Out Stealing Horses, by Per Petterson

Out Stealing Horses

Going into reading the Norwegian novel Out Stealing Horses (which was a book club selection, not something I likely would ever have chosen myself), I was concerned about two things after reading descriptions and reviews of it. One, that it’s so overloaded with lengthy physical descriptions that it would be slow and boring to get through. Two, that its frequent changes in time and place, its parallel narratives from different stages of the protagonist’s life, would be confusing to keep track of. I was somewhat heartened to see it was only a little over 200 pages. I figured there was a limit to how boring or confusing it could get in that little space.

And I think knowing those issues were looming helped me, at least for a while. Maybe I read a little more closely and focused better, because I knew it was the kind of book that required that. For a while I really didn’t find it noticeably dull or confusing.

But ultimately I wasn’t able to sustain that concentration. I kept my focus like that for probably the first fifty to seventy-five pages, but then I felt things slipping away, and I was indeed bored. I realized a fair amount of what I was reading was no longer registering, as I mostly couldn’t bring myself to care anymore.

I didn’t find the structure to be horrifically confusing, but my sense was I almost would have had to read it at one sitting, or at least in one day, to stick with it. That is, I was OK as I was reading, but when I’d set it down and pick it up a day or two later, I’d have lost track of which part of his life we’re in now, and what ground we’ve covered in each of the parallel stories.

I hate to suggest dumbing the book down, but I wish the author had used some device such as starting each chapter with a date. Just something minor or subtle to lessen the time spent wondering, “OK, so are we back to when he was a teenager again, or what?”

What I like about the book is it deals with important psychological issues, moral issues, relationship issues. But I don’t know that it does so in a way that really connects with me. I felt like the number of times the author-narrator said something interesting and insightful about these human issues was dwarfed by the number of times he went into excruciating detail about things like how the vibrating chainsaw felt in his hands as he cut up firewood.

Not that those long descriptive passages are poorly written. To the contrary, I’m sure it’s a “better” book because of them. It’s just that as a reader I’ve never gotten into that kind of thing. I’m into thoughts and emotions and speech and action. My eyes glaze over when I’m reading descriptive passages.

After I read a chapter of a novel, I’ll probably be able to talk intelligently about the moral dilemma the person faced, why he was embarrassed when such-and-such happened, whether I think it’s appropriate for him to feel the guilt he seems to about this other thing, etc., but there’s almost no chance I’ll remember how he was dressed or what his house looked like or what model car he drove, and in fact there’s a good chance I won’t remember his name.

I just have certain interests, certain strengths and weaknesses I suppose, as a reader.

Even when the book went into the more human stuff, it was more the exception than the rule that it was really getting beneath the surface and enabling me to understand these characters better. The female characters especially remained ciphers.

Which doesn’t necessarily reflect a weakness of the author. The book is written in the first person, and it may indeed be a quite realistic portrayal of what that character would think, what that character would write.

He’s rather a taciturn fellow, who only sparingly and intermittently focuses on emotions and the like. It’s not surprising that he would display limited ability to articulate what’s going on inside other men, and even less insight into women. For much of the book, he lives on his own in a cabin in a somewhat isolated area of Norway. Maybe the book contains such meticulous descriptions of the weather, and the trees, and the work he’s having to do on his cabin, and so on, because that’s the stuff that’s most often present in his consciousness. Reminiscences, interactions with other people and self-reflective moments are also written about, but only in proportion to how much a character like that would focus on such things.

So there’s no omniscient narrator, and the first person narrator isn’t some sort of ideal figure with stunning insight. Instead, it’s a book written from the standpoint of a man who has realistic limitations on just how much and how well he can work through his issues and describe doing so.

That’s defensible, and it’s even interesting in a way to try to appreciate the narrator’s mental world, but it doesn’t make for an easy read, or an eventful book. Important facts from his past, interesting observations of other characters, moments of insight into his own emotions, are doled out in small and infrequent portions.

I thought for most of the book it was telegraphing a certain significant revelation that would make more understandable the kind of person he was, and why it was important to him to try to make peace with his past. But actually that turns out not to be it at all; it’s something—or a few somethings—decidedly more mundane.

There is one more stunning, and very sad, incident revealed in the flashback sections, but it is one the narrator is only peripherally connected to. And even that didn’t hit me as hard as I could imagine in a book by a different author or written in a different style.

It’s not a book with nonstop action, with major surprises, with unusual and extraordinary events and people, but a book about one arguably small life, but still a life that has interesting twists and turns, and events that are crucial to the person’s emotional development. Which is perfectly respectable and worthwhile ground to cover.

It doesn’t go into a lot of depth and provide a lot of obvious answers even about this one life. Like I say, it gives you a little bit here and there in between describing more than you’ll ever need to know about life in rural Norway. But it at least gives you enough to raise the issues, raise the questions, give you things to think about, as far as marriage, fidelity, and divorce; parenting; guilt and indirect or unintentional responsibility for tragic events; the duties and methods of resisting evil; and more.

I’m not sure where this fits best in this piece, but I happened to note a couple places where the author-narrator made intriguing observations that I enjoyed. Here’s one:

People like it when you tell them things, in suitable portions, in a modest, intimate tone, and they think they know you, but they do not, they know about you, for what they are let in on are facts, not feelings, not what your opinion is about anything at all, not how what has happened to you and how all the decisions you have made have turned you into who you are. What they do is they fill in with their own feelings and opinions and assumptions, and they compose a new life which has precious little to do with yours, and that lets you off the hook.

Interesting. It’s those deeper things that I typically want if I’m trying to get to know someone better. I think he’s probably right to at least some degree though, that we usually fill in a lot of that ourselves without realizing we’re doing so. We pigeonhole people into a certain type we’re familiar with (or think we are), or we simply imagine ourselves in their shoes, and then we think we know the deeper stuff when really we’re just transferring over our pre-existing image of that pigeonholed type or of ourselves, not the actual person.

Here’s another passage that caught my attention:

But I was not quite with him in my thoughts, and I wonder whether that is how we get to be after living alone for a long time, that in the middle of a train of thought we start talking out loud, that the difference between talking and not talking is slowly wiped out, that the unending, inner conversation we carry on with ourselves merges with the one we have with the few people we still see, and when you live alone for too long the line which divides the one from the other becomes vague, and you do not notice when you cross that line. Is this how my future looks?

This didn’t jump out at me as obviously true when I read it, nor as “What’s he talking about?” But it spoke to me because I spend way, way too much time alone, and I have no doubt it’s having psychological effects on me, presumably some that are unhealthy. As far as specifically what he’s describing, I have the sense there’s something to it, though I don’t think it fits exactly my experience.

I do find that I’m internal and lost in thought way more than I would be if I were around people and thus needing to externalize more and habituate social norms and be “on,” and I feel like a disproportionate amount of my limited communication (definitely including these essays) intentionally takes a kind of autobiographical form, where I’m attempting to articulate and share with others what is normally my internal stream of consciousness. And I have to think if it were more the norm for me to be connected with people, for them to observe me, converse with me, know me, I wouldn’t have the same urgency to alert folks that there’s interesting stuff going on inside me that they may want to check out—my communication wouldn’t so often take the form of verbalizing my “inner conversation.”

Anyway, relative to what it’s trying to do, I think the book is fine, and it had its moments for me. But to a significant extent the style isn’t what happens to fit my tastes, and I’m unlikely to read more by this author. I think all or almost all the positives that I got from this book could have been covered in a well-written short story of, say, thirty pages.

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