January 2015

Jack Hanson


The Helios Disaster by Linda Boström Knausgård, translated by Rachel Willson-Broyles

Whether a desirable state of affairs or not, a post-religious culture demands extraordinary things from its people, not least from its artists. The attempt to come to terms with the cessation of religion as the primary place of knowing has been demonstrated in the increasing variety and fluidity of artistic forms in the past few centuries, most of all in the previous one. The struggle did not end there. The arguments of the Modernists, the Post-Modernists, the Dadaists, the Abstract Expressionists, the New Critics, Analytic philosophers, etc.: these remain with us, and all of the grand nineteenth- and twentieth-century attempts to make Western societies at ease in (or, at the very least, aware of) a godless world remain in flux, none of them gaining ground on the others for very long. The only long-standing replacement for religion, ironically, has been the ever-changing and increasingly powerful sciences of technology. But this kind of knowledge, despite the convenience it provides, does little to help us understand ourselves and our place in the world, and the search for meaning goes on.

One option in the face of this radically demythologized, not to say dehumanized, worldview is an equally radical realism, to turn the human eye on every detail and relate them with painstaking accuracy, and the cult of memoir and realism dominates the current market. As an anthesis, the poet and writer Linda Boström Knausgård's debut novel, The Helios Disaster, presents an exercise in fantastic metaphor and allegory, with a strong mythological core and vivid imagery throughout. The strangeness, originality, and supreme gentleness of the narrator's inner world contrast sharply with the more recognizable, though not in all respects ordinary world into which she is forced. This, combined with her quiet determination to find her father and the increasingly astonishing events that occur, all add up to form a surprisingly modern portrait of longing and the possibility of homecoming.

The novel begins so strikingly, so shockingly, that one wonders, not entirely happily, whether the rest of it will be the same way:

I am born of a father. I split his head. For an instant that is as long as life itself we face one another and look each other in the eye. You are my father, I tell him with my eyes. My father. The person in front of me, standing in the blood on the floor, is my father. His woolen socks suck it up greedily and turn red. The blood sinks into the worn wooden floor and I think, his eyes are green like mine.

And, indeed, things do go on in essentially this manner. The prose, though tightly wound and highly lyrical, is as demanding as it is lucid, to say nothing of the story itself, which progresses less through the events related than layers of the young protagonist's psyche and spirit.

But there is an unmistakable rhythm to the Knausgård's narrative, even something like a musical key, and The Helios Disaster is virtually without a misplayed note. A slight deferment of judgment is necessary, but once granted, the world as described here envelops the reader in a way that only a very strong artist can produce. The effect is particularly striking in this case, since so much of what the novel both works toward and depends on is the alteration -- sometimes slight, sometimes drastic -- of the world which we inhabit, always with a hint (or more) of the primordial, the originary.

After being born, things go sour for the narrator, and, at twelve years old, she arrives in the snow-covered "village in the north," naked except for a golden helmet. She is taken in first by a well-intentioned, if slightly aloof, neighbor, and then goes to live in a home, where she is named Anna. One of the first introductions of the ordinary world into Anna's consciousness is the stark revelation of her father's condition:

My father had acute schizophrenia and was sent, screaming, to the mental hospital in Skellefteå, where his story was disregarded and his headache was alleviated with medicine so strong that in the end, he himself was skeptical that it had really happened.

She is sent to live with a family in a town divided between a Pentecostal church and a rigorous temperance league, though residents are able to be members of each. Anna, despite her adopted family being of the temperance league, is brought to the Pentecostal church and begins speaking in tongues. The passage of time is ambiguous here, but Anna becomes comfortable in her role. She even begins to feel love for her adopted family, until a series of variably coherent letters from her father remind her of her obligation to find him and to be with him.

Through unknown circumstances, Anna performs a complete reversal of her role at the church and becomes nearly catatonic. Her inner experience remains as vibrant as ever, but she shuts the world out, save for the odd violent outburst or concession to requests. She is placed in a psychiatric ward, where she cooperates with the staff, except for when she does not. As time passes, the lyrical flow which occupied her is replaced by a kind of paranoid pulse. Whereas before she thought of her father and the sea, now she thinks of death and medication. Again Knausgård's artistry is masterful, and she brings us into the vagaries of institutionalized life seamlessly, though she never loses the unique, sustaining voice of the novel, which would be whimsical were it not so dark.

From the beginning of The Helios Disaster the theme of intoxication rings through in a variety of ways. The almost Bacchic lyricism of the opening staves is stanched, or at least moderated, by an entrance into the dry village, but even then stories of the ravages of alcohol and mental illness are widespread. Then another form of intoxication arises in the form of Anna's speaking in tongues. But this, too, is tempered by the psychiatric ward, and though the initial impulse is to chalk this up to a unique gift misunderstood, the longer she is there the more it appears she needs to be.

The words fell out of me and landed in his lap and I clearly saw him pick them up one by one and polish them the way you might polish an apple.

"Then that's settled, Anna," he said with the apples in his hand.

Anna's condition improves, and she appears to accept that what were her deepest desires were in large part illusory, but that the love that motivated them might be possible in the family who adopted her. But the ambiguity of the closing passages reveals a more complex relationship between the object of desire and its subject, the stories we tell ourselves to sustain that connection, and what cost those stories might exact when they are not shared.

The Helios Disaster is a fine first novel, but it is very much a first novel. There are too many undeveloped characters, too many unanswered questions. All of these, to be sure, stem not from laziness but from the overwhelming force of the central figure of Anna, but the book nevertheless is stained by being simply too rough around the edges. But what is strong here is extraordinary. Knausgård is obviously a writer with a great deal more to say, and we will be fortunate to hear it.

The Helios Disaster by Linda Boström Knausgård, translated by Rachel Willson-Broyles
World Editions
ISBN: 978-9462380219
160 pages