Toward the end of the first decade of this century, a promising Norwegian writer in his late thirties, with two novels to his name, published a new book, the start of a longer fictional series, which would win him critical acclaim in his own country and lead to more than a dozen translations abroad. With an addictive and yet, at times, maddeningly logorrheic style, the series delved deep into questions of individual identity and how it is formed. The protagonist of the novels was a man whose childhood was unsettled by his father and whose teen-age years were largely taken up with booze, artistic longings, and provincial ennui.
There are many differences, too, between Karl Ove Knausgaard’s “My Struggle” and the books I have described above, Carl Frode Tiller’s “Encircling” trilogy, the last volume of which was published in an English translation by Barbara J. Haveland in July. To begin with, Tiller’s novels are not about himself: they center on a fictional thirty-six-year-old named David Forberg, who lives in Trondheim, a city in central Norway, and who appears to be suffering from severe amnesia. A request on his behalf appears in the local paper, urging anyone who has known him at any point during his life to send letters describing their memories and impressions of him so that he can regain a sense of selfhood. The chapters of each book are named for the people who respond and consist of their letters interspersed with first-person accounts of the characters’ day-to-day lives. The books thus encircle not only their enigmatic protagonist but those who claim to know him.
The opening paragraph of the first volume is narrated by a man named Jon, who was close with David in his teens:
The repetitive prose, mundane and yet somehow compelling—one might call it Knausgaardian—is not exclusive to Jon. All of David’s acquaintances narrate their lives more or less like this. A woman named Silje spends several pages minutely describing the feelings that are aroused by glances exchanged with her mother, and provides a full play-by-play of an argument with her husband over the suitability of waffles for dinner. (He prefers pancakes.) “I gazed blankly out of the window,” a third character observes. “It had been raining, the wind was ruffling all the glittering puddles dotted around the playground and a white plastic bag drifted slowly across the football pitch where the sixth-graders hung out during break.” Everywhere in the books, there are details of a similarly gratuitous specificity. Describing his memories of David’s mother, Jon recalls “the half-disintegrated butts floating in the toilet, and the smoker’s breath she tried to camouflage with chewing gum, usually Orbit, but sometimes Trident.”
Tiller, like Knausgaard, seems to be after a distinct indistinctiveness—a particular, conspicuous dullness that is intrinsic to life but rarely makes its way into novels. In contrast, though, to “My Struggle,” which reconstructs in minute detail the events of the author’s own life, “Encircling” gives us a protagonist whose past and very identity have been delegated to third parties. The epistolary form is inherently partial, in both senses of that word, and the chapters of “Encircling” are arranged such that David’s biography emerges gradually and unexpectedly; some of the facts I laid out about him above are not, ultimately, quite so simple. “Encircling” explores heady themes—nature versus nurture, how others shape the self, the ethics of writing—but they are underscored by a frequent reshuffling of the reader’s assumptions and a lot of rug-pulling on the part of Tiller, who deploys narrative hooks and plot twists as freely as the crime novelists Norway has also become famous for. (Jo Nesbø, perhaps the key exemplar of so-called Nordic noir, is one of Tiller’s best-known admirers.) The mystery, in this case, is a rarefied one: What would it mean to truly know somebody?
Eventually, the reader pieces together that David was raised on the small island of Otterøya by a mercurial mother, Berit, and that he had a bootlegging grandfather with a taste for fistfights, named Erik. He was a withdrawn and stubborn child prone to long fits of silence. In adolescence, he befriended two troublemakers and got involved first in petty misdemeanors and then in more serious crimes. He moved to the nearby city of Namsos, where he formed close and, for a time, romantic relationships with two artistically inclined loners, a boy named Jon and a girl named Silje. He went to university in Trondheim. As these details are indirectly revealed across hundreds of pages, one senses an aura of unfulfilled promise hanging around David. (Everyone seems to know that he once published a novel.) Ole, a childhood friend whose father had an affair with Berit, seems surprised when he bumps into David as an adult and learns that he is working “as a parking attendant of all things.”