Reviewed by Steve Danziger
“I never got to see a proper striptease. Not anything even remotely close. I was stupid and went to literary cafés and spent my time on artistic nonsense instead. Now it is too late. I am old and blind. I must content myself with hearing the garments fall. I dictated this.”
Neither dated, cited, nor contextualized, there’s no way of knowing what prompted the comment. But, except for its brevity and use of the first-person, its combination of wistfulness, regret, mourning, and resignation could have easily fit into Replacement, a novel about both the need for reconciliation and its impossibility.
The story is formatted in self-contained stream of consciousness paragraphs of various lengths, with little sense of connection except in an evenness of tone and cadence, as if all the characters were linked through a common rhythmic melancholy characterized by fear, fleeting moments of hope, and hyper-attentiveness to random peripheral stimuli. This might all sound like a laugh riot, but there is a great deal of wit in the banal observations—it’s easy to see why Ulven is often compared to Beckett. The author’s empathy never falters, and there is a subtle, but powerful, sense of momentum throughout, generated by ceaseless thoughts and the low-key tension of people tormented by monumental regret and thwarted desires. The “replacement” of the title seems to be of a verbose internal life for an impotent external one.
In the novel’s first paragraph, “he” watches the billowing of a curtain, and concludes, “In theory, you just have to open the door and go to find everything, absolutely everything.” Yes, in theory. But in actuality, this is a world of catatonics incapable of confrontation, who lie awake while “the indigestible, sickly-sweet stuff of [their] fantasies gnaws at [them] again and again, every single goddamn day.” This endless gnawing provides the main thrust of the novel, and the unattainable simplicity of the ‘theory’ is heartbreak. What events do exist are tiny, minimal, and serve mainly as a springboard for more digressive contemplation; a typical example finds an older man frightened by a young man with a large dog, which leads to the observation that “the bushes and trees out in front of the building have been swaddled in burlap against the coming winter,” which leads to the thought that “in a way, she is free, because she’s well beyond the reach of all sickness,” then sixteen examples of sickness are given, then mild ruminations on time, hell, and Judgment Day, and concludes with “these religious hypotheses are presumptuous, to say the least, because they nullify time as a dimension, and they punish those sins and reward those good deeds that were committed in time outside of time.”
Each paragraph follows similarly unpredictable trajectories to ambiguous conclusions, never clarifying who the pronouns are referring to or who the thinker is, and it’s a testament to Ulven’s unwavering vision that it never bores or depresses; if anything, Replacement conjures a hypnotic sense of churning stasis, and while the voices can sound like the neurotic inner monologues of insomniacs, there is often great beauty in the simple observations, and great pathos in listening to people trying to maintain the last of their equilibrium. But, depending on your appetite for humor-laden pessimism, it can all get a bit too heavy—there are variations on the word “darkness” used ten times in the first two pages alone, there is a continuous “cascade of unrealized potential,” and for all of the back and forth between “pain and solace,” there’s much more of the former than the latter. And a hundred and fifty or so pages of this can be deadening.
Still, the beauty of the work can’t be denied, and the sense that life isn’t truly over for these people, that they can still emerge from their various purgatories, balances and saves the text from a hopeless existential anguish. We feel the triumph of the “monumental effort” of pulling out one’s slippers, are humbled by the desire for “a real voice, even the worst voice in the world…a hideous, grating, unbearable, but nonetheless intelligible voice, not to whisper sweet nothings in a woman’s ear on a mild summer night, but to be able to order coffee and waffles loud and clear,” and hope the guy who’s “been planning a treatise on feminine snoring for quite some time” will finally write the damn thing. These are the voices of the infirm, whose physical and emotional pains have turned even the most modest desires into colossal undertakings, and it’s these acts of bravery, or at least the possibility of such, that propel the novel.
Ulven, a highly regarded Norwegian poet, was a suicide, and even if one finds the seeking of his suicidal tendencies in the work dubious, it’s hard to deny that the man was intensely sensitive, and sympathetic, to the mindset. Replacement serves as a testament to the pain of repression, the profundity of the commonplace, and, in the arbitrariness of the beautifully observed, the notion that all the moments in life are of equal worth. Autobiographical or not, it’s a suitable requiem.
Dalkey Archive Press