Author: Per Petterson

2010, Graywolf Press

Filed under: Literary

Many reviews of I Curse the River of Time (like this one, from Shelf Awareness) have called it “atmospheric.” A Time review blurbed on the cover says, “Reading a Petterson novel is like falling into a northern landscape painting.” I agree with both assessments, but I found Curse atmospheric and painting-like in that it doesn’t ever seem to move.

It reminded me, oddly enough, of the super-slo-moed Justin Bieber song that made the rounds a few weeks ago. Like the song, Petterson’s novel feels like it was intended to be shorter, but got artificially stretched by 800%. Both song and novel are hard to actively dislike, because both are so unassuming and calm. But both are also hard to focus on, or enjoy, or really get anything out of, besides the vague, disconnected feeling of experiencing them.

Petterson’s novel is about Arvid Jansen, a 37-year-old Communist, who travels to visit his mother when she’s diagnosed with cancer, and he’s just found out his wife is divorcing him. Arvid and his mother have always clashed, especially when a younger Arvid decided not to go to college, but instead to work in a factory like a good little prole. His mother, who worked in factories her whole life, thought it was a stupid decision, and told him so. Since then, they’ve been estranged, emotionally if not physically.

You can find all that information on the flap copy, and you won’t find a whole lot more inside. Arvid’s mother is acerbic and sometimes mean toward him. He loves her despite himself, and sometimes cries. He thinks about his life. That’s the vast majority of the novel: them existing dysfunctionally together, interspersed with Arvid’s memories.

There’s nothing particularly wrong with that premise, but there’s also nothing particularly enjoyable about reading its execution. Petterson’s prose is spare and minimalist—in other words, dry and devoid of personality. It’s tough to dislike because he doesn’t take any risks: there’s nothing to offend anybody, but there’s also nothing that makes it unique. Take this passage, when Arvid talks to a co-worker, on his way home from the factory:

A car came down the street and honked loudly, and we were still standing in the middle of the junction, and then Frank whose name was not Frank said:

“Go get yourself some sleep and wake up fit for a fight,” and I said I surely intended to. Then he crossed to his side, and I crossed to mine and the car drove past and I walked through the arch and crossed to the stairwell and up the two flights of stairs and stuck my key in the lock.

There’s just nothing in this prose that you can sink your teeth into. When a specific incident does come along, its purpose is to reinforce what you first learn about Arvid, not to complicate it or add a different perspective. For instance, that Shelf Awareness review brings up a “Brilliant little vignette” in which Arvid is press-ganged into making a speech at his mother’s birthday, but doesn’t have anything to say. Well, that fits perfectly into the Arvid we know from the jacket copy, and Petterson gives us precious few surprises during our time with him.

Here’s another, more overtly telling passage, in which Arvid expresses his feelings toward his mother:

I shouted:

“Fuck! Fuck!” and I could have flung my old bicycle on the tarmac and ripped the saddle off the pole, twisted the handlebars into an “S” with my hands and stamped the spokes around the hub into spaghetti, or turned around in the middle of the road and raced her to the petrol station and declaimed a sentence that would build a stunning bridge from my heart to hers. But I did none of those things. I just cycled down the street into town, across Gammeltrov, past Dommergaarden with the drunk tank to the right, where once I had been forced to stay the night, and after that I sailed across Nytorv and along the Danmarksgade, which was the main street in this town.

I suppose I simply want more than this, more actual drama, and activity instead of passivity. Or at least a scorching good prose style, or some kind of insight into life, besides the impression that it takes forever.

But there isn’t anything more. Curse feels atmospheric and painting-like, a short story overstretched, told at a glacial pace. It’s hard to hate, but impossible to love.

Similar: Liars and Saints, by Maile Meloy, for a great novel that spans decades; The Sportswriter, by Richard Ford, for phenomenal interiority