Tuesday, April 15, 2014

Selected Stories by Kjell Askildsen | Review

I read a collection of Kjell Askildsen's shorts stories (technically novella plus short stories) last year, finding him to be a surprisingly interesting writer. I liked the minimalist style and the book was overall quite successful. It was a pleasant surprise, then, when Dalkey Archive offered to send me an advanced copy of their forthcoming collection of additional stories (imaginatively titled Selected Stories), translated by Seán Kinsella. I happily accepted.

The collection, unlike the previous one I'd read, was entirely comprised of short vignettes, with virtually no stand-out story or extra-long piece that draws away from the others. In fact, the first thing that struck me about all the stories in this collection is how similar they all feel. The themes Askildsen touched upon in Thomas F and the other stories in that collection reappear here in full form. Each story is essentially about an apathetic or unhappy middle-aged man. Each story has some kind of weather or nature related theme. There's a lot of drinking, a lot of chain smoking. A lot of connectors between events that never quite pan out. A lot of innuendo. A lot of general melancholy.

Because of Askildsen's propensity for keeping things very, very simple, it turns out that this short collection ends up lacking a bit of punch. The writing is still clear and sharp and perfectly minute, but I didn't get the same overall clarity that I got with the significantly longer Thomas F. The characters aren't particularly distinguishable one from the other, to the point where I strongly suspect that Askildsen had absolutely no intention of them ever being viewed as anything but the same character in a slightly different variation. The obviously recurring character traits - bursts of sudden unexplained anger or violence, smoking and drinking patterns, treatment of women, and general attitude - all tie together so vividly it's hard to view any of them as anything other than belonging to a single male character Askildsen has in his head. I left the book strongly suspecting that this man is either heavily based on Askildsen himself, or is some sort of manly ideal which he's fascinated with.

Either case, quite frankly, would make him an extraordinarily unsympathetic man, even if he's a talented writer.

I have trouble with collections of this kind. My favorite short story collections generally have some sort of loose binding that make them novel-esque, or they have stories that are so different from each other in tone, content and style that I don't feel as though I'm going down the same path again and again. Askildsen's writing is best taken in small portions, then, not read in one sitting (though I actually read half the stories across a few days, then finished the remaining half in one evening). For fans of minimalist prose, there's really no way to go wrong here. Askildsen may not know how to build characters or spin wildly ornate plots, but he knows how to set a mood (typically an unpleasant one), how to make the reader just uncomfortable enough, and to do all this while scarcely using any words. Talent... but I think I've had enough of it for now.

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