Here are a few reviews I wanted to highlight. Other reviews are listed in the Archives tab and link to the Wayback Machine, a result of the tricky transfer from paper archives to digital.
Review of Leslie Jamison’s The Gin Closet.
Published in The New Haven Advocate: Literature. February 17, 2010.
A Brutal Symphony: Local author Leslie Jamison says the unspeakable in The Gin Closet
NEW HAVEN — Putting a frame around mystery, as Flannery O’Connor has suggested, is the goal of our best fiction. Rising to this challenge is The Gin Closet, Leslie Jamison’s debut novel, which keenly frames the emotional mysteries of recovering alcoholic Tilly Rudolph and her niece Stella.
Jamison, currently a doctoral candidate in American literature at Yale, would be minimized if compared to other authors. Reviews of first novels inevitably tend toward establishing lineage: An author, as though a passive medium, “speaks through the spirit” of Woolf or Faulkner or Cheever. Jamison’s voice is resoundingly unique, her prose both raw and precise, fully attuned to poetry without ever rescinding an energetic narrative impulse.
The novel alternates between the first-person perspectives of Stella and Tilly. We begin with Stella as she commutes between New York City and Connecticut, where she cares for her dying grandmother, Lucy. In a medicated daze, Lucy speaks of a Matilda, or Tilly, a woman Stella has never heard of. She eventually learns from her mother that Tilly is her aunt, long estranged from the family, having run away from their home as a teenager.
Upon Lucy’s death, Stella drives with her brother Tom to Lovelock, Nev., to find Tilly and deliver the death news. On this trip, Tom tells her, frankly: “You’ve always been terrible at your own life. You’re always so greedy for everyone else’s.” They find Tilly in a trailer park, a wrecked drunk, five years out of two decades of prostitution, a hollow relic in confused, stark isolation in the desert.
In Tilly’s trailer, Stella finds Tilly’s private “drinking closet,” in which lie a bare mattress, countless gin bottles, “the ghostly ribs of a turkey carcass” and a pink blanket, “the kind of candy shade a child might choose.” Outward from this horrific sanctum spins much of the catastrophic drama of the novel. Stella decides to move in with Tilly in an apartment. To try to gain closeness to her son, Abe, Tilly tries to quit drinking.
Jamison trusts the consciousness of her characters and her readers. At the very points a lesser writer would stumble, lurch and turn away, she stands still, stares and turns our faces to stare along with her. Her characters quiver, wanting to be both seen and unseen in their shame. We peer at Stella peering at herself in the heat of her own sickness, anorexia, on a subway car. We see Tilly, seeing herself, “transparent — like all of my thoughts were coming through my skin like sweat […] I was wet with need and weakness, dripping everywhere, ruining everything.” We see both women dream dreams of false magistery, of the salvation of intimacy with married men, of the golden “amber fingers” of liquor that pulp and pump life out, not in.
Of particular importance is the oblique beauty and taut sensuality of Jamison’s language and imagery. Where Stella’s speech is intricate and nested, Tilly’s has a blunt lyricism: “Dry days were long. The hours piled. Clocks moved slowly. The minutes of my life stretched out like the salt flats … ”
We recognize the baldness of our common language to describe despair; in one scene, Abe visits an Al-Anon meeting with his mother, taking notes from members’ speeches on a pad: “Afraid of the reality … The dream of disappearance … rock bottom.” Real pain demands attuned, imagistic language, and Jamison, here, thrills. Eyes glimmer like “raw wounds,” like “bandages had been pulled off them”; Tilly massages the scars on a back of a friend – “their raised edges guided me like roads.” These women all twist in their suffering towards tenuous understanding, intimacy and hopefully some measure of peace.
Jamison is not just marching to the beat of her own drum. She is banging out a brutal, ecstatic symphony upon it. The Gin Closet dares readers to understand how and why we abrade our bodies, ourselves, to manifest the incommunicable to one another.
Review of Yale School of Architecture Symposium, “Architecture After Las Vegas.”
Published in the New Haven Advocate. February 3, 2010.
It didn’t stay in Vegas: How a ‘morality carwash’ influenced American design for a generation
NEW HAVEN — A lone armored truck, weighted with money, crosses the Mojave Desert away from the Las Vegas Strip to Los Angeles. In a lurid graveyard of neon signs, stripped from the demolished Moulin Rouge, dogs gripe and panhandlers look for scraps to pawn. Through all its cyclical boom and bust stages of the Frontier Dream, Las Vegas offers an endless number of models for understanding American aesthetics, many of them explored in depth during last week’s “Architecture After Las Vegas” symposium at the Yale School of Architecture. Scholars and architects gathered to reflect on the city’s importance to contemporary architecture.
In Casino, Robert de Niro calls Vegas a type of “morality carwash,” a place where judgment is suspended. The city is the ultimate American destination, a “sublime rip-off,” where you can find precise copies of major world buildings and cities: Caesars Palace, Paris, The Venetian, New York, Excalibur, the Palazzo. Most tantalizing, Vegas offers its visitors the possibility of forgetting, of suffering no consequences of debauch, of always winning. This idea has stimulated countless filmmakers, artists and writers, from Claes Oldenburg to Martin Scorsese to Tom Wolfe.
Of course, the real Vegas is more than a sum of the clichés about it (“What happens here, stays …”). The real Vegas, one of burgeoning development and divested labor, was most deeply explored by architect David Schwarz and critic Ralph Stern. Schwarz’s overview of Vegas’ history led us through the city’s origins as a town centered around the building of the Hoover Dam, to the 1940s era of Bugsy, Hollywood stars and the mob’s influence in building the Stardust, Flamingo, Thunderbird, Western and the Sands Hotel. Stern offered a current socio-political study of how the famed resorts have been mostly torn down, and how the Mojave Desert, location of 50 years of military testing and mining and the Nevada Test Site, interacts with the new city of Wall Street interests.
American husband-wife architect team Robert Venturi and Denise Scott Brown were the keynote speakers. In the ’60s, they made a break from modernism with their emphatically “ordinary” structures (Philadelphia’s Guild House, the Seattle Art Museum, the Staten Island Ferry Terminal) by embracing the lessons of casinos, Pop art and billboards to create architecture that was clear and usable. Miss Scott-Brown spoke eloquently of their firm’s hybridization of the functional and the aesthetic. She argued that real-world design demands constant analysis of urban fabric. The “mind and market must meet” in order for a building to have cultural relevance.
Venturi and Scott Brown’s effect on the other speakers was clear. Martino Stierli explored the experience of the “mobilized gaze” through their 1968 Las Vegas Research Studio’s filming of Vegas from automobile and helicopter. Katherine Smith discussed the Strip’s heraldic signs as Pop art. Digressions into post-modern theory, though, were thankfully minimal. The scholars’ focus was on exciting contrasts, suggested by the city, between the mesas’ unstructured silhouettes and the hectic neon beehives of the casinos, between elite and mass culture, purposeful and aesthetic, flux and immobility.
You Are Game
Published in New Haven Advocate: Leisure: Profile. March 31, 2010.
YOU ARE GAME: New Havener launches a new magazine that takes video game culture seriously.
What does it mean to play games?
New Haven resident Jamin Brophy-Warren, founder of Kill Screen magazine, is setting out to answer this question, and destroy a fallacy while doing it: that adults who play video games are immature and have no attention-span past “killing, robbing, and leveling up.”
With Kill Screen, a magazine collection of essays about video games and gaming that read like film and book reviews in Harper’s, Brophy-Warren is on the war path toward lasting, intelligent writing about video games, the most misunderstood yet central of entertainments today.
“Most men and women my age grew up on video games,” says Brophy-Warren, 27. “They were how we all communicated with each other.” The social network that grew out of playing games with friends helped “unify jocks and geeks alike.” Kill Screen, he explains, is meant to suggest that games aren’t a “rarefied field,” because “everyone shares the experience of playing a game.” We remember, he argues, the atmosphere and the distilled moments in which we feel connected to what is happening in the game far more than we remember design quality or plot.
Brophy-Warren is fresh off this year’s Game Developers Conference, where he spoke in a panel on the lack of diversity in game characters. He was excited to speak of the positive reception of Kill Screen. “We kept running out of copies!” (Kill Screen has already received mention in Wired; it’s collaborating with Good magazine, where Jamin has a guest blog.) The magazine was birthed at the same conference last year. At a crossroads in his career at The Wall Street Journal, Jamin had dinner with a number of thinkers concerned with games, including Michael Abbot of BrainyGamer.com and fiction writer and critic Tom Bissell (author of some of the few stand-out, retrospective essays out there on games, including one on the game Gears of War 2 for The New Yorker). The group began to discuss why intelligent writing on games, writing that was neither unreadable academic game-speak nor shallow “sensationalist” fan material, did not exist.
The Kill Screen editorial crew is small: Jamin is Editor-in-Chief and is joined by managing editor Chris Dahlen, a writer, and new editor Ryan Kuo, also a full-time writer (formerly for CrispyGamer.com ) and a friend of Jamin’s from college. The editors balance different interests in games. Kuo, for example, “is more into the aesthetics of games,” while Jamin says he is focused on storytelling and “conversations about people’s personal experiences playing games.” The magazine’s creative director is Anthony Smyrski, a professional designer Jamin met in Luxembourg.
Jamin suggests the idea for Kill Screen is partly rooted in his childhood experiences. Born in San Antonio, Texas, Jamin grew up in a suburb of Abington, Pa., where he went to an all-boys Catholic high school. He credits his father, Roland Warren (president of the National Fatherhood Initiative), as central in forming his gaming passion.
“My dad loved to play games,” he says. “He played Virtual Fighter, the first 3-D fighting game on the Sega Saturn. He caught the zeitgeist. He anticipated video games would be the most dominant medium of our generation.”
Jamin is a recent transplant to New Haven. His wife, Sorcha Brophy-Warren, is a Ph.D student in sociology at Yale. The couple met as undergraduates at Harvard. Sorcha, Jamin says, “played a lot of games with her own father growing up. I think we first bonded over Foosball — she beat me — and our shared love of Killer Instinct.”
After graduating, the couple married and moved to New York, where Jamin began to play games more regularly; his main obsession was Super Smash Brothers.
“I wore the grooves out of that game,” he laughs.
Working for Pitchfork and for the WSJ, he began to develop his own style as a critic, and even had a column in the WSJ on video games for six months. During that time, he was struck by the paucity of game coverage in magazines.
Kill Screen’s first issue, themed “maturity,” boasts an impressive list of contributors, including Leigh Alexander, Tom Bissell, L.B. Jeffries, Jason Killingsworth and Matt Shaer, who have written, between them, for The New Yorker, GQ, Christian Science Monitor, The Wall Street Journal, Bookforum and the Los Angeles Times. The essays explore the experience of playing Resident Evil for the first time, the enigma of GameStop employees, a history of game controllers; there is also an interview with Peter Molyneux, the designer for the game Fable.
Great writing aside, it should be noted that Kill Screen is set apart by its physical beauty. The magazine was meant to be a “type of heirloom, an artifact to be passed on,” Brophy-Warren notes.
“We want to value the written word, and so we wanted a magazine that is worth being held. It makes more sense to me to have our magazine imitate games: The package of a video game is meant to be held and cherished. As long as we are living pre-singularity, physical objects will remain important.”
Having edited their first issue, the editors have a clearer vision of the magazine’s purpose: “We’re not interested in breezing through obscure references. We want to bring the reader into the world of a game. We want our pieces to be completely open for people who may not know every single game reference. For that reason, I dislike the vast majority of gaming criticism. Software becomes dated. Games look better now than they ever did. They’ll continue to. The critique of them becomes less important over time. If criticism doesn’t illuminate anything about the game” or player’s experience, “it will become obsolete.”
Starting a magazine, Jamin has found, is no easy feat. “Any new project like a magazine is like a small business. It can be frustrating, as magazine publishing is a very broken industry. We have learned to be creative. I try to come up with creative ideas. Actually, I never realized how hard it is to mail things across the country,” he laughs. The editors found it “most surprising how willing people were to participate as artists and writers.” Upcoming issues will range in theme from “Games Are No Fun” to “Disgust” to a “Back to School” issue.
Their main roadblock: funding.
Jamin heard that a friend had raised funds to seed his band’s first record-printing through Kickstarter, a blog dedicated to fund-raising online, to help groups start up worthy projects. In their first week of fundraising, Kill Screen raised more than $6,000. Jamin says, “It just felt great to get that response. We were amazed. We’d done market research; yet the response still came as a surprise.”
Kill Screen is meant to be a space to explore, ultimately, “why an artist creates what he does.” Jamin is particularly excited to discuss legendary game designers: “There are so many game designers that no one writes about.” He mentions the fact that Shigeru Miyamoto, the genius of Nintendo who created The Legend of Zelda, Mario Bros., Star Foxand Donkey Kong, is alive and well. There have been a few profiles on designers like Miyamoto, and yet, Jamin says, it is curious that their working process is relatively unknown.
“No one knows how their creative process works, or who they are as people. They are mysteries still.”
Review of Per Petterson’s I Curse the River of Time.
Published in BRINK Magazine. July 2010.
External Link: Review of Per Petterson’s I Curse the River of Time
Fragile images of departure, the village back then
I curse the river of time; thirty-two years have passed.
From a lesser known poem by Chairman Mao, these lines are a simple lamentation of a fact that can only be repeated in literature so many times: time moves on relentlessly. Per Petterson, the Norwegian author of Out Stealing Horses, devotes himself to probing the bitter fruit of this reflection in his new novel, I Curse the River of Time (Graywolf Press, August 2010). We begin in Oslo in 1989 before the Berlin Wall falls, as thirty-seven-year-old Arvid Jansen, a paper factory worker, is getting a divorce. His mother has just been diagnosed with stomach cancer. She says goodbye to her husband of forty years, and boards her favorite ship, the Holger Danske, to return to the family’s summer home in Denmark, her homeland.
In the midst of her own crisis, she has no time for Arvid’s; besides, she holds a nearly seventeen-year-old grudge against her son. Right after he turned twenty, Arvid dropped out of college to follow the Communist Party’s recruitment of members to the new industrial workforce. When his mother heard of his choice, she slapped him, said, “You idiot,” and walked out of the coffee shop in which they sat. This opened the abyss in their intimacy that is the book’s subject.
Over a few grim days at the summer house, Arvid, his mother, and her friend Hansen circle around each other like grim, sullen wolves. They occasionally sit down to drink and sit in uncomfortable silence. Arvid rambles, mentally, through a series of disconnected vignettes about his childhood, his courtship, and his struggle to continue work as a Party member, though his years of work in the factory turned out to run very distant from the world of Party ideals (“I had stood at the machine for six months, and all this time, I had tried to carry out every single Party resolution, but I had not succeeded.”).
In Part I, as his mother is leaving Norway, Arvid is driving a car with his seven- and ten-year-old daughters along gravel roads, in Nittedal, we’re told, past the “chequered sheep and the old electric fences with the white porcelain knobs on the posts.” They sing Paul McCartney songs, winding happily, while acutely aware of Arvid’s wife, their mother, having stayed behind. This scene is notable as one of Arvid’s lightest memories (and we’re only on page 23, of 233.)
During this mobile idyll, the car swerves to avoid an imagined darkness, the
all-consuming black where the farmers had ploughed the fields just in time before winter came falling, and all light was drained out of them and simply vanished. We drove a little faster past those scary spots and laughed a bit too and cried out in high-pitched frightened voices:
“Watch out, for God’s sake,” we screamed. “Here comes a black hole!”
Arvid explains to his daughters that black holes were places where “lives were sucked down, whole worlds sucked down, maybe our world sucked down.” Black holes are one organizing concept for I Curse the River of Time: memory’s lacunae and emotional elisions riddle the fabric of Arvid’s obsessive remembrance. Petterson renders this portrait of Arvid’s lackluster depression as bulky, immense, and shot through intermittently with terrible anxiety and pain (“If someone had asked me, how do you feel now? I would say, it hurts right here, and point to a place at the top of my chest, or rather at the very bottom of my throat.”). Like Mao in his poem, Arvid grapples on a symbolic stage with Time until he is mangled, on hands and knees, barely able to make the few steps to his own bed: “No act of will will get me out of this state, no leap of thought pull me up.”
Arvid’s central dilemma is how to speak to his impossible, unsympathetic mother while in his anguished mental state that begs for a bit of support. Arvid’s Danish mother is elusive to those around her and will remain largely elusive to us, as well. She loves Albert Finney in old movies; she hated being a housewife; it is hinted that life did not turn out for her as she thought it would. She had great hopes for Arvid to pursue a future more worthy, in her eyes, than that of a factory worker. She rarely speaks to him save to deliver a judgmental quip, equivalents of “I told you so” or “What else is new.” Her cool contempt is at times unbearable to read. She is scathing, domineering, unforgiving, and worst of all, indifferent. In one childhood memory, Arvid sees his mother on the beach reading a magazine, smoking as the children play in the sand: “She did not pay attention; she turned her direction to other things.” As an adult, his child-self remains intact; he still longs for her to look at him, respond to him. In a present-day scene at the summer house, after slipping between two boats into the ocean, Arvid stands bedraggled and helpless, wet, before his mother. She does not offer him a towel and simply looks at him with the “smile on her lips that was not a smile as there was nothing to smile about that anyone could see, but it was how she looked when her mind was somewhere else and definitely not in a place that those around her could have guessed.”
As we become more acquainted with Arvid’s ambivalence towards his mother, what we, as readers, are meant to feel for her remains equally unclear. Her stern pretension, her seeming lack of sympathy for her son’s depression, and her indifference, are as opaque as the silence she maintains with her son. As she is most vividly described through others, she herself remains a visual and physical blank, save her smile. At her fiftieth birthday party, her neighbors and friends make toasts to a woman “who was so close to their hearts, who was one of them, and yet was not quite like them, and maybe that was what they liked about her.”
At the summer house, Arvid ambles about the house, to the ocean, to Hansen’s place, which abuts. On a walk, he sees what he determines as omen:
…there was a pheasant standing dead still in the stripy shadow of a leafless bush, its strange, long tail feathers pointing towards the road, and it was brown and green and red within a silence so compact I found it menacing. Only one shiny eye was moving inside its red frame and it followed every step I took, and this eye frightened me.
This terrible bird’s eye “burning into [his] back,” he trucks back home. The pheasant eye is also his mother’s eye of judgment, transmogrified, a cold eye roving after him “within a silence so compact.” In fact, it is his mother’s menacing silence that frames every passage in this novel.
What is there left to do, Petterson seems to say, in the face of this impasse between mother and son, these ossified stances and blocks to expression, apart from fully exploring the contours of a wild regret? It isn’t as though Arvid could, well, inhabit an adult conflict, discuss his choices with his mother, defend them or relinquish them, or open any kind of dialogue. No, that would be impossible. We’re left, as readers, to grapple with a trite regret, over “all that is never said.”
Moreover, Arvid’s mother never asks Arvid the questions she could. She has no intention of reconciling herself to his choices as an adult, consumed by disappointments that she hoped Arvid would allay. Her only redeemable quality seems to be that she is a hopeful mother. Arvid recognizes this, two months after he tells her he is forgoing college: she visits him out of a grim sense of duty, and had not “come to apologize, she had come because I was her son. That’s how it was. She had come because she was a mother. And yet it was too late. Something was broken, a wire had been stretched too taut and had started to fray and it snapped with a crack you could hear between the walls.”
This brings me to one of the great flaws of this novel: Arvid’s selective amnesia. When Petterson has the opportunity to develop Arvid’s psyche in some fruitful way, Arvid conveniently, inexplicably, blanks. He explains this obnoxious tendency in a short passage: “Inside my brain there was something inattentive, some slippery patch of Teflon, where things that came swirling in and struck it bounced off again and were gone, a fickleness of the mind. I was not paying attention, things happened and were lost. Important things [emphasis added].” This “patch” could be interesting if Arvid wondered, at any point, why, in fact he has this Teflon patch that allows him to glide over the “important things”. If things that aren’t the “important things” – unimportant things – are, ostensibly, the substance of Arvid’s memory-fiction, they should merit interest on their own. Stylistically, visually, they often do (which I’ll get to in a moment).
On an affective level, however, they do not. Take his memory of his younger brother dying in the hospital, hooked up to a ventilator that “pushed air into his lungs in a way no human being had ever breathed.” Arvid searches fruitlessly for the good memories twenty-seven years must have produced between them. Yet, he cannot: “I could not remember a single fond thing we had shared.” Of course, any critical demand that Arvid produce good memories for us is a tyranny of its own. Alternately, without allowing any memories of his brother, the scene is reduced to Arvid gazing at his mother, grieving. He thinks:
If I were the one lying in the ventilator here…perhaps already dead, would she then be so unconditionally absorbed by what was happening to me? Would she immerse herself so completely in my destiny, or was the shadow I cast not long enough, not substantial enough, for her?
Placed in this death scene, his obsession with his mother’s approval is absurd. Would his mother grieve at his bedside the same way? One might ask, Who cares?His childish reflections comprise a largely uninteresting paralysis. His memories, though, are of nothing really good, and also of nothing particularly bad. He exists in a purgatorial twilight of generally placid memories.
His bizarre forgetfulness also interrupts his attempts to connect with his mother. For his speech on his mother’s fiftieth birthday, he decides to give her a speech about the “Rio Grande” between them. He writes a short, fanciful story on two A4 sheets, where he explains to his mother that the “river has dried up. It’s a total surprise, all the experts are knocked out, and only a trickle remains so now it is easy to cross.” He imagines that he will laugh and say, “so you see, nothing’s too late for us, we can walk right across or meet halfway and only get our feet a little wet, and that’s not a big deal, is it?”
At her birthday, he proceeds to get spectacularly drunk, forgets his sheets, and stands up before the dinner party only to realize he has no memory of his speech:
I was going to say something about the Rio Grande, that I could remember, but I could not remember what about the Rio Grande, what it was about that river that was important, and then I let it go and felt the consonants fill my mouth so awkwardly that I would not be able to pull them out in whole pieces. My mother looked at me in an almost dreamy way, slightly out of focus, I thought, and she waited…
His mortification is as paralyzing as his mother’s unfocused contempt.
What Arvid has left, in such ruin, is to obsessively render his own past migratory paths: how he literally used to move around Veitvet, or in the Dælenenga district of Oslo in his twenties, or, as a little boy, in the town in North Jutland in Denmark. Petterson suggests here what a man as deadened as Arvid would do with his time. Arvid relives his paths in a glut of meticulous details, as though the remembering holds some incantatory power. I thought of him tracing his routes on holographic city maps in different colors of chalk. Some passages are little cinematic gems, as here, imagining his mother driving away from home:
The taxi drove on across the windswept open stretch of marram grass and sand and scrub, which the wind kept down to knee height one year after the other, and the sea lay taut this early morning like a blue-grey porous skin and the sky above the sea was as white as milk. Where the tarmac turned into gravel, the car pulled in between the ancient dog roses and gnarled pine trees and the whole trip lasted no more than a quarter of an hour.
The second sentence here, coming after the eye tracks the movement of sea, sky, and scrub, is exemplary, using a structure Petterson employs often and with power. Where the tarmac turned into gravel, the car pulled in between the ancient dog roses: the inversion of “where the tarmac turned into gravel,” leading into “the car pulled in,” and the book-end of “between the dog roses” makes for a small poem. I might see a car pulling in between ancient dog roses, where the tarmac turns into gravel, then see the gnarled pine trees; I might be looking down at the ground at the tarmac turning into gravel, then see the pine trees and dog roses above me. Petterson mimics, here, the mind’s attempt to “trap” a scene, by paradoxically doing the confusing work of movement. To then sandwich in “and the whole trip lasted no more than a quarter of an hour” into the same sentence forces the mind to backtrack, reconsider the scene, contract and expand over the time given.
At other points, the same atmospheric details become excruciating:
I passed the nice-looking red telephone booth and came to the slope where as children we risked our lives on toboggans running down the steep road between the houses, blue woolen caps pulled down over our ears in a childhood whirled away by time, and then past the bend […] and further along the terraces down the flagstone footpath and at last through the door to my parents’ flat.
Drained of feeling, these images of telephone booths and blue caps and flagstones are rather like well-lit, glossy video shorts that play as visual white noise at an art exhibit.
Arvid has one profound redemption here, within this morbid circling. He finds a powerful way to contend with his mother’s existence, and approximate intimacy.
The closest that Arvid comes to his mother is imagining her when she is alone in her private moments. His narration of her times alone is both a claim of her perspective and an elegy for her before her death. Petterson suggests that the ability to imagine the private discomfort, pain, and unhappiness of someone who is unkind or indifferent to one is the most generous a mind can be. Part I opens with Arvid’s painting of her alone on the Holger Danske:
When she had found her cabin, she placed the suitcase on a chair, took a glass from the shelf above the sink, cleaned it carefully before she opened the suitcase and pulled out a half-bottle from underneath her clothes. It was Upper Ten, her favorite brand of whisky when she drank the hard liquor, which she did, I think, more often than we were aware of […] She washed her tears away in front of the mirror above the tap and dried her face and tugged at her clothes the way plump women nearly always do…
He “cannot imagine she craved company in the cafeteria” and instead sits alone. He imagines her exhaustion, the way she would grip tables and rails on the unsteady way back to her room.
There is remarkable beauty in this very simple act of describing his mother alone, and Petterson masters both tenderness and tragedy. In Part IV, Hansen, Arvid, and his mother take a drive to the island of Læsø, where she had lived after the war for a few years, pregnant with her first son. He imagines the conversation she has with the current resident of their old house, how she might say to this woman, “‘I had to go to Norway. I thought I had no choice. But I did.’ And then my mother cried with her head on her knees.” This may be unlikely of her, given what we know of her demeanor and reserve. However, as Arvid enters his mother’s silence, protective of a weeping, self-conscious, and quietly bitter lush, and allows her to express her deep-seated regret, he is also, in a sense, able to gain an affective intimacy through imagining her.
This is an intimacy that he can only gain through imagining his mother alone, as she would never invite him into her private world, thoughts, and wonder. If not so burdened by his “bitter gift of pain,” Arvid could find, Petterson suggests, a solace and closeness to the woman who will always hold him at bay.