Carl Frode Tiller’s Encircling trilogy starts from an unlikely premise. David, a thirty-something resident of Trondheim, Norway, has lost his memory. He puts an ad in the local paper asking for people who knew him when he was young to write to him and fill him in on his early years. In effect he asks them to write him an identity.
He gets a number of lengthy replies. The first volume of the trilogy, also called Encircling (published in 2007 and translated into English in 2015 by Barbara Haveland), focused on David’s late-teenage years in the small fishing and sawmill town of Namsos in Trøndelag County, north of Trondheim. We read the testimonies of Jon, David’s high school friend and first lover; Arvid, David’s stepfather and a former pastor, with whom he lived from the ages of about twelve to eighteen; and Silje, David’s teenage girlfriend after he rejects Jon. It’s a backstory of clever, damaged kids, struggling with parents who don’t understand them and whom they, in turn, fail to understand, experimenting with alcohol, sex, and “art” as ways of finding “meaning”—as clever kids do. But as yet we don’t know what the frontstory is.
Encircling 2: Origins (2010, translation 2017) went further back, to David’s early childhood in a family of “hick farmers” on the island of Otterøya, with testimonies from Ole, with whom David once played at Indian camps (“the brush shelters, the totem pole with its intricately carved bark, the smoking campfire with the ring of stones around it…and in it a bunch of small boys sitting, standing and walking around with quivers on their backs and bows slung across their chests”) and who is now struggling to make his living from farming; Tom Roger, another childhood friend, who describes himself as a “tinker”; and Paula, a woman who was working in the maternity ward at the time of David’s birth and who now lives in an old people’s home in Namsos. This is a story of lawless children, living in an area that would officially be called “economically depressed” but which they think of as the arse-end of nowhere; by their early teens their pastimes are stealing stuff and dodging arrest, not always successfully. David will escape from this world, but everyone else is trapped by their circumstances.
In 2014 Tiller published the third volume, Aftermath, and Haveland’s translation has just appeared. Here we meet Marius, the disaffected son of mega-rich fish farmers; Susanne, David’s left-wing feminist friend from university and his former lover; and finally we hear from David himself—now a struggling author living in Trondheim, in a tension-filled arrangement with his moneyed partner, Ingrid, Ingrid’s teenage daughter, and the couple’s baby boy.
Altogether then we have nine versions of David’s life, including his own in early middle age. And we have nine competing versions of the social history of rural Norway from the 1980s to the present. (Aftermath nods explicitly to Knut Hamsun’s spirit-of-the-age August trilogy as one model for this series.) Each of the long epistles to the past is embedded within a first-person account of the narrator’s life in the summer of 2006, when David’s request appears in the papers. These interior monologues are almost uniformly bleak, and very often delusional.
Arvid is in a hospice with terminal cancer, having lost his faith and any friends he once had; Silje’s ambitions have contracted to enduring a miserable relationship with her husband, a pedantic shopkeeper; Ole is caught in the middle of a grim battle between his mother and his wife; Tom Roger is out of prison, trying and failing to behave well. Embattled, lonely, misunderstood, each of the narrators struggles with being in the world. We encounter them all in the middle of domestic arguments that Tiller anatomizes in painful detail, from the microaggressions of a sneer or a jibe to the macro of physical violence. Paranoid, drunk, and hyper-alert to humiliation, Tom Roger hits his girlfriend when she laughs during sex, and habitually at other times too:
Feel my knuckles connecting with her front teeth. That feeling of front teeth giving slightly, wonderful feeling…. Look at her as I zip up my fly. Smile calmly, coolly. And Mona puts a hand to her mouth and cries softly. The blood seeps between her fingers, red blood on her slim white hand.
This is a portrait of a society in which there is very, very little joy—or rather, a society in which pleasure, or even simply survival, always comes at the expense of someone else.
For each of the narrators the gap between how they feel and how they appear is chasm-wide. And this is also true of their reconstructions of life in the past. When we read Jon’s account of his first tentative explorations of sex with David, we believe in the intimacy, and the care. But when we come to Silje’s account we are forced to recalibrate. She presents Jon as a whining hanger-on, repeatedly threatening suicide unless David is nice to him. Everyone remembers David’s relationship with his sanctimonious pastor stepfather as bitter and strained, but Arvid remembers the good bits. Or does he make them up? Who is right? The nine linked novellas together add up to a slow-moving psychological thriller, except that apart from the general question of David’s paternity (his mother refused to divulge his father’s identity, and nobody can quite decide how much David minded), there appears to be no mystery to be uncovered, just life.
This is life at the outer edges of Norwegian metropolitan society. Namsos is a municipality with a population (including the islands) of around 13,000. The town is about 120 miles north of Trondheim, and nearly 450 from Oslo, which might as well be in a different country for the amount of notice anyone in the novel takes of it. Tiller stretches the reader’s credulity when he asks us to imagine that David has had equal access to the very different lives the narrators remember for him (as a member of a youthful criminal gang stealing and refitting motorbikes, an arty kid at school, an aspiring writer bumming around Central America after university), but his device is calculated to get us right inside this small-town world, with its social divisions as well as its social cohesions.
One of the cohesions is language. Nearly all the characters we meet, of whatever class, speak a local Trøndelag dialect, and this unites them in opposition to urban, middle-class Norwegian society, and Oslo in particular. Early on in volume 1, Jon and David go on a camping trip, putting on airs and pretending to be well-off visitors from Oslo, rather than locals from up the road, until they forget and switch back into dialect, whereupon they are thrown out of the campsite. Real city types may be tolerated, but not fake versions. In volume 3 Marius is incensed by his brother’s pose of urban sophistication, achieved in part by “talking like a southerner,” “in a perfect Oslo drawl.” Refusing to talk posh isn’t just about class, but about the pride of being a northerner.
Tiller writes in Nynorsk, or “new Norwegian,” one of two official written Norwegian languages (the other is Bokmål) that were introduced in opposition to Danish in the latter half of the nineteenth century. Nynorsk is by far the less popular of the two. About 15 percent of the Norwegian population are taught Nynorsk in school, and rather fewer choose to read and write it in adult life. The language was developed by the philologist and poet Ivar Aasen, who based the new standard on the dialects of rural Norwegians (as they were spoken around 1850) rather than the Danish-inflected language associated with urban centers. Writing in Nynorsk, as I understand it, is often a political choice—it’s associated with a reassertion of regional power, minority cultures, and an anti-EU stance—but also an aesthetic one.
Champions of Nynorsk regard it as more “poetic” than Bokmål. It’s the language of nineteenth-century farmers and fishermen, with a rich vocabulary answering to the rhythms of the natural world. In volume 5 of Knausgaard’s My Struggle, Karl Ove is the drummer in a rock band in which the singer, Hans, is described as a young man who “was interested in politics, against the EU, wrote in nynorsk.” When Hans translates Karl Ove’s lyrics into Nynorsk, “they sounded good, better than before.” And while I have no reason beyond coincidence to think that Hans is a version of Tiller himself, it is worth noting that Tiller is described in the blurbs for each of his books as “until recently, a member of the rock band Kong Ler.”
Much of the publicity surrounding the trilogy has focused on the effect of the clashing viewpoints that build a sense of David’s identity. (The first volume won the English PEN award and the European Prize for Literature.) Tiller has been described as the “anti-Knausgaard.” While aspects of Tiller’s autobiography are threaded through the novels—touring in a rock band, traveling to Central America, trying to make it as a novelist—the narrator is never straightforwardly the author. David is the missing center of the three books, not unlike the silent figure at the center of Rachel Cusk’s Outline trilogy, though here the voices are handed over to disparate others (or so it appears), all of whom contradict one another. But if the novels were really intent on revealing that “identity is not a monolith but a collage,” as the blurb on the cover of volume 3 puts it, this would be banal enough fare. The reverse might equally be true, and—as David’s therapist suggests in Aftermath—the ill-fitting versions of David may prove that we are little more than “situation-appropriate personas,” with no coherent identity at all.
But Tiller’s seven-year project seems to me far more ambitious than any of those interpretations would suggest. He is not so much interested in how we are formed by the perspectives of other people as in how we are destroyed by them. Again and again his characters battle to maintain a sense of self in their encounters with others, and again and again they lose the battle. I use the phrase “again and again” advisedly. Tiller’s narrators repeatedly use the same stock phrases, in an almost incantatory manner, to describe their reactions to other people. And not only do they borrow one other’s words in order to explain what is happening to them, but they all seem to be experiencing the same mental breakdown. In a series of novels that appear to aim for social and psychological realism, this echoing of one character’s voice in another’s is decidedly strange.
All of Tiller’s narrators are obsessed with facial expressions. They can tell the difference between an agonized smile, a grim smile, and a wan smile. They can pick up “a hint of irritation in his eyes and his voice.” They are paranoid readers of other people, with a heightened awareness of the distinctions between what is said, what is expressed (through the face), and what is felt. It’s like reading a radically pessimistic version of Erving Goffman’s theory that the self is a performance, and everyday social interaction a theater in which the aim of all the actors is to avoid shame and embarrassment. (Tiller even inserts phrases into the dialogue that read like stage directions, such as “Brief pause,” and at least one of the sections—Silje’s—was initially performed as a play at the Trøndelag Theater.) No one in these books gets further than an encounter with the outside of another person, and no one avoids shame, humiliation, and embarrassment. The language of psychotherapy is everywhere, but it is used as a weapon rather than a cure.
It is exhausting to be in the company of these characters, and there were times when I did not want to read on. Paula, an outwardly sweet old lady who for years facilitated the sexual abuse of her son by her husband (her survival came at the expense of her boy’s), recognizes the “blind fury” in her son’s eyes when she asks him, “still smiling,” for forgiveness. But she does not recognize the person behind her son’s eyes. It is not that empathy fails but rather that it does not exist. And unlike in Beckett, say, or Iris Murdoch, who both were interested in our inability to truly recognize others, none of this is leavened by humor. I wonder if I have ever read a set of novels that offer such a gloomy account of the possibilities of communication.
I didn’t want to spend time with these characters, yet I felt intrigued and even compelled to read on. Something puzzling happens to the narrators as they unfold their stories, and I wanted to work out what was going on. Nobody communicates, but everybody seems to feel and act the same, as though they’d become infected with one another’s words. They are astonished by what comes out of their mouths. In volume 1 Jon is shocked by his own voice in an argument with members of his rock band: “The words burst out of me. I hear how angry I sound, angry and determined.” Silje surprises herself by articulating feelings (again and again, in an argument with her husband) that she did not know she felt: “I hear what I say and I hear how genuine it sounds, and I’ve no idea where this is coming from.” In volume 2 the same phrases recur in Tom Roger’s narrative: “I hear what I’m saying, feel more and more surprised to find myself saying this, I’ve never seen it this way before.” On the next page he says it again. And then again: “I hear what I’m saying. I don’t know where all this is coming from, I can’t remember ever thinking anything like this before, but it’s true what I’m saying, it’s absolutely true.”
By volume 3 the general psychological breakdown has intensified so that the narrators seem to have lost all control over their own speech, not only uttering thoughts they didn’t know they had, but speaking without knowing they have spoken. Marius wonders: “Did I say that, I wasn’t aware of it, but if he says I did, then I must have.” David blasts his in-laws in a voice that isn’t his own: “I don’t know where it comes from, that voice, it just comes.”
We know where the voices come from, of course. They belong to Tiller. The postmodern game of pointing out the author who is orchestrating the behavior of this set of characters on the page initially seems to sit uncomfortably with the novels’ investment in realism—the dedication to peopling the sawmills, fish farms, hospices, and care homes with believable characters, rooted in a shared history. But Tiller is less interested in life in 1980s Namsos than in the stories people tell about life in 1980s Namsos. The varied accounts of David’s youth build not to a judgment on David but to a judgment on the ethics of writing.
It is unclear to me whether Tiller knew this was the kind of book he was writing when he started out. The first volume could plausibly be read as a novel about competing versions of a singular identity, although I think this would be a thin interpretation. Not so the last. Aftermath is explicit about the way writers use and manipulate personal histories and do harm to the people they know. The weird game that Tiller plays with his narrators, making them do and say things that surprise them, including beating up their lovers (it’s Tiller, not Tom Roger, who harms Mona, and he wants to think about that), is just the canary in the coalmine.
Toward the end of volume 1, Silje casts doubt on David’s claims of amnesia, and this comes as a relief to the reader, who thinks, It’s not just me, then, who finds this premise unrealistic. Silje suggests that David’s newspaper request for people to write his memories was a kind of art installation—like his teenage experiments with the boundaries between art and real life, but reaching far beyond dressing in black and writing emo lyrics to tunes on the guitar. He once left a woman’s scarf at the scene of a fatal car accident, claiming it was art, unmoved by Silje’s protests over the cruelty of the act: the partner of the dead man would doubt his fidelity at the moment she had lost him. Silje decides to write her letter anyway and join in on the art project.
But at the end of volume 2, her theory is overturned. Paula is convinced that the newspaper ad springs from David’s genuine desire to discover, before it’s too late, who his father was. She has a bombshell to deliver, though it doesn’t concern his father’s identity (which we learn in Aftermath nonetheless). Instead her revelation is that David has spent his life not knowing who his mother was either, because, as the assistant nurse in the maternity ward, Paula switched two babies at birth and gave David to the wrong mother. If this were another genre, Paula would be the demonic fairy godmother, dispensing chaos and hurt. Suddenly, nearly eight hundred pages into the trilogy, the reader discovers that there is a mystery after all. It’s a brilliant way of maintaining suspense—but it turns out in volume 3 that this Shakespearean mix-up is not the heart of the mystery. There is a further revelation that has to do with writing, and it is embedded in the letters to David from Susanne, his former lover.
Susanne’s narrative is painful to read. We meet her in her forties, single, a feminist activist, misunderstood by her friends and battling with her mother and sister. She tells the story of her relationship with David, whom she met at university and for whom she left her husband. When David, disaffected and blocked with his writing, decides to seek inspiration in Central America, she leaves her small daughter with her ex-husband for some months to accompany him. An atmosphere of dread hovers over Susanne’s story. We know it’s going to end very badly, and it does, not because of any “real life” event, but because David’s portrait of her in an early autofictional novel has appalling consequences for her personally.
In effect David’s novel is the catastrophic real-life event. His account of his Central American journey twists Susanne’s anxiety about the daughter she has left back home in Norway into a portrait of an unnatural mother, a feminist whose lack of a maternal instinct enabled her to leave her child on another continent. When the book is published Susanne is in the midst of a custody battle, but she feels so shamed by this public portrait that she gives up the fight before it has properly begun. She describes the publication of the book as a “rape,” and she is out for justice:
In precisely the same way as a victim of physical rape I had been used as a device in your novel. You transformed me from a person into an object with which to satisfy your literary needs…. It was as if you viewed the world purely as a story and were interested in it only in that way. Everything you experienced, everything you saw, heard, smelled, or felt, every situation in which you found yourself and everyone you met, everything, absolutely everything was a story to you, a story you adapted, put your own stamp on, and then retold in your writing.
Nor does it help that David’s own account of himself is unflattering. Susanne repudiates the idea that laying “yourself bare in your novel,” describing himself “as an asshole and a common drunk,” constitutes “honesty, outspokenness and fearlessness.” Instead they are signs of destructive egotism: “Naturally you were capable of comprehending that I and others would be hurt and upset by what you had written, but you were not capable of absorbing this, you understood it, but you didn’t really feel it.”
We know this story. We are familiar with the scenario in which the selfhood and even the identity of writers’ husbands, wives, parents, or children are damaged by the publication of a novel. Sometimes, as in the case of Linda Boström Knausgaard, the spouses and friends are writers too, and they can narrate their own version, rather like the letter writers in this novel. But Susanne is a character in a book rather than a real-life wife, and her options are therefore wider. She chooses not to take back control of her own story by rewriting it according to her own experience, but to take revenge on David by writing his biography instead. And she doesn’t do it by giving “her point of view” on David’s past. She’s much cleverer than that. She gets other people to write it for her.
The novels keep us guessing. There are either nine writers of this series (the letter writers) or there are two: Susanne and David. Although at the same time there is only one: Tiller. Toward the end of Aftermath David, who, as a novelist living in Trondheim, is the narrator closest to Tiller, has an argument with his boorish American father-in-law, who keeps telling him he should be writing about “the biggest, most crucial issue of our time,” which in his view is the war against fundamentalist Islam. “Fucking yank,” says David under his breath. And then the voice takes over:
“Suppose I had been a victim of incest as a child and that as an adult I had used literature as a form of therapy, that I had written myself back to health, so to speak. In such a situation how do you think I would feel if someone were to tell me that unfortunately this topic wasn’t important enough and that I really ought to write about Islamic fundamentalism or the climate crisis, or famine in Africa, come to that?” I say, my voice shaking slightly. I glare at him. He hadn’t seen this coming, I can tell, he doesn’t say a word, simply sits there staring at me, openmouthed. “Because, you see, I would take that as an insult, it would be like being abused all over again, in fact!” I say, my hand trembling with fury as I pick up my glass and take a sip of wine.
Writing occupies both sides of the violent encounter. Susanne has been violated by David’s published portrait of her, losing part of her life as a consequence. The trilogy offers nothing like an optimistic take on the power of writing to right such wrongs—there are no happy endings. On the contrary, Tiller’s structure of competing narratives repeatedly emphasizes how people are always manipulated and misconstrued in others’ life stories. Yet the books do suggest that accessing a voice—not necessarily your own, but from wherever it comes—may be one way of channeling the fury and shouting back.