Memories of a Childhood Purgatory

Novel 11, Book 18
By Dag Solstad
161 pp. New Directions. $16.

Is the title of this book a title, or — as presumably the 11th novel and 18th book written by Norwegian writer Dag Solstad — is this book actually untitled? That’s the first but by no means the last question that “Novel 11, Book 18” raises.

This is the first novel of Solstad’s I’ve read, but a cursory review of his others would suggest that they all deal with men in various states of disarray.

Solstad’s protagonists all seem to be going through the familiar motions of a midlife crisis, though in unfamiliar ways. Bjørn Hansen, the protagonist of “Novel 11, Book 18,” is so disheartened at what he feels is the pointlessness of life and his inability to change it that he makes a bizarre decision in an attempt to exert some degree of will over it.

Hansen decides to commit an “irrevocable” act, and indeed everything the character does seems to be irrevocable, unable to be altered in any way. Hansen is merely an actor playing his part. But his performance is rudimentary, containing no passion or feeling, as he’s seemingly content to simply go through the motions.

The book, too, is written with little to no passion or feeling and is as dry and brittle as a wafer-thin biscuit left to char under the desert sun. But there is something unspeakably seductive about the way all of this is written about.

In reading “Novel 11, Book 18” I was reminded of the countless times my mother would drag me as a child to clothing stores. I would sit and read, if I was fortunate enough to find a chair in the vicinity, while she shopped for endless hours for a blouse or top that she would, the following week, bring back to the store to return — dragging me back in the process. And thus the cycle would repeat itself. I am confident that, in some alternate reality, I’m still there, at Ross or TJ Maxx, JC Penny or Marshalls, my butt aching from the hours spent sitting on that hard plastic.

For those interminable hours spent inside a nondescript clothing store in a heartbreakingly depressing strip mall at the edge of civilization, I was helpless, my mother having disappeared in the bowels of the dreadful place hours ago. I read those days out of necessity, because anything, anything, was better than staring into the glaring abyss of fabric and frumpy styles that existed outside of the page. Reading truly was an escape, and I came to love it, though my ass still chaps at the memory of those chairs.

And while “Novel 11, Book 18” isn’t as nightmarish as that childhood purgatory, it reflects a similar hopelessness at the state of the world and our perceived inability to alter it, to play a role outside that which has been assigned to us.

This is an existentialist novel, a novel in which characters struggle to break out of their seeming mundane, purposeless existence in an effort to try and feel something … anything. Bjørn Hansen, who reads Kierkegaard as all good protagonists in existentialist novels ought to, takes this to a conclusion that both startles and leaves you scratching your head.

But in the end, suicide, self-harm, and grand deceptions are all tools employed by those who, brought low by their belief that life lacks meaning, seek to feel something. Because, to those who feel imprisoned in a world that lacks meaning, death is still infinitely preferable to the glaring abyss of fabric and frumpy styles.

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