… my writings concern the people in my time period and my cultural circle, and that counts not least for T Singer. What you call ‘internal neglect, or rather obscurity’, and which I most likely would have called something else (did you know that I considered naming the novel about T Singer Child of God?), is meant as an attempt to find an adequate expression for precisely this.Interview with Dag Solstad
I remember reading a book when I was younger, a sort of self-help spiritual memoir kind of thing that sought to offer advice on how to live a good life. It made an analogy between making a movie and living your life and one of the punchlines was that nobody would watch a movie about a guy who wants to buy a Volvo. Don’t be the Volvo-buying-guy, it said, but live a better, more interesting, more exciting life: live the life that would make a good movie.
I thought about this earlier book, with its life-is-a-movie-so-make-it-a-good-one message, after I finished Dag Solstad’s puzzling, funny, infuriating, uncomfortable, T. Singer. It is a novel that could be described as “aggressively boring” (James Wood provides an excellent introduction to Solstad’s work here). It would not make a good movie.
When I was that younger man, reading self-help spiritual memoir kinds of things, I would not have thought to question the idea that my life was a movie in which I played the starring role (as well as providing the direction and script). The idea that life is essentially a series of plot choices which I control is a comforting one. It is also a delusion. It conveniently turns everyone you encounter into supporting actors and actresses for your starring role, for example. It fails to account for the non-sequitur of suffering and the way it can run your carefully revised script through the existential shredder, for another.
Partway through the novel, the narrator of T. Singer pauses and confesses: “… it has to be admitted that at this point in the story it may seem mysterious that Singer could be the main character in any novel at all, regardless of quality, but here it can be divulged that it’s precisely this mysteriousness that is the topic of the novel, and attempts will be made to turn this into reality.” Really, truly, you have to trust me when I say this book would not make a good movie. James Wood describes Solstad as writing about “people who are not quite the protagonists of their own lives.” I think this is true, and the question the reader confronts after finishing a Solstad novel is whether any of us are protagonists of our own lives.
In the life-as-a-movie book the author described a variety of different stories that strike me now as slightly more upmarket ways of buying a Volvo. I remember cool experiences, cool relationships – it was all very cool, cool, cool. Packing school lunches in the morning and paying the residential sewer bill by the fourth of the month did not come into it. I should confess that my memories of the book may be distorted by the proliferation of life affirming hashtags attached to exotic vacation photos that has occurred in the intervening years.
While T. Singer could be described as a book where nothing happens, that is not quite right. Instead it is better described as a book where nothing meaningful happens. There are significant events, but Singer does not experience them as significant. It is Camus without the figure of the existential hero to provide solace to the reader. There is no Dr. Rieux visiting the reader’s bedside to soothe our anxiety when confronted with the absurd. It is Dostoevsky without Father Zosima’s speeches to make the case for God and his good creation.
Solstad achieves a sense of meaninglessness through a variety of techniques including a looping, repetitive prose style with minimal dialogue (but plenty of claustrophobic internal monologue). He also makes sure to squash any developing narrative shape or form. There are long sections devoted to trivia, to Singer’s anxious ruminations on social slights that may or may not have happened, while a tragic death, arguably the most significant event in the novel, is described in a single paragraph. If you want to learn about hammer throwing in rural Norway in the 1980s, this is the book for you.
Towards the end of the story, the narrator notes: “By the way, in every novel there is a big black hole, which is universal in its blackness, and now this novel has reached that point … we find ourselves together with Singer in a novel that is like a big black hole. Why is Singer the main character in this novel? And not only the main character but the one around whom everything revolves?” It is not clear whether we are meant to laugh or to cry by the time we reach the depths of T. Singer’s black hole. Probably a little of both. I like that “by the way,” by the way. Oh, by the way, let me remind you of the abyss.
Singer’s distinct personality traits (shame, loneliness, detachment, a desire for the routine) are extreme, but the extremity only serves to highlight the more general human condition in the essentially nihilistic vision the novel advances. Singer is unable to generate any framework in which his decisions, his life, can make sense and have meaning. It is not that he does not have agency, it is that that agency is not exercised towards any meaningful end (key moments in the narrative turn on chance, on arbitrary choices regarding possible routes to different locations etc.). How to continue on?
“The days passed, one after the other, and were gone without him really missing them, but now and then he would be taken aback and think: Where did they go? He didn’t know whether he was happy or unhappy; but I can’t be unhappy, he thought, it would be meaningless to make such a claim. Although, I might be, but my unhappiness is the kind that it would be meaningless to point out. Even to myself.” It seems like a mistake to think that this condition is particular to T. Singer and his unique personality. The “irreparable loneliness, or distance” that marks his life is perhaps just better disguised in people whose personality traits fall more towards the middle of the bell curve. Thinking of yourself as the star of a movie is an attempt to avoid the gravitational pull of questions of the ultimate. The black hole referenced at the end of the book is a part of every novel, and every life.
I came across the interview with Solstad linked at the top of this post after I had finished the novel, and I was struck by his parenthetical remark, regarding the alternative title, Child of God. I would have enjoyed the irony if he had decided to go ahead with it, as religion is entirely absent in T. Singer. In the Christian story T. Singer, boring, shame-filled, lonely T. Singer, so inconsequential that he is not even given a first name, bears the image of God, along with every other human being. He is invited, with everyone else, to become a child of God through faith in Jesus (as the first chapter of the Gospel of John states, or as Paul writes in the third chapter of Galatians). This is an invitation, a story, that may simply be unbelievable for those in Solstad’s “time period and cultural circle” but he illustrates what life looks like absent such an invitation (and without the consolations of any of the typical half measures we might employ to hide the black hole or distract ourselves from its existence).
The Christian story does not make any promises about a starring role in the drama of existence, or that faithfulness will result in a particularly interesting life. It does offer an alternative to the black hole. Or rather, it introduces a a new source of gravity, where to be on the margin of your story, to not quite be the heroic protagonist you imagined you were, is no longer a source of shame, because you are participating in a better story. Rowan Williams, in his little book, Being Disciples, describes what it is like to imagine oneself a child of God: “You have an identity not because you have invented one, or because you have a little hard core of selfhood that is unchanged, but because you have a witness of who you are. What you don’t understand or see, the bits of yourself you can’t pull together in a convincing story, are all held in a single gaze of love.” The witness, to be clear, the source of that single gaze of love, is God.
There’s still a black hole here, an inescapable gravity if one draws near to it. It is an end to aimless wandering through empty space, but also to the delusion that you were ever in control of your life. Instead you are crushed in the gravity of a love that exceeds your understanding. You are shaped and transformed through the journey, you are conformed to the image of Christ, as Paul puts it in Romans. This is not so much unbelievable as unacceptable to those who wish to star in the movie of their life (and, of course, I still spend many of my days indulging this fantasy). But who, in the end (the ultimate end) is watching that movie?