‘What twenty-seven-year-old Johan Harstad has written is quite plainly a work of genius,’ claims a recommendation on the cover of Buzz Aldrin: What Happened To You in All the Confusion? The cynic in me was immediately suspicious of such effusive praise. But the Norwegian author’s novel has done well: it’s been made into a TV series and the rights have been sold in over ten different countries.
Mattias, the protagonist and narrator, is a gardener at a local nursery, delivering flowers to the dying. He’s excellent at most things he does, and also happens to be an extraordinary, blow-you-away singer. But Mattias is desperately afraid of attention. He wants to be useful but forgotten: ‘a smooth-running cog in the world’.
It’s an interesting aspect of the human condition, the tension between wanting to avoid attention entirely, being happy to do good work unseen, and seeking recognition. Mattias is at the extreme end of the spectrum. His desire to vanish is all-consuming and destructive, making it difficult for him to form close personal connections, and leading to relationship breakdown and mental illness. In this respect, his fate echoes that of his idol, Buzz Aldrin, second man on the moon, who also suffered from the pressure of being in the limelight.
But there are no psychological revelations here. Mattias’s condition is explored in a flat, predictable manner; through repetitive internal dialogue, rambling passages extolling the virtues and dilemmas of Buzz Aldrin and other indispensable sideliners, and obvious plot twists, like Mattias losing it when a journalist tries to take his photo.
Perhaps this is how those eternally vexing personal dilemmas play out in real life: as the annoying voice in your head’s echo-chamber, the hang-up that you’re somehow attached to, but that you’d be better without. But Buzz doesn’t illuminate this predicament in a believable way.
Mattias breaks down when Helle, his girlfriend of 12 years, dumps him, and he loses his job. On the way to the Faroe Islands, where he’s reluctantly agreed to sing with his friend’s band, he loses consciousness and wakes up to find himself alone on the island with his face squashed in asphalt.
After wandering around confused for a few days, he’s picked up by a kindly psychiatrist called Havstein, who takes him back to his halfway house, an alternative psychiatric facility. Havstein assures Mattias that he’ll be there for a while. This seems kind of creepy, and for a while I wondered whether the novel was going to turn into some kind of thriller.
As it turns out, Havstein does have his own issues, but the halfway house, more homely commune than institution, becomes a place of healing for Mattias, and its inhabitants a second family. Yet despite these people being seemingly crucial to his personal development, we never get to know them at all. They are only constructed as types, a supporting cast to his emotional journey.
We are given little signs about the characters, including pop culture references, but it’s difficult to piece these together. Enen, for example, Mattias’s best friend at the facility, is insatiably interested in what other people do, listens only to the Cardigans, and when unwell, used to travel around on buses waiting for strangers to fall in love with her. But these indicators don’t give you a coherent sense of her personality.
The sparse characterisation may be an attempt to convey distance and the sense of not knowing someone even though you’re close, or the author may have intended to evoke Mattias’s fear of getting entangled. But given that Mattias’s friendships with the Faroe Island inhabitants are how he overcomes this fear, breathing more life into them would have made sense.
Buzz feels like it’s taking place at a distance. It might be because the characters don’t seem like anyone you know, or might conceivably know. It might be the translation. It might be Mattias’s odd voice: gentle, circumspect, detached and aloof. Or the uneasy discord between the very concrete, prosaic elements of the plot and its more colourful, imaginative aspects.
Mattias narrates in fluid, restrained, poetic fragments, and in the end, it was the grace of the prose that carried me through. There are some unexpected moments, too – like when Mattias matter-of-factly picks up a self-help book from the airport without expecting too much from it, and concludes that it’s not too bad, because at least it has a simple message that’s easy to remember. But in general, Buzz’s problem is that while we’re often told how Mattias is feeling, we’re never there with him.
Raili Simojoki blogs about culture, politics, and Melbourne at railisimojoki.wordpress.com