the paranoid style in American literature

December 15, 2013

One of the reasons I enjoy crime fiction as a genre is that it serves as a mirror of our times through exploring the things that frighten us. These are not, of course, always the things we should be worried about, but it’s still interesting to know what gets our attention. I like to ponder what’s going on in society from a safe distance, and the crime fiction I enjoy most helps me figure difficult things out while also telling entertaining stories about people who I come to care about. George Pelecanos, Denise Mina, David Corbett, Lene Kaaberbøl and Agnete Friis – they write these kinds of stories. There’s also the satisfaction of resolution. Not all crime stories have happy endings, but they do have endings, unlike most social problems. Some readers prefer to avoid stories “ripped from the headlines” – if they want news, they’ll pick up a newspaper, thanks all the same – but instead seek The Circleout stories about good and evil in more enduring (or even mythic) forms, without a lot of moral ambiguity. Bad guys do bad things, but good guys can show us how we wish we could be.

Whether you see the genre as a place where social issues get a workout or as a (for the most part) reassuring morality play, or even, in the case of noir, a stylish slalom toward a nasty end, fear is one of its pleasures. We get a kick out of being anxious: what will happen next? Wow, I didn’t see that coming! How will the hero get out of this scrape? No, really, you shouldn’t go down to the basement in your nightie to investigate that noise, bad idea, really bad idea. Fear is the crankshaft of the narrative.

But that’s not just a quality of mysteries. For whatever reason, I chose something other than crime fiction last month to crank my fear. I read The Circle, Dave Egger’s new dystopia about what our socially networked, data-mined world could look like if we aren’t careful, and two young adult books by Cory Doctorow, Little Brother and Homeland, which tackle technology and surveillance from another angle. They got me thinking about a lot of things, including the difference between calling out a warning and doing something about it, or perhaps a difference in genres – one of these dystopian worlds is not like the other.

Thinking about these books, I was moved to read Richard Hofstadter’s famous essay, published in Harper’s back in November of 1964, reflecting on political rhetoric leading up to the 1964 election which at the time was associated with a far-right minority but which, he pointed out, could also be also found in late-19th-century populist rhetoric and by anti-Catholics of the mid-19th century. This paranoid style is a kind of story-telling that pulls together disparate things into evidence of a vast conspiracy of which only the minority is aware. It thrives on ethnic, religious, and class conflict and is particularly likely to flourish when a group of people feel shut out of the political process. “Having no access to political bargaining or the making of decisions,” he writes, “they find their original conception that the world of power is sinister and malicious fully confirmed. They see only the consequences of power—and this through distorting lenses—and have no chance to observe its actual machinery.” Being shut out of the system is a feeling familiar to members of both the Tea Party and Occupy Wall Street. And, let’s be real: in an era when those elected to office spend most of their time raising money for the next election, which will cost millions, hardly any of us feel truly enfranchised. In these situations, it’s weirdly comforting to find a narrative that explores what’s going on and which suggests good guys are those who see what others don’t, who are fighting to preserve something enduring that is threatened. They can also tell us what we have to lose.

That partly explains the pleasure I took in reading these three books. In The Circle, Dave Eggers gives us a story about a very recognizable near-future in which a Silicon Valley powerhouse (a cross between Google and Facebook) offers a worker’s paradise to a young, desperate woman who needs a job and who wants to help her parents, who are frazzled over medical bills they can’t pay. A friend gets her a position in everyone’s dream company, where all the cool kids work, where the perks are amazing. She’s grateful for the job and willing to work gruelling hours in what amounts to a tech sweatshop, one that expects here to keep up with an unendingly increasing workload, her performance constantly measured, her private life never private, never off the clock. She also is seduced by the company’s benevolent desire to make everything transparent, every thought shared, every impulse metered and tallied for the good of society. It’s a disturbing, funny, all-too-recognizable near future that extrapolates the way we live now into a society that is controlled by those who want to have ALL the data.

I wonder how Eggers felt about Edward Snowden’s bombshell – that everything we give to Google (and pretty much everything we share with other technology corporations, including where we go and who we communicate with) is rendered unto Caesar just in case the state decides it needs to investigate us. It’s like Google and Facebook and every other data-sucking tech company bureaucratized and made monolithic, incredibly arrogant in its ambition to have every piece of data captured and programs that can mine it in a variety of ways. In Egger’s dystopian vision the corporation essentially takes over the role of the state, but as things have unfolded since he turned his manuscript in, the state has embraced everything tech companies collect and, if thwarted, simply taps directly into the arteries of the Internet to suck out everything it wants – which seems to be everything. The NSA embraces the logic that infected the Internet – providing platforms for sharing that seem free but are actually fed by constant micropayments of personal information which can be aggregated, mined, used and sold – in order to know everything about anyone. It also can use these algorithms to predict, like targeted advertising’s evil twin, who might be a threat and should be stopped in advance of a crime. (This is a variation of an FBI practice of coaxing naive and gullible people into terrorist plots that they can foil.) I found Egger’s vision of a society that reduces itself to the insecure infantilism of middle school as a way of life incredibly disturbing, but what we’re learning about how all that personal information is being used by the state is far more worrying.

A lot of readers and critics have  faulted the book for being propaganda, treating social media with a lack of nuance, having shallow characters who are hard to sympathize with, and particularly for using as its primary narrator a young woman who not only doesn’t grow, but gets less and less reflective as time goes on. The other characters don’t get to provide much ballast, either, but it’s a cautionary tale rather than a realistic or novel or character study. And this is a deliberate choice. In terms of narrative arc, it’s backward – instead of self-discovery, we start with a naive narrator who like kayaking in the dark and is eager to join the culture of her workplace, but as she does that Eggers begins erasing the lines, making her less and less distinct, less a person with her own identity. The Circle will do that to you, he seems to be saying. His vision of the future is not optimistic.

Little Brother

Cory Doctorow’s two novels deal with surveillance in the context of post-9/11 America, but in a way that is equally disturbing but oddly much more enheartening. In Little Brother, he imagines how the state would react to terrorist attack on San Francisco and sees it through the eyes of a teenager who understands better than the adults around him what we have to lose when we give up privacy. He also has the tech skills to set up an alternative to the Internet using linked Xbox consoles, create a way to jam the GPS signals being used to track people’s movements, and launch a youthful resistance movement.

The power of the state is vast and blind. The narrator is picked up for no discernible reason, tortured, and scared out of his wits. He’s been issued a gag order, so can’t tell his parents what has happened to him. He’s impassioned, playful, absolutely sure of the importance of privacy and the Bill of Rights – but also frightened and traumatized. Overcoming his own terror (something all of his friends have to negotiate for themselves) is nicely depicted (and probably necessary, as without these moments of sheer terror and self-doubt, he might be a talented, overconfident and obnoxiously self-congratulatory geek). Homeland takes the story further. The fight isn’t over. The economy has collapsed. College is out of reach and debt is crippling young people before they start their lives. Our young hero gets a tech job for the campaign of an independent candidate he believes in, but he faces an ethical dilemma when he is given a trove of extraordinary documents about one of the contractors who detained and extracted confessions from teens during the events of the first book. The young woman who gave it to him asked him to release it if she is captured. When she is, he needs to weigh his own safety, the future of his promising candidate, and the need to get the truth out. It’s compelling stuff, and full of though-provoking dilemmas as well as high-tech adventure and a dash of YA romance, the kind that is as much about discovering one’s identity as it is about love.

These are not subtle books, and they don’t go out of their way to accommodate opinions that the authors don’t share. Eggers paints a frighteningly possible extension of the way we live now, and it’s a bleak place. Doctorow offers a dystopian take on our present political and legal situation and a spirited call to activism. Unlike Egger’s critique of our tech-saturated lives, in Doctorow’s world technology can be used for oppression, but also can be the hand-tools for building liberation. It’s an empowering, geeky, fun vision about how ordinary people can stand up to totalitarian impulses.


I do worry a bit when I read this kind of story about Hofstadter’s “paranoid style.” It’s so satisfying to see patterns in what otherwise seems disordered, to attach a narrative complete with good guys and bad guys to a series of troubling events. Eggers addresses this problem by making us think. Isn’t transparency in government a good thing? Isn’t sharing valuable? I found the book most interesting when it engaged my critical faculties, not just my already pretty well-established anxiety about the collection of personal information as a business model and my reservations about making ourselves into brands, always anxious for more attention. Doctorow’s books don’t hold back on the fear factor – the bad guys are really bad, and really powerful – but he adds enough food for thought to make it interesting. His hero is on a journey to becoming an activist, but he has to keep overcoming obstacles. What’s the moral thing to do when there’s no obvious right path? What if something you do hurts someone you care about? How can you avoid the trap of making your activism an ego-trip? Where do you get your courage?

These three books do appeal to my paranoid style of reading – but in a manner that I found both thought-provoking and entertaining.

September Pick: The Land of Dreams by Vidar Sundstøl

October 5, 2013

I had a great reading month, but this book was most definitely the best of the lot. I’m cross-posting this review fom Scandinavian Crime Fiction.

Later this month, the Univesity of Minnesota press will release the first volume in the Minnesota Trilogy by Vidar Sundstøl, a Norwegian author who spent two years living on the North Shore of Lake Superior. The Land of Dreams will be followed by Only the Dead (2014) and The Raven (2015). After reading the first, I’m impatient to read the rest.

As the novel opens, Lance Hansen, a forest ranger who patrols the national forest that occupies so much of Cook County, a vast wedge of land stretching between the lake and the Canadian border, is on his way to speak with campers who have illegally pitched a tent near the lake not far from Baraga’s Cross. This is the kind of work he does – enforcing rules, preventing people from dumping garbage on public land, organizing search parties when vacationers got lost, occasionally encountering illegal logging or hidden meth labs. Nothing too dramatic. But this morning will be different.

He parked his service vehicle at the end of the road and got out. It was 7:28. In front of him stretched Lake Superior. There was nothing to see but light and water and sky – no opposite shore on which to fix his eyes, just the illusory meeting of sky and the surface of the water far off in the distance.

Baraga's Cross

photo of Baraga’s Cross courtesy of Jeffachen.

As he heads down the path toward the granite marker that marks the spot where a European missonary once erected a wooden cross after surviving a stormy crossing in 1846, he finds a shoe and a handprint marking where someone fell. Then, as he gets closer to the cross, he sees a bare leg sticking out. A naked man is sitting against the cross, covered in blood and muttering something inaudible. The intonation seems familiar and Hansen realizes he’s speaking Norwegian. Only one word is audible: kjærlighet. Love.

Hansen finds another man not far away, bludgeoned to death. Soon the county’s sheriff arrives. Homicide isn’t a crime they’ve handled much. In fact, there hadn’t been a murder in Cook County in the 25 years he’s been its sheriff. Because the crime occured on federal land, an FBI agent is summoned fom the St. Paul field office, and he is soon joined by a Norwegian detective. Hansen’s involvement in the investigation is over – though there is one thing he’s holding back. He’d seen a familiar truck near the cross, one belonging to his brother Andy, who he understand less than his immigrant ancestors, whose history is stored in binders on floor-to-ceiling shelves in Hansen’s home office.

As the unofficial county historian, Hansen feels more comfortable in the past, and as the FBI agent and his Norwegian colleague try to discover whether a tourist killed his companion or whether someone else was responsible, Hansen becomes fascinated by old news accounts of a body found near the same place in 1892, It could have been the body of an Ojibwe medicine man named Swamper Caribou who’d gone missing earlier, a disappearance that may be connected to an old family story about a fifteen-year-old boy crossing the lake on a winter night – and possibly to Hansen’s dream of walking under the frozen surface of Lake Superior.

The Land of Dreaams, beautifully translated by Tiinna Nunnally, is an evocative novel that draws together past and present, the lives of immigrants and the indigenous inhabitants of the North Shore, American dreams and suppressed violence hidden behind calm exteriors and polite silences. In some ways this sounds like Karin Fossum’s explorations of the squirmy things living under the rocks of peaceful small towns in Norway, but in tone and style it’s far closer to Johan Theorin’s Öland quartet, which combines an atmospheric natural setting with pscychologically probing portraits and a very light touch of the supernatural.

I’m not surprised that it was awarded the Riverton Prize. It’s a very good book.  I admit that I particularly enjoyed a setting that is familiar to me – just a few weeks ago we traveled to the places where the story is set. Even if you haven’t been to the North Shore, this book will provide you with an interesting journey. The only problem is that you’ll want to return as soon as possible, as there is obviously more to the story.

Vidar Sundstol

If you are in the Twin Cities, be sure to stop by Once Upon a Crime, where the author will be speaking on October 17th at 7pm. If you can’t make it, Pat and Gary will save you a signed copy. If you can go, be prepared to leave with a lighter wallet and a heavier bookshelf. It’s a great store full of temptation. But you know you need more books.


so long, Dutch

August 20, 2013


Elmore Leonard
photo courtesy of mtkr

I suppose it had to happen sooner or later – the man was 87 years old – but I was still sad to hear the news this morning that Elmore Leonard had died. He was a tremendously talented author whose books have brought me a lot of pleasure over the years.

He says in his famous Ten Rules for Writers that you should leave out the parts people tend to skip and avoid adjectives and other hooptedoodle.  A lot of people have taken his advice, but it doesn’t mean they can write like Dutch. He had such a great ear for dialogue and an eye for the telling detail and a way with getting it all down in words that fit together so well they were a kind of everyday, unassuming poetry.

He was funny. He knew how to pace a story. He could sketch a character in a few perfectly-chosen words. But the thing that I always felt set him apart was that he loved his characters, even the losers, the ignorant, and the lame. He had a big heart for this messed-up world we live in.

I read a lot of his books before I started to write down what I thought of them, but I loved Killshot and Rum Punch and Maximum Bob and Out of Sight and many others. (The scene about the photograph of Jesus in City Primeval still cracks me up.) I have a particular soft spot for what I believe was the first of his that ever read, Glitz. Here’s what I said about it over at LibraryThing when I reread it a few years back:

Vincent Mora is bringing in groceries when a slimeball demands his wallet. Instead of handing it over or playing the tough guy, Vincent wearily explains the obvious. You think I’d drive a car like that? It’s a cop car, asshole. Now go lean on it. Not smart; he ends up shot, with red wine and pasta sauce all over him. That’s just for starters. Add a beautiful Puerto Rican hooker, some goombas at an Atlantic City casino, a bad-tempered parrot, an ex-con nutcase who wants to look Vincent in the eye when he shoots him, a touch of garlic and simmer gently. It’s got what Leonard does best: a weird but quite believable bad guy, vivid settings, a cast of criminals who are treated with generosity even though they’re, well, pretty bad, a great female love interest, a sexy, cool, intelligent, funny, totally likable hero who doesn’t indulge in angst, but from time to time thinks about the slimeball who tried to mug him. Vincent ponders ways he could have handled it that wouldn’t end up with shooting and killing the would-be mugger. A tough guy who’s really bothered when he takes a life. I like that. Lots of humor, dialogue that’s absolutely right, a great sense of timing, a plot that keeps twisting … you can’t do better than this.

July Pick: A Delicate Truth

August 7, 2013

I had a pretty good reading month, but the book that provided the most knock-your-socks-off pleasure was A Delicate Truth by that skilled master of international intrigue and the subtle increase of paranoia, John le Carre.

I wasn’t sure at first I would enjoy this latest novel from the man who invented the modern morality-play espionage novel. It has a slow fuse. The story opens as an undistinguished career foreign office paper-pusher is dispatched to the field to oversee a joint terrorist operation in Gibraltar. There, a reluctant Welsh military officer looks to him when ordered to take action that seems precipitous and unwise. He tut-tutts ineffectually and something happens, but we’re not sure what. It’s all behind a curtain of confidentiality – but the official is assured everything went well.

Another official, young and brash and with highly-honed instincts, gets wind of the botched operation a few years later and begins to sniff around, soon realizing his career trajectory will take a sharp turn into obscurity if he carries on. But he does (at which point the story takes off like a rocket) because lurking under those political instincts is a stubborn belief in doing what’s right. Eventually he, the now-retired tut-tutting diplomat, and the Welsh soldier, drummed out of the army, his marriage, and mainstream society, join forces to expose what actually happened when mercenaries, supplied by a right-wing American firm that has made a killing on the amorphous, unending “war on terror,” blundered on a small remnant of Britain’s empire.

In the post-cold-war novels of le Carre, his weary spooks playing an endless geo-political game of chess have given way to a game where the rules are worked out in secret and the players are not so much governments as individuals in government positions who will benefit if they align their fortunes with those of giant corporations. He often uses a kind of parody that tastes like bitter laughter but which also refuses to bow to the “life is stranger than fiction, which has to be more plausible” rule. I think he’s given up on trying to portray his enemy with the sympathy he had for his cold-war Communist characters, and I don’t blame him. You can make this stuff up, he seems to be saying, and you must if you want to depict with any accuracy a threat that feels more powerful and destructive than Communism. Now the moles occupy sites of power and those who object, those who hold old-fashioned notions about the national interest and the value of public service – old fashioned patriots, in other words – are entirely on their own. The banding together of these three individuals in a hopeless situation is moving and couldn’t be more topical. It’s depressing that these decent characters who le Carre has crafted with his usual depth and detail are so isolated and in such an impossible position, but it’s thrilling to be in their company.

Review of Reading Beyond the Book: The Social Practices of Contemporary Literary Culture

August 2, 2013

[Note: Usually I review crime fiction here, but this time I'm reviewing a work of serious and heavy-duty scholarship. I've been following the work of the Beyond the Book project for a few years, now, so was excited to learn a book was on its way. It has now been released by Routledge. It will be helpful for my sabbatical project, though it's also a little intimidating. These authors did a lot of work!]

This book is a thorough and thoughtful analysis of a vast amount of qualitative and quantitative material gathered in the course of an ambitious three-year project to explore what the authors call “mass reading events” – social/cultural practices designed to bring groups much larger than the traditional book club together to read the same book. Though these events have grown popular since Seattle kicked things off in the 1990s, they haven’t been widely studied (other than Oprah’s Book Club, one form of the mass reading event.). Danielle Fuller (University of Birmingham) and DeNel Rehberg Sedo (Mount St. Vincent University) make up for that by conducting an ambitious research program in three countries (US, Canada, UK) and writing a detailed, probing look at the results. Though it may seem a highly specialized phenomenon to study, it’s one that gives the authors a chance to “interrogate the social and material relations among the reading industry’s agents and agencies” (18).

“Shared reading” they write “is both a social process and a social formation” (27). In the first chapter, “Reading,” they review the history of shared reading, including literary societies, the Great Books program, and Elizabeth Long’s research on book groups. They critique the text-focus of much reader-response theory and point out that there is a gap in how we think about reading: though the reader as the object of study has been historically situated, “there is little attention to the reader-reader interaction and no sense of the ways that nonacademic readers might employ various reading practices as part of their everyday lives as social beings” (39). Their methodology was an attempt to use mass reading events as a platform for focusing on the social experience of the reader and the interaction between book, reader, the book industry, mass media, and how those all intersect in events focused on reading as a community event.

Chapters on the ways television and radio have promoted shared reading prove an opportunity to see how reading books is framed as enlightening, empowering, self-actualizing, and entertaining, all at once. I found it particularly interesting to see national differences and similarities between the U.S. (Oprah) with the U.K. (Richard and Judy) and Canada (which has a particularly interesting situation, needing to promote local cultural production while saturated with books from the UK and US; the CBC’s Canada Reads program embodies those contradictions). These chapters would be of interest to anyone curious about how mass media work in these three countries. The cultural politics of the BBC and CBC are complex as they accommodate consumer culture and neo-liberal assumptions about the economic drivers of human social behavior.

The fourth chapter is on money – the complex dance between commercial interests (both in selling books but also in attaching the cultural value of reading to other interests. These events seek sponsors, and the sponsors seek “useful symbolic capital” (126). Again, though the topic of mass reading events may seem rather narrow, it’s a lens for looking at the relationship between consumer capitalism and cultural production in the late age of print. “Ideologically,” the authors argue, “culture ceases to be valued primarily as a ‘public good,’ and instead becomes subject to the rules of domestic and international marketplaces . . . National and supra-national legislation about trade, monopolies and mergers, copyright, and intellectual property all played their part in the commercialization of culture” (130). There is a mixing of culture’s purpose that substitutes measures of utility and popularity for social well being. The authors contrast Richard Florida’s vision of culture as an entrepreneurial economic activity that provides levers for social change without relying on state intervention. The mass reading event then becomes a vehicle for shared consumption that has a a patina of “good for you” social capital. This intersection of motives also shows up in the different ways the NEA’s “Big Read” program and the IMLS’s involvement in it make the case for reading. One is more geared to the text as a work of literature that has transformative benefits, the other is more accepting of a wider range of reading tastes and the value of many kinds of reading. The authors argue that the “one book one community” model has migrated through these English-speaking nations because it fits with dominant neoliberal approaches to cultural value. It promises betterment without threatening the status quo.

A chapter on the people who put these programs together is another way to unpack the multiple motives of community reading programs, mixing a social mission with a celebration of celebrity culture, reading as a spur for social change and a way of bringing people into the fold of normative reading practices. Nancy Pearl’s rise to “superstar librarian” status is sketched out, a different path than that of her colleague who continued to work as a librarian. She tells a moving story of reading a novel about Japanese internment during World War II and how powerful it was to have elderly internees recognized by the community. (I dare you to read that passage with a dry eye! It’s a powerful emotional argument for how reading together can actually promote understanding.) The amount of donated labor and its cost is addressed, and the British Get Into Reading program is described, offering a different way to tie mass reading events to social change. This program doesn’t market events in search of an audience or work through traditional literary channels such as schools and libraries, but takes the program into community-based social services programs for immigrants, asylum seekers, the homeless, and others who might not identify with commercial literary culture. Further, it focuses on “quality” or classic literature in the belief that it shouldn’t be only enjoyed by the privileged. In some ways, it reminds me of the Great Books program in the US, but with a bigger emphasis on outreach to the disenfranchised. This exploration of cultural workers who promote reading “demonstrates how gender, generation, and geography shape the reproduction of traditional values about book reading as socially and morally transformative activity, as well as influencing more holistic, therapeutic, and creative ideals of the social change, pleasure, and relationships that shared reading can inspire” (204).

The final two chapters, “Reader” and “Book” explore what readers experience when participating in mass reading events and how they experience books as material objects. They use the term “citizen readers” to convey people who “read to belong just as they feel that they themselves belong to reading as an activity located in a place, along with others who share the same interest” (211). Sharing reading is an opportunity for them to share their own feelings and to promote a sense of belonging. It can also provide a personal link to authors who participate as the author shares stories about their lives. There is always the possibility that this sense of community is limited and may silence or exclude people. (A discussion of To Kill a Mockingbird in the south attracted a primarily white audience, for example.) At the same time, such events can “bring attention to issues of racism, cultural difference, and social injustice” at a time when “public forums for discussion are increasingly rare, and people’s agency over their material realities has declined” (242). One Book events allow participants a chance to experience the feeling of “being and belonging.”

The authors have lived up to their promise to interrogate “the paradox of promoting a prestige-laden activity on a large scale and via mass media [that] opens up a productive critical pathway for thinking about the ways that cultural value is brokered within ‘creative’ communities” (258). Though it’s limited to one kind of reading activity in three countries that have a lot in common, this is a remarkably in-depth study that teases out many insights into what reading means to readers, how book culture combines prestige with consumerism, how the radical potential for growth through literature is entangled with a conservative desire to belong and be comforted, and what role books and reading have in mass media and popular culture. This book is an important and insightful interdisciplinary contribution to reading studies.

happy independence day

July 4, 2013

Like independence? Do something about it.

fourth amendment

June Pick: Norwegian by Night

June 30, 2013

At 4MA, my reading addiction support group, we are collecting our mid-year “tops and bottoms” – the five top reads of the first half of the month and the five that were at the bottom. Most of us have trouble stopping with only five tops and have fewer than five at the bottom, because we’re pretty good at choosing what to read next. My tops so far this year are

  • Mick Herron DEAD LIONS
  • Tana French BROKEN HARBOR
  • David Mark ORIGINAL SKIN
  • Anre Dahl BAD BLOOD

Though I’ve already reviewed Norwegian by Night on another blog, I thought I would repost it here with minor changes as I adopt the practice of some other book bloggers of posting a review every month of the book that made the strongest impression. So, here goes . . .

Norwegian by Night by Derek B. Miller
Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2013

Though this book isn’t the usual Scandinavian crime fiction that I track on a blog, Derek Miller is an American (though currently a resident of Oslo) and his novel is not exactly crime fiction (though there is a crime). It’s one of those books that defies classification. But I recommend it wholeheartedly. 

Sheldon Horowitz is a New York Jew, a man who has repaired watches all his life but can’t quite keep time any longer. He’s in his eighties and his memory is . . . well, let’s say it’s Norwegian by Nightinventive. He has reluctantly gone to live with his granddaughter and her Norwegian husband in Oslo. The stories he tells about his experiences as a sniper in the Korean War don’t seem to match historical fact and his granddaughter thinks it’s a symptom of dementia. Either that, or he’s seeking attention with weirdly logical illogic – or possibly both.

One afternoon, after his granddaughter and her husband have left the house, Sheldon hears  a commotion in the apartment upstairs. This is not unusual; the Balkan immigrants living upstairs have had their arguments before, but this time it’s different – more violent, more ominous. When he hears the woman come down the stairs, Shelden looks through the peephole and sees her hesitate on the landing, trapped between the rage of her husband and a suspicious car idling outside.

They did this with us, too, he thinks, looking through the peephole. And then the pity vanishes and is replaced by the indignation that lives just beneath the surface of his daily routines and quick retorts.

The Europeans. Almost all of them, at one time or another. They looked out their peepholes – their little fishy eyes staring out through bulging lenses, watching someone else’s flight – as their neighbors clutched their children to their chests while armed thugs chased them through buildings as though humanity itself was being extinguished. Behind the glass, some were afraid, some felt pity, others felt murderous and delighted.

All were safe because of what they were not. They were not, for example, Jews.

(There’s something wonderfully dry and disarming about that “for example” that somehow pulls the pin on the whole passage.) He opens the door and sees she has a child clinging to her. He motions them inside. When the man starts to break down the door, the woman pushes the boy toward him and he hides with him in a closet as the violence continues. When it grows quiet, he finds the woman dead; the suspicious car prowls by as he thinks about what to do. He’s afraid that if he goes to the authorities, they will think he’s a doddering old fool and hand the boy over to his father. So he takes it upon himself to protect the child, leaving behind a quote from Huckleberry Finn, setting off on a journey while the police and his granddaughter try to figure out what’s going on.

I was reminded of Kate Atkinson’s Started Early, Took My Dog, though only after the fact. Both Atkinson and Miller are able to take some aspects of crime fiction – violence and the ripple effect is has on the people around it, the balance between causality and sheer randomness, the way that past and present are layered together in a single identity, the narrative skill to keep momentum as the story weaves back and forth in time, the clarity of characters fully imagined. Like Atkinson, Miller is funny and touching and irreverent and yet respectful of his characters and his readers. He considers age and the toll that grief and guilt can take on a life, on the cultural differences between Norway and New York, the stresses that immigration brings to Scandinavian countries that have both a sense of social duty and inexperience with cultural difference; he writes about masculinity and the scars inflicted by war and even touches on Norway’s treatment of Jews during the occupation and how much we erase from history.

Did I mention it’s incredibly funny? It is – in a gentle, sardonic, life-affirming way. And when it takes off at a gallop you can’t turn the pages fast enough. I suspect this will be on my top ten list for the year.

The publisher provided me with a copy of this book. I’m very glad I read it.


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