Buzz Aldrin, What Happened to you in all the Confusion?
A Novel by Johan Harstad
Translated from the Norwegian by Deborah Dawkins
(2005) 2011 / 480 Pages
The Setup: Buzz Aldrin, What Happened to You in All the Confusion? opens with the line: “The person you love is 72.8% water, and it hasn’t rained for weeks.” From there, Brage Award-winning author and playwright Johan Harstad’s debut—previously published to great success in eleven countries and now making its first English-language appearance—tells the story of Mattias, a thirtysomething gardener living in Norway, whose idol is Buzz Aldrin, second man on the moon: the man who was willing to stand in Neil Armstrong’s shadow in order to work, diligently and humbly, for the success of the Apollo 11 mission. Following a series of personal and professional disasters, Mattias finds himself lying on a rain-soaked road in the desolate, treeless Faroe Islands, population only a few thousand, a wad of bills in his pocket and no memory of how he had come to be there—when a truck approaches him, driven by a troubled, fantastic man with an offer that will shortly change Mattias’s life.
And so, surrounded by a vivid and memorable cast of characters—aspiring pop musicians, Caribbean-obsessed psychologists, death-haunted photographers, girls who dream of anonymous men falling in love with them on bus trips, and even Buzz Aldrin himself—begins Buzz Aldrin, What Happened To You In All The Confusion?, the epic story of Mattias’s pop-saturated odyssey through the world of unconventional psychiatry, souvenir sheep-making, the Cardigans, and space: the space between himself and other people, a journey maybe as remote and personally dangerous as the trip to the moon itself. (from Seven Stories Press)
“It takes vast willpower, luck, and skill to be the first. But it takes a gigantic heart to be number two.”
Oh how we all ache in some way for the attention of the spotlight. At one time or another we’re all desperate to be recognized for what be perceive to be our unique importance. Maybe we seek this from a loved one for simply being ourselves, or from a co-worker for a job well done. Perhaps more ambitiously, we crave it from a legion of adoring fans for being the hottest sensation on the planet. No matter what the case may be, however big or small, we let no one and no thing stand in the way of our aspirations. We were born into this life; therefore it is ours to conquer. Here I am world, adore me.
But not everyone can be a famous actor, Nobel Prize winning physicist, or an award winning novelist. Those people need an audience for their body of work in order to achieve fame. Every movie needs a viewer, every book a reader. Just what’s so bad about being content with living a simple, unassuming life as one of these number twos?
That’s the question put forth by Mattias, a gardener with most amazing singing voice one could possibly possess (yet never use) who lives in Stavanger on the cusp of the new century. All Mattias craves is to live a simple life. As long as he feels he’s serving some purpose, no matter how small, he’s content. Who is the hero in which he chooses to model his life after? That would be the second man to walk on the surface of the moon, the experienced engineer and pilot who held the entire moon landing operation together, Buzz Aldrin.
Things go mostly okay for Mattias for many years, but then rather suddenly, back-to-back, he loses his job and his girlfriend of nearly thirteen years. It’s these two events that lead him to have a breakdown. He wakes up in the middle of a road on the Faroe Islands (Denmark properties that are so small they’re usually omitted from most maps) in the pouring rain with no recollection of how he got there. Eventually he’s rescued by Havstein, a man who runs a post-psychiatric facility in a renovated factory on the island. It’s here, with the help of a quirky group of misfits, that Mattias slowly begins to rebuild his life.
Harstad’s writing (and Deborah Dawkins’ translation of it) shimmers with life. Mattias’ inner dialog reads like a conversation with a trusted friend. He’s spilling his guts out, but it’s never for our amusement or our entertainment. The emotions expressed and explored are honest and universally relatable. Harstad uses sparse language to eloquently state things we’ve all thought or felt at some point in our lives. Through Mattias he questions the very meaning of our existence on this planet and what the end result of all our struggles translates to.
Be forewarned: once you let Harstad and his cast of damaged characters into your life you may find that you never want them to leave. They just might occupy space in your head for a long time after the novel concludes. This is especially true of Mattias, for even though he’s desperate to live out his days as a number two, he shines brightly as the novel’s more than worthy hero. I’ve given this book the maxium rating of five stars, but if it was possible I would bestow entire constellations upon it.