T. Singer, Child of God

… 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.

Continue reading “T. Singer, Child of God”