APRIL 1, 2018
NO MATTER THEIR PROVENANCE, multivolume book projects require irrational aspiration from writer and reader alike. The author boldly asks the reader to indulge her or him for many thousands of pages, and the reader must breathe through all these pages while maintaining patience, curiosity, and attention far longer than usual. For example, when I read Elena Ferrante’s Neapolitan tetralogy, it was an easy, natural inhaling. I breathed those books as if I had been in a polluted street and was ascending a staircase to clearer air. It wasn’t just the literary quality of the books that drew me in. It was the length and scope of them, the sense of a life lived across more than a thousand pages. When I read Proust, I breathed deep — long, meditative inhales — then returned for half-breaths to be sure the scent of hawthorn had truly penetrated my senses. The two writers’ projects are distinct: Proust meanders through Paris, flâneur-like, while Ferrante arrows across Naples with purpose. Her sense of momentum never lets up, but Proust never has much momentum in the first place. By contrast, when I read Karl Ove Knausgaard, I breathed without much attention. The intensity of his self-study leaves little oxygen for me.
And then there’s Norwegian author Carl Frode Tiller. When I read his Encircling novels, my breath kept halting and restarting as if I were being chased. Or was the one doing the chasing. Because the Encircling trilogy — only the first two books have been published in English — is a kind of chase. It pelts across the landscape of memory, around obstacles of lies, secrets, and vanity. Encircling’s meticulous construction and exhaustive psychological exegesis make it unfit to be called a proper mystery (although that is the section in which I found it in a Scottish bookstore), but it is, nonetheless, an incomparable intellectual escapade.
Encircling 2, translated by Barbara J. Haveland, does not pick up where Encircling left off, but it does maintain the same conceit: a Norwegian man, David, has lost his memory, and advertisements requesting friends and family to write to him with their knowledge of his personal history have circulated in the semirural areas where he grew up. Each novel offers the perspectives of three of David’s acquaintances. In Encircling 2, these are Ole, who nearly became David’s stepbrother during adolescence; Tom Roger, a delinquent from these same tween years who committed petty crimes with and without David; and Paula, a nurse and friend to David’s mother who made a decision that altered the course of David’s life. Between the letters written to David are scenes narrated by the letter-writer that often contradict or undermine the letters. Every scene contains extensive psychological exploration of a character’s inner weather, and the unique voices evince an artful ventriloquism. Six narrators (so far), six distinct voices: a feat of polyphony for which Tiller must be commended.
Here, for instance, is Ole:
I look at Dad, feeling both embarrassed and annoyed, I mean, how often do I ask him for help? I don’t know when I last asked him for anything and yet he goes and does this, making me look like a little boy who runs crying to his daddy every time things get difficult. Although I know why he says these things, of course, I know he’s doing this to make himself look like the man he longs to be. He’s the one who needs help, not me, but he talks as if it was the other way around, reinventing himself as a man whom I’m somehow supposed to be totally reliant on, that’s what he’s doing. I stand for a moment just staring at him, and now it’s his turn to blush, he must realize that he’s gone too far, making a fool of me like this, he must realize that I can contradict his statement, any time I want, make fun of it even. I’ve half a mind to do it too, I’ve half a mind to point to that wheelchair and ask who cries for whom when things get difficult, but I won’t, I wouldn’t sink that low. I shouldn’t grudge him this fleeting sense of having some power in his life.
And here is Paula:
And her son and daughter-in-law turn to look at me and the new assistant looks at me too, suddenly they’re all looking at me and everything goes very quiet, and after a moment I feel my cheeks start to burn — oh, no, I’ve done it again, oh, I have, haven’t I, I’ve made a nuisance of myself. Sylvia’s quite right, I wasn’t giving them any peace, I was talking too much and making a nuisance of myself. I don’t mean to, but I do. It’s just that it’s so nice when people come to visit and then I get carried away and start talking.
What these books are not is a sensible, continuous narrative. They are shards, large slices of story and characterization, each a jagged stepping-stone leading to an inescapable conclusion: identity is not a monolith but a collage — an odd, overlapping, contradictory collage, impossible to reconcile.
For, you see, the accounts of David do not match up. After 40 or so pages of Encircling 2, I began to wonder if I had remembered the dates and people of the first Encircling incorrectly, or if Tiller was trying to assemble a more radical, Rashomon-like project than I’d thought. It seemed Tiller meant to offer clashing accounts of the facts of David’s life from one book to another along with the varying hypotheses his friends and family held about how he felt and why he acted as he did. David’s mother lived with a man a year or two before marrying another, Arvid, so why didn’t Arvid, in narrating a section of the first book, mention the prior boyfriend? How could David’s friends in the first book fail to mention Ole, the almost-stepbrother who narrates part of the second? It seemed that Tiller was pulling my leg.
So I went back to the first book and reread certain passages. No, it could all fit together. Barely. This strategy does mean, however, that each narrator has pieces of David that all the other narrators do not, and in a more drastic way than I’d understood after reading the first 350 pages of the trilogy. Only Tom Roger, from the second volume, knew David as he emerged from puberty directly into sadism, deceit, and crime; only Jon and Silje, his best friend and his girlfriend from his teenage years, could tussle in the first volume about whom he had really loved, since he had had sex with both of them. Each new narrator and the subsequent information revealed makes the reader long to hear from at least one character who knows not just some of David’s secrets but all of them — many answers reside with David’s long-dead mother Berit, in particular, but of course she cannot narrate. No living narrator has the whole picture of David, though each seems to think she or he does. The reader knows better: after 800 pages, David has only become more of a mystery.
An English translation of the third book in the trilogy, which was published in Norway in 2014, has yet to receive a release date. Which is a major frustration for readers who have enjoyed the first two volumes, particularly because the second ends on a “Luke, I am your father”–type cliffhanger. For all its ponderous psychological exploration — reminiscent of Auster but far more agonizing — Encircling 2 moves quickly, and I thirsted for more of its flavor when I was through. Part of that flavor is metatextual; even the narrators sometimes seem aware of Tiller’s project. Here, Ole points out a common weakness of memory in his letter to David:
Looking back on it now it has occurred to me that it must be my memory that has linked these two events to one another. That Mom should suddenly have got better just around the time when she heard that Dad had been in a serious accident simply seems so unlikely that I find it hard to believe. It must be my imagination playing tricks on me, because both events were so crucial for me personally, ushering in as they did a new phase, as it were, in my life. So it makes sense to think of them as one big event, that’s what I must have thought, or something along those lines.
But that really is what happened …
The length of the project matters here. The Encircling trilogy would not be effective if it did not take its time with David and his correspondents. That we can read so much and still know so little is a destabilizing, disarming point for a writer to make. The reading experience leads to existential questions about self and other, memory and identity, what lies and stories we tell about ourselves and each other to maintain companionship or even basic integrity. The books’ effect is to loosen the glue that keeps our identities from flying apart into a thousand bits.
Of all the literary questions this series raises in the reader, one of the most compelling is: What is a long book project meant to accomplish? Attention spans shrink as the distribution of printed books grows more costly, and yet multiple living writers — in Europe and Canada, at least — are still going “in search of lost time.” Why? To what extent is a long, multivolume book project a worthy one in the 21st century? What can only be done across 1,200 pages that cannot be done in 300?
Sometimes the answer is virtuosity, as in Infinite Jest. Sometimes it’s the purge of a life in enormous detail, as with Knausgaard. Sometimes it’s an autopsy-like examination of the multitudinous strands that weave people together across time, as in Ferrante. Tiller appears to be playing a kind of game with himself and the reader, pushing the limits of how much he can reveal while still concealing enough to make us slightly crazy. It could be a set of self-imposed writerly constraints he’s working within, something playful and yet so disciplined I get dizzy thinking about it. The point he’s making — we are not what we seem to be, no person can really know another, even nine accounts of a person will not explain him adequately — can be made in fewer pages. But I would not want it to be. Again, Ole writes to David almost with an awareness of how Tiller is using him:
Their admiration for and animated accounts of a man who lived a life of affluence and had everything but chose to forsake all this wealth to live instead much the same sort of life as themselves, the life of a fisherman and farmer on the island of Otterøya, are as much an attempt to invest their own lives with value and meaning as to tell the truth about your great-grandfather. And naturally they want you to learn from this, David, they want you to identify with the great-grandfather they speak of and embrace the values and the qualities which they say he possessed. Not, of course, that I think they do this consciously or that it’s in any way planned. They do it instinctively, they present it this way because it feels good and right to present it this way, it satisfies a need in them, that’s all.
Tiller’s Encircling trilogy pleasurably defies the minimalist tradition to explain around and around every last detail. Every encounter is stretched to its longest possible extension, and instead of subtext there is text. Does the text then scream, or does it whisper continuously? For example, Tom Roger, who is spoken of in dark tones by Ole, turns out to be both a domestic abuser and the kindest, most ethically sound character in the book. Paula, a prim and proper elderly lady, defends her decision to allow her husband to molest their son. Whether Tiller’s point is that we are more than our surface selves or something more perverse, readers would reflexively mark Tom Roger as a bad person and Paula as a good one if Tiller didn’t let them go on and on about their lives and what they were thinking. That is what this kind of length grants the author (and the reader): an accumulation of uncertainty and subtle shades of contradiction. The ability to say all and leave nothing out, which gives readers a portrait so complex and indelible it comes close to approximating the maddening intricacy of the flesh-and-blood people we know.
The American covers for these books show a man’s face covered strategically by colored boxes, which are placed differently on the different covers: an eye exposed here, a portion of the jaw there. We do not get the whole picture of David. We get three accounts per book. Each story tells us a little more, but it also leaves us with less. Is David a rank manipulator or a troubled screw-up? Did he really lose his memory, or is this a hoax? Does the identity of his father actually matter, or is it a red herring for his friends, family, and Tiller to wave in front of our noses? These questions have persisted from page one of Encircling, and though I do not expect them to be answered by the close of the third book, I look forward — in time, through many hours of patient breathing — to encircling David further anyway.