Perhaps you are already familiar with Per Petterson’s earlier novels, including his international best seller Out Stealing Horses (2003) that won the International IMPAC Dublin Literary Award and has been translated into fifty languages. Petterson, who was born in Oslo, has been widely praised for his dazzling use of language: clean, often brief sentences with minimal punctuation. There’s a sharpness and clarity in every sentence that flows through in Don Bartlett’s rich translation of Petterson’s latest novel, I Refuse. As I was reading it, I though of Hemingway’s briskness, though comparisons have been made to Raymond Carver and others. In short, Petterson’s style is unforgettable, especially his use of understatement.
Plot is not what this novel is about, though there is a story with a beginning and a resolution. Rather, it’s character and perhaps even collective character, because the main characters share a resolve about life—not to become encumbered, tied down to relationships (including family) and place. Several of them say, “I refuse” in the course of their conversations with others—meaning, I refuse to stay the course with the lot I have. They’re going to move on, even if that includes death. The easiest one of these remarks to understand appears late in the story, when one of the two main characters (close to sixty) spontaneously picks up a waitress at a restaurant, takes her to his apartment, where she spends the night.
His way of asking if she is married results in this conversation:
“You must have a ring. Why don’t you wear it.”
“I do have a ring. I don’t wear it because I don’t want to wear it.”
“But doesn’t he want you to wear it.”
Note that the woman’s husband has no name, but he is italicized the first time he is mentioned. And she’s very emphatic. She won’t continue wearing the ring, not for another hour.
There are other life-changing decisions that characters make throughout the novel that are similarly decisive. The two main characters are Jim and Tommy who grow up together as best friends. Jim has a mother but no father. Tommy has a father but no mother. We learn that Tommy’s mother walked out on her family (her husband, Tommy, and Tommy’s three siblings) because her husband was such a son-of-a-bitch. She knew that it was better to sacrifice her four children than stay another day with such a bastard. In the absence of his wife, the husband soon begins beating his children. Some years later, after Tommy has been sadistically beaten by his father, the boy fights back, an incident that so surprises his father that he, too, walks out on the family. Neither parent speaks the “I refuse” mantra, but the decisions are the same—time to change their lives.
Both Tommy and Jim have also made similar decisions in their adult lives, walking out on marriages as well as each other. In the key scene in I Refuse, when the two are about sixteen years old, in 1970, they talk about their friendship while they are skating at night in the midst of winter. They’ve been friends as far back as they can remember and assume they will be close friends for the rest of their lives. It’s a rather mystical moment on the ice, and barely have they vowed that their friendship will last forever than a few minutes later something happens so quickly that the entire future of that friendship is up in the air. It’s a brilliant scene on Petterson’s part as he probes the issues of unpredictability and flux. Pessimistically, he seems to be saying that we have no control at all over our lives. Given that knowledge, people have to think about themselves first. Pessimistic, as I said.
At least half of the novel takes place many years later, in 2006, where the novel also begins with a chance re-encounter between Jim and Tommy, who haven’t seen each another in years. So much for friendship. I won’t dwell on what has happened to them, though it’s important to note that the expectations we observe for their futures in 1970 are reversed a second time in 2006. And, yes, Petterson also draws back into the story the twists and turns of the other characters, especially Tommy’s three younger siblings and his parents.
I Refuse is a disturbing exploration of human interaction and—more frequently—its lack thereof. If you say “I refuse” enough times, you are likely to remain uninvolved, alone by yourself.
Per Petterson: I Refuse
Trans. By Don Bartlett
Graywolf Press, 282 pp., $25.00
Charles R. Larson is Emeritus Professor of Literature at American University in Washington, D.C. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org.