Fosse
351 pp. Fitzcarraldo Editions. £13.
And now for something completely different …
I’ve been meaning to read the Norwegian author Jon Fosse for some time, ever since Karl Ove Knausgaard praised him in his “My Struggle” series. This is the first thing I’ve read by Fosse, so whether it is emblematic of his other work, I do not know.
“The Other Name” is written in something called “slow prose.” I’d never heard the term before, and I’m still not exactly sure what defines it. If “The Other Name” is anything to go by, I’d say it’s a style of literature devoid of plot, periods, and line breaks. Yes, “The Other Name” looks and reads very much like one marathon run-on sentence. At first, this was jarring and it took me some time to settle in. In its early pages, I figured that “slow prose” meant prose that you had to read slowly because of how unfamiliar the whole format was.
But like all things, you get used to it.
It’s odd, actually, because nothing happens in the 351 pages of “The Other Name.” I could summarize the entire “plot” from beginning to end in a single sentence, and it wouldn’t even be a run-on sentence. That’s how little happens here. Nearly everything happens inside the main character’s head. Everything is a thought, a memory, an observation or, particularly, repetition of a thought, a memory, or an observation that the main character had five pages ago, or even five lines ago.
It would be easy, too easy, to say that this book is “boring” because it doesn’t adhere to any of the accepted rules of the novel. But that would be the wrong word, because it isn’t, actually, boring. And I’m surprised to confess that, because if I were reading a review of a plotless book allegedly filled with repetition I would probably give that book a pass. Especially when learning that this is a “Septology” (i.e. a book composed of seven parts) and only the first two parts are contained here, meaning that there are five more parts due out in two additional books.
But once you get used to the style this is written in, you really find yourself carried along by the rhythm of it. Reading this has a very lulling effect on you, or it did on me, I should say. It’s like falling asleep on a boat that’s being gently tossed by the surf. It’s pleasant in that way, too. You just read, read, and read, more for the visual experience you get from reading rather than the information you’re gleaning from the page. It’s sort of the literary equivalent of one of those 5-D experiences at Disney World or the Science Center where the seat vibrates and water mists on you from above, except that in this case there isn’t really anything playing on the screen.
I found that I couldn’t read this during the day, there were too many distractions, so instead I completed this between the hours of midnight and 3 am over three or four nights. Just me, the light of a lamp on the side table, and silence.
I recently, after reading another book, called Stillness Is the Key, have started meditating. Or trying to meditate, I should say. If meditation has taught me anything it’s that I have way too many thoughts knocking around inside my head. Reading “The Other Name” felt to me like meditating, but a really good sort of meditation (take that as you will from a guy who’s only been meditating for like two weeks). In fact, reading this felt more meditative in a way than even the guided meditations I’ve been taking part in (though these have been good — check out Sam Harris’ “Waking Up” app).
Like meditation, and, I presume, “slow prose,” “The Other Name” is certainly not for everybody. I’m not even sure it’s for me. While reading I found myself going back and forth as to whether I would actually pick up the second volume when it’s released in English.
I’m not sure I will.
But I probably will.
I’m not driven to read the next volume the way I was to read the subsequent volumes in — Fosse’s Norwegian counterpart — Knausgaard’s “My Struggle” series, but I enjoyed the experience of reading this for what it was, an experience.
“Slow prose” though it may be, I found that once I settled into this, I actually read it pretty fast. Just twenty pages tonight, I’d think, but then, before I knew it, it was already 3 am. You really do get carried away by it, though maybe the lack of sentence breaks and punctuation helps.
Where did my mind go while reading this? Because it is largely plotless, you don’t have to pay the same kind of attention you’d have to pay to a highly plot-driven novel. It’s a different kind of attention, your mind just takes over, the way it does when you’re driving along a route you’ve driven hundreds of times before or when you’re dreaming.
Your eyes just follow the lines on the page, the pages turn of their own free will, and the words just come … and go.