The Voice of Solitude: A Review Of Kjersti Skomsvold’s The Faster I Walk, The Smaller I Am — Mary Stein
When I was a child, I always dreamed of being taken away by an ambulance, and when there was one nearby, I’d cross my fingers and whisper: “Let it be me, let it be me,” but it never was me, the ambulances were always moving away from me, I could tell by the sirens. Now I hear ambulance sirens in the distance again, they should be coming to get me because I’m wearing clean underwear and will be dying soon. But no, there’s someone else in the ambulance instead, someone who is no longer responsible for their destiny. — The Faster I Walk, The Smaller I Am, Kjersti Skomsvold
The Faster I Walk, The Smaller I Am
Translated by Kerri A. Pierce
Dalkey Archive Press
And maybe all we want in life is a sorrow so big that it forces us to become ourselves before we die.
–– Kjersti A. Skomsvold
Norwegian writer, Kjersti Skomsvold, is no stranger to solitude. Skomsvold sequestered herself in her parents’ basement, recovering from an illness that removed her from the comforts of the daily routine of university life, abandoning her plans to become a computer engineer. During her two-year stint of solitude, Skomsvold endeavored to write fiction for the first time, crafting what became the complex and refined interior landscape of her aging protagonist and quiet heroine, Mathea Martinsen. Mathea’s first person account of her own journey through solitude became Skomsvold’s debut novel, The Faster I Walk, The Smaller I Am.
Frankly, the success of Kjersti Skomsvold’s debut novel gives any writer who has ever toiled away at fiction another reason to cry in her beer: The Faster I Walk was not only Skomsvold’s first attempt at fiction (let alone a novel), but also received Norway’s Tarjei Vesaas First Book Prize. The novel was originally published in Norwegian in 2009; Dalkey Archive Press released Kerri Pierce’s English translation in the fall of 2011.
The novel introduces its reader to Mathea floundering in the aftermath of the death of her husband, Epsilon (a nickname used more often than his given name, Niels). Epsilon was the only person who seemed to know Mathea existed; to the rest of the world, she is all but invisible. “[Epsilon] must’ve been born with some superhuman power that made it possible to notice me. The fact that we ended up together is thanks to him rather than me.” To say Mathea leads a quiet existence is an epic understatement––-she has spent almost her entire life waiting for Epsilon to retire. “When Epsilon was at work and I was alone in the house, I didn’t do much of anything … now that I think about it, I didn’t do nearly enough, and nothing mattered anyway.”
But the quiet exterior life is deceptive. Mathea’s voice is nothing short of a combustion engine. Each of Skomsvold’s sentences is electric, rejecting the role of a mind at peace in solitude. The humor and vitality of Mathea’s voice propels the narrative, repelling any automatic sympathies. Mathea is intelligent, death-obsessed, and neurotic and her voice reflects as much.
I remember reading somewhere that the total number of people alive on earth today is greater than the total number of people who have died throughout all time, and I wonder when the opposite will be true, when there will be more dead people than living, because if that were the case, then at least I could be helping to tip the scale in favor of the dead. It would be nice to make a difference.
Mathea’s solitude is rooted in social anxiety and agoraphobia. Confined in her apartment and within her own thoughts, Mathea spends the majority of her time knitting ear warmers, baking meringues or buns and obsessing over social interactions. Now, without Epsilon’s attention, Mathea’s solitude becomes even more oppressive, and she decides to wrench herself away from the self-imposed hermitage of solitude in attempt to leave her mark in the world, hoping somehow to reconcile herself with her own invisibility before she dies. “I’m wishing I could save what little I have left of my life until I know exactly what to do with it.”
A rash of inept and slyly comic social failures ensues. She buries a time capsule at night so no one will see her, but it’s unearthed in order to plant a flag for her housing co-op; she braces herself against going to the store to buy jam, but the clerk doesn’t notice her anyway; she plans to attend a cleaning party with her co-op but loses the courage; she attends a gathering at a senior social center but remains unseen as the hostess accidentally raffles off Mathea’s coat.
But the heart of the story exists within memory where Mathea’s storytelling cracks open to reveal themes of death, pain and obsession. As Mathea rifles through an inventory of memories of her life with Epsilon, she reveals a quiet–-–almost evasive–-–tension between the two of them. Their early affection slowly unravels in part due to their shared sorrow over their inability to have a child, a situation exacerbated when a couple with a baby moves next door. And there are hints that Mathea’s reclusiveness had infected Epsilon, inciting his own despondency. “One day, Epsilon didn’t come home after work. From the kitchen window I’d seen him enter the building, and I’d counted the number of steps he had to take to get to the fourth floor. Finally, I went to the peephole. He was standing right between our door and June’s mother’s, just staring at the stairs.” Skomsvold employs great narrative restraint, artfully revealing the immensity of Mathea’s sorrow without Mathea ever directly acknowledging it herself.
The energy of Skomsvold’s prose compensates for the deceptive languor of Mathea’s remarkably unremarkable life. While she continues to fail at making any impact on her exterior environment, her thoughts, at times erratic, at times endearing, are always probing, intelligent and searching. Skomsvold laces Mathea’s narration with epigrams and self-conscious rhymes—as though the narrator is trying to keep herself entertained. “Every joyful hour in life is paid for with strife. Despite its depressing sentiment, at least this one rhymes” or “I don’t know any better, I’m almost a hundred, just a stone’s throw away, but acting like I was born yesterday. That sort of rhymes.”
Skomsvold uses Mathea’s macabre anticipation of her own death to motivate and intensify her use of this device, especially in the embedded drafts of Mathea’s comic self-obituary (she is writing this through the novel). “‘MATHEA MARTINESEN -–– deeply loved, dearly missed’ I write at the top of a page and underline it. ‘You were always loving, gentle, and kind, you departed this work before your time, with future achievements waiting in line.’”
The simplicity of Skomsvold’s prose veneers Mathea’s stratified consciousness. Apparently minor details are always resurfacing as signs and metaphors of the inner ferment. In one scene, Mathea’s neighbor comes over unannounced and spackles mysterious fork holes in a wall. The fork holes are perplexing. Only later does Mathea reveal their significance, as evidence of an old argument with Epsilon. “Then I walked up to him, grabbed the fork out of his hands, and threw it as hard as I could against the wall. I just couldn’t throw it hard enough.”
In another passage, Mathea is mysteriously drawn to a stranger randomly holding a banana. “… I’m afraid anything I say will ruin the moment. I whistle a bit and try to ignore the banana he’s holding in one hand.” Later, the banana burgeons hilariously into a psycho-spiritual symbol:
It says that even though the banana plant looks like a tree, it’s really just a big plant that has flowers without sex organs and fruit without seeds. Therefore, the banana doesn’t undergo fertilization and plays no role in the plants formation, and when the banana plant has lot its fruit, it dies. It was the meaninglessness of this cycle that made Buddha love the banana plant, which he believed symbolized the hopelessness of all earthly endeavors. … and wasn’t it the Buddha who also said that everything is suffering, and I think that if I’d been religious, I would’ve been a Buddhist, and if I’d been a fruit, I would’ve been a banana.
In yet another passage, Mathea references the tongue as a symbol of attachment. “… I always kiss kiss with [my tongue] because then I know it’s there, the only muscle in the body that’s just attached at one end, a fact I don’t like to think about. It reminds me of everything I’ve lost.” It doesn’t end there -–– throughout Mathea’s narration the existential underpinnings of her solitude begin resurface again and again as she attempts to make meaning of her life.
Mathea’s laconic voice is laced with absurdity and humor, buoying the ironic gravitas of her existential ruminations. The tonal dissonance is the pillar of the novel’s complexity. Skomsvold threads Mathea’s narrative with spiritual, philosophical and mathematical concepts of major thinkers from Schopenhauer, Descartes, HC Andersen, and the Buddha to the Norwegian novelist (one of Skomsvold’s literary forerunners) Knut Hamsun. The title itself is a reference to Einstein’s theory of relativity. But despite the litany of reference, The Faster I Walk self-presents with disarming humility and wry deprecation. As Mathea says, “But sometimes you have to give meaning to meaningless things. That’s usually how it is.”
Eventually Mathea reconciles herself to her solitude without fanfare, but her presence is incandescent. She remains invisible in Skomsvold’s fictional universe––but in no way does Mathea remain invisible in the minds of her readers. Long after the story ends the language continues to coalesce the voice of solitude.
Minnesota native, Mary Stein, currently lives and writes in Minneapolis. She’s a contributor to Numéro Cinq and her fiction has appeared in Caketrain.
Thanks for the review Mary. This novel sounds intriguing. It was great to see you on the shuttle at the AWP conference!
Thanks for reading, Melissa. It was great to meet you again!
Thanks for that perceptive and eloquent review. I’m frustrated; I should be attending a reading by Kjersti Skomsvold today in Bantry, Ireland, but the road (the only road off the peninsula here) is closed due to a fatal accident last night. At least I will be able to get The Faster I Walk … tomorrow, and look forward to reading it. Jim
Good review, Mary.
For a different perspective you might enjoy:
What I particularly liked in your review is (1) the choice of quotes, and (2) this line: “The energy of Skomsvold’s prose compensates for the deceptive languor of Mathea’s remarkably unremarkable life.” That’s spot on.