The Marshmallow Test

To the extent that a reviewer’s job involves a summary of plot, Stig Sæterbakken’s Self-Control, in translation from Norwegian, offers little challenge. Andreas Feldt has a conversation with his ...

To the extent that a reviewer’s job involves a summary of plot, Stig Sæterbakken’s Self-Control, in translation from Norwegian, offers little challenge. Andreas Feldt has a conversation with his daughter. He tells her that he is divorcing her mother, a lie, and the daughter, after a momentary shock, seems unmoved. He hosts friends for dinner, and his guests are somewhat unpleasant; snobbish and bourgeois. He goes to work and harangues his boss, who seems neither to notice nor care. He has a conversation with his sister. He goes to a restaurant, sees a movie, and visits a café. He goes home. That’s the bulk of it. Taken as a story, it is garlicky, and Nordic in the extreme.

Of course we don’t define the quality of books, not in polite society, by the complexity of their plots. We will not be denied our gloomy family dramas. But the stagnation in Self-Control is not traditional domestic fare. Not the slow burn of escalating interpersonal disagreement nor the gradual breakdown of communication and understanding that are the hallmarks of contemporary high realism. In this case, the conspicuous lack of dramatic action is the point, aimed not to emphasize what action there is, but to make amply clear the absence. There is no escalation, no communication, no understanding to have fall apart. “I, unlike other, luckier men,” Andreas says, “could not go home and unburden myself to my wife.”

In the absence of causality, plot will become something of a problem.

Quite in opposition to the corporate thriller, the beachside romance, the interstellar romp, consumers of which Andreas notes as being “safe in the knowledge that their almost inexcusably naïve content is exempt from any moral responsibility,” Self-Control insists on an accounting of those responsibilities. The mechanism for the novel’s rejection of that naïveté is the fact that Andreas cannot coax a catalytic reaction out of anyone, whatever his efforts. The reactions he expects are never the ones he gets. He berates his boss, lies to his daughter, argues with his friend, but they are all ultimately unmoved, recover in moments, regain their former dispositions. To state the obvious: In the absence of causality, plot will become something of a problem. There seems little of Ibsen’s drama here, but plenty of his bluntness.

When Andreas, his wife Helene, and their dinner guests, Hans-Jacob and Elise, are done eating, Andreas and Hans-Jacob retreat to the living room. Hans-Jacob, without provocation or explanation, says, “Yes, I like a place inhabited by chatty women who voice opinions raucously, Andreas.” After a period of confusion, Hans-Jacob explains that the sentence is a mnemonic representation of pi. The number of letters in each word corresponds to a digit: 3.14159 et cetera. Thus the first 13 digits of pi can be produced at parties or the office. Hans-Jacob is very pleased with this. Andreas sees it as a pointless exercise—counter-productive, even. Why would anyone need to recite the first 13 digits of pi to impress people, he wonders, and, if they did, why would they go about it in such an oblique way?

Self-Control can seem, at times, like Hans-Jacob’s mnemonic. Its sentiment, that of the lonely man floundering in the murk of Capitalism, has become, in the decade-and-a-half that has passed since it was first published, somewhat less exciting. Its severe interiority can be tiring. The question rears—why? There is, though, despite its sluggishness, an exuberance in the novel. It stems from a feeling that there exists, in fact, a breaking point, if just out of reach, where everything will change. Of course, Andreas never gets that far. But there is nevertheless a why.

The lack of drama does make Self-Control a bore, in a sense. It could be called, with all its melancholy and stagnation, a boring book. It is slow and meticulous and the translation of Sæterbakken’s prose, while functional, is at times clunky or inelegant. But the reading of Self-Control is not by any measure boring. There is an almost inhuman discipline in the novel. It cannot be easy to bring to the brink of action so many relations and never fulfill them. There is uncertainty, but not regret, walking that ledge. It is a portrait of an earnestly curious writer; a mathematical inquisitiveness, like a chess master. Sæterbakken is working through something, teasing out its moral implications, running through the moves and counters. But there is a triumph, too, of slight-of-hand. Which moves? Which counters?

There is an almost inhuman discipline in the novel.

That restraint, and the curiosity that paradoxically gives rise to it, lends the novel its real gravity. All of Andreas’s proddings yield no visible results, but that does not exclude the possibility of their existence. The narcissistic quality inherent in our humanity demands, for its satisfaction, a Newtonian response to social exertion. But perhaps that is too simple a desire. As Andreas’s wants go unfulfilled, his actions unreciprocated, the obvious question is what would happen if they weren’t. That is the easier question, the foundation of an easier novel.

There is another question, less obvious and more pressing, which Sæterbakken is turning over. What would happen if someone needed a predictable reaction? Predictable like a boss faced with raw insubordination, or a daughter confronted by her parents’ imminent divorce. For that is clearly what Andreas wants—the predictable: a set range within which the dialogue occurs. The interactions he can’t control are the ones that make him nervous. Andreas, put off by Hans-Jacob’s ambivalence when insulted, fantasizes about biting his friend’s nose. Again, the expectation of a particular response. But then Andreas realizes he can drive the conversation they are having. He interjects, things proceed as they should, and the fantasy immediately fades. The predictable reaction manifests for Andreas, but it is not satisfying for him because it brings about no change. The only reactions that are withheld, then, are those that might have consequence. For change, which Andreas clearly wants, the prerequisite is uncertainty. Therefore, he cannot have it.

So if we take tragedy to mean the withholding of what a character desires, then Andreas is as tragic as they come. His is a cautionary tale. He is awash in what he’s looking for but can’t possess it. The tedium of the book, then, is essential to its point. Indeed, becomes a pleasure. To be bored by Self-Control is to be bored by self-control. The novel demands, in all its stoic immobility, that we embrace the unexpected by exemplifying the stark alternative. Sæterbakken, who took his own life in January of 2012, will be sorely missed. But he left behind the whispers of many truths. They are well worth the exertion in the listening. icon

Featured image: Stig Sæterbakken. Photograph by Martin Grüner Larsen / Flickr