Naïve. Super

by JDP

This is a novel for people who love lists and are enchanted by the literary possibilities therein; it also seems like Naïve. Super might appeal to people who thought the movie Garden State had something intelligent to say about the world.

Erlund Loe / Norwegian / 1996 / 197 pages
Translated from the Norwegian by Tor Ketil Solberg

The narrator of Loe’s Naïve. Super is a college-educated man-child whose ennui (both philosophical and practical) forces him into a prolonged bought of playing with kids’ toys and manic list-making. When he tells you his story, he writes in Hemingway half-articulations of 4- and 5-word sentences and 1- and 2-sentence paragraphs. When he feels that this technique is not quite cryptic enough, he streamlines even further by simply inserting the lists themselves into the text of his narrative. The world comes at him as items grouped loosely under thematic headings, but with no real substantiating connections. He worries about the big picture; he grows disheartened when he can’t explain how his life experiences all hang together in the same meaningful constellation.

Hey, man, welcome to the club. Get off the couch.

Loe’s novel begins when the narrator has a minor nervous fit while playing croquet with his older brother. He’s in the middle of working on his graduate degree, he has no girlfriend or abode of his own, and he cannot figure out where to go from here. His brother leaves town for several weeks and asks him to watch the apartment while he’s gone. The narrator drops out of school, buys some toys and a car, and tries to come to terms with his joblessness and lack of motivation. He creates lengthy lists that distill small truths and examine the balance of good things and bad things in his life. He befriends a neat kid next door and meets a nice girl with whom he goes on long pleasant walks through the Norwegian forests. He listens to Alanis Morissette and reads books about the cosmos that push the boundaries of his critical thinking. In the words of Radiohead, he gradually becomes fitter, happier, and more productive.

In terms of the book’s substance, then, it seems like if we adapted it for the film and set it to the music of the Postal Service, we’d have a quirky indy coming-of-age comedy where an emotionally beleaguered 20-something has to deal with over-dramatized emotional baggage. He renews his lease on life when he meets Natalie Portman’s character in Garden State and college-aged kids around the world swoon over the unlikely romance that develops. Much like that (somewhat pedantic) movie, they are supposed to see something of themselves in the narrator; his popcorn-smelling redemption is their own.

(Slightly more seriously: you do have to wonder how much blood is still pumping in these angst-filled premises, where young adults who had perfectly tolerable home lives growing up and who were gifted fabulous college educations are temporary incapacitated by just a touch of lassitude mixed with a watered-down dose of depression. The idea that it just takes a pretty girl, a good song, and a change of scenery to pull one out of such problems has always seemed a bit disingenuous to me. When we fluff up these fake problems, we undercut the seriousness of actual ones; when we rely on readymade remedies, I think we fall prey to the placebo effect.)

So I wasn’t amenable to the book’s themes. That being said, I did very much enjoy it on other levels. The Hemingway prose approach has been beaten to death, but the inclusion of lists was actually quite excellent and unique. Boiling prose down to its barest essentials (something that Hemingway was alleged to have been doing) forces the reader to fill in the gaps. Furthermore, Loe also includes scanned copies of (ostensibly) primary texts such as fax sheets, emails, library records, work orders, and road signs. In one sense, this gives the novel a rougher aura, as if we are researchers stumbling across primary source documents. In another sense, we are left to ponder the implications for narration — as an object or act — of including such unlikely narrative tools.

Loe doesn’t take us too far down this metafictive road, however, and other authors take us much further. And the lion’s share of the exemplary execution is overshadowed by the pedantic nature of the ideas themselves. To this end, the novel really is something of a tug-of-war between the two adjectives ensconced in the title; I would argue, unfortunately, that naïve wins out over super.

Rating: 5 / 10

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