August 27, 2013

NG: Mundanely Enthralling

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Earlier this year a New Yorker article trendspotted the hottest thing on British TV: Scandinavia. Despite a spate of excellent shows that have seen successful crossovers into the United States like Sherlock and Downton Abbey, the British are more obsessed with Danish crime thrillers like Forbrydelsen (“The Killing”) and political dramas like Borgen (“Castle”). When Prince Charles and Camila toured Denmark last year, they demanded to tour Forbrydelsen‘s set.

These two shows’ foreign popularity not only extends to the British: Borgen was so good that Stephen King dubbed it the best TV show of 2012, even though it was still not legally available in the United States. When Borgen finally was available on PBS, the network aired the episodes as they appeared in Denmark with subtitles: almost unprecedented with the American subtitle-phobic audience.

The popularity of these two Danish TV shows is surprising, but well deserved — they’re really good. And while crime thrillers and political dramas have been done many times before, both shows are unique in their banal, moody and hypermodern darkness. Cloudy skies and a way-too-uncomfortably-stable political environments don’t fade away murder’s intrigue in Forbrydelsen and political dirtiness in Borgen, but accent them. Unlike the bravado found in American inspirations like Law & Order and The West Wing, these shows focus on how the environment slowly wears out the characters that live in quiet desperation. Forbrydelsen was lauded for giving substantial screen time to the victims’ families and the community to show how devastating murder can be. Borgen chronicles a modest politician’s struggle to stay above parliamentary politics’ seedy fray. Somehow Scandinavia has shown that banality, paradoxically, can be exciting.

And such TV has great crossover potential. AMC remade Forbrydelsen as The Killing to disappointing results, but FX’s remake of the Danish-Swedish show Broen (“The Bridge”) may be one of the few times a remake is better than the original. In The Bridge, FX has taken the original show’s premise — a murder on an international bridge that forces police forces from two countries to work together — and transplanted it on the U.S.-Mexico border. The vast swath of political material just from this one locational change made The Bridge one of the best and most exciting shows that debuted this summer.

In literature, the Norwegian author Karl Ove Knausgard is buzzing in the English-speaking world as his 4,000 page autobiography, My Struggle (Yes, like the Hitler autobiography), slowly leaks out volume-by-volume in translated form. The original Norwegian editions have already sold half a million copies around Scandinavia, and the first two English volumes have bought enthusiastic reviews. The New York Times called the first book “arrestingly beautiful,” and the New Yorker enthused over the “morbidly compelling” writing.

The scale and scope of My Struggle has required any discussion of the book with a comparison to Proust’s In Search of Lost Time. Both lack conventional plots and meander into broader topics on love and death in excruciating detail. But their treatment towards details is astronomically different. For Proust, every small action is a burden of romantic longing. An old man’s heart “has already been wounded more than once by the darts of love; it no longer evolves by itself, obeying its own incomprehensible and fatal laws, before his passive and astonished heart.”

For Knausgaard, every action chronicles the sheer burden of life itself. With “the heart, life is simple: it beats for as long as it can. Then it stops. Sooner or later, one day, this pounding action will cease of its own accord, and the blood will begin to run towards the body’s lowest point, where it will collect in a small pool, visible from outside as a dark, soft patch on ever whitening skin, as the temperature sinks, the limbs stiffen and the intestines drain.” Knausgaard’s evocation towards ordinariness is brittle but clear, making his meanderings much more readable than Proust. While Proust’s exceedingly-lush prose often forces readers to resist eye-rolling, My Struggle is too brooding and real to put down. Proust tries a little too hard to reassert an artisanal (and decidedly masculine) individuality that, for Knausgaard, disappeared a long time ago.

All of these works are undoubtedly miserable, but there’s something about their stark contrast to their American counterparts that makes them so refreshingly enthralling, realizing an existential dread that you couldn’t put a name to. Anglo-American literature in recent times, when miserable, tends to be garishly individualistic — Salman Rushdie’s Joseph Anton, with its eye-rolling martyrized third-person prose, comes to mind. And when it wants to tackle the mundane, it tends to feel more like conceptual performance art than an actual book — think of Tao Lin. And both qualities are absent from TV altogether. Even the American remake of Fobrydelsen, called The Killing on AMC, has been mediocre at best and annoyingly hubristic. The most significant contribution such Scandinavian media brings is that misery and mundaneness not only can be captivating, but feel more primal, real, and applicable to our lives. It really does prove that everybody can be unhappy in their own way.

Original Author: Kai Sam Ng