BY James Eve in Frieze | 06 JUN 01
Featured in
Issue 60

Innocence Abroad

Erlend Loe's new novel

BY James Eve in Frieze | 06 JUN 01

Norway is not famed for comic novelists: it is the land of Henrik Ibsen - ringmaster of rattling skeletons and mad suicides. Yet sometime during the 1990s the state of Norwegian letters changed and the trademark gloom lifted. It began with Sophie's World; Jostein Gaarder's novel was the big book of 1995, shifting 15 million copies. It aimed its jolly, sugar-coated philosophy at children as well as adults. Ibsen spun in his grave. Norway's new Big Thing, the bestselling novelist Erlend Loe, is part of this new generation. Loe has previously written for children, and his first novel for adults, Naïve. Super (2001), has a lightness of touch that might appeal to younger readers. Norwegian critics have compared it favourably with J. D. Salinger's The Catcher in the Rye (1951).

Certainly in his questioning, sometimes regretful tone, Loe's unnamed narrator recalls Salinger's Holden Caulfield. And though Loe's narrator is 25, he seems - like Caulfield - adolescent. His story is simple: he wakes up one day to the brute fact of his own ordinariness and suffers a mild breakdown. So he quits university, cancels the newspapers and moves into his brother's flat to take stock of his life. He thinks a lot. He lists all the things he likes and dislikes. He buys a ball and spends hours vacantly throwing it against a wall. He is worried by a book about relativity which tells him that time does not exist.

All this is recorded in short chapters, with little sense of a pattern or overall shaping consciousness. Loe's narrator presents his life wholesale, with mundane facts sitting alongside musings about nuclear physics. He compiles lists that fill whole pages. When he and his brother amuse themselves by searching a library database for authors whose names resemble Norwegian swear words, the results are printed in tedious detail. Like Salinger's Caulfield, Loe's narrator has reached crisis point. Both characters travel to New York, where their experiences lead to a form of resolution. It's a superficial one, however, that doesn't offer any philosophical insights into his breakdown, from which he emerges unscathed in the final, feel-good chapter as he flies back to Norway: 'I have a window seat this time. It is dark outside. But it will be light before too long. We are flying towards the light.'

The symbolism is too obvious and the wisdom too trite. There's a difference between a light touch and being lightweight, and Loe steps the wrong side of the line. Its happiness jars, and almost makes you nostalgic for those gloomy Norwegian endings.