Pete Buttigieg is extremely smart. He knows that more than anyone — he even boasts that he is fluent in seven languages. One of these is Norwegian, which he taught himself at Harvard in the early 2000s in order to read more of the works of Erlend Loe — an author he fell in love with after reading the English translation of his 1996 novel Naïve. Super.
As a Norwegian, I couldn’t help but laugh when I first heard this. First, because Loe is a funny, entertaining, but not very remarkable writer: it’s rather odd to go through the process of learning a whole language just to read him. That said, if you do want to learn Norwegian, Naïve. Super isn’t the worst place to start — it is extremely simple in both form and content.
But there’s something even funnier about this literary passion. In recent years, Loe’s works have moved from something that might understandably appeal to Pete, to an outright attack on him and his base. And maybe Buttigieg’s fascination for Naïve. Super and Erlend Loe in the early 2000s tells us something interesting. For while Pete, who dropped out of the presidential race just yesterday, is still caught up in the naive liberalism and optimism that surrounded the “end of history,” the world around him has moved on.
The Despair of Having No Problems
To be fair, Loe is a decent author and a decent person. And Naïve. Super was a major literary sensation, both in Norway and abroad. With the novel, Loe’s second, he became what Hannah Horvath called a “voice of a generation.” The book centers around a twenty-five-year-old man — also the narrator — who is writing his MA thesis at the University of Oslo, when he suddenly realizes that life is meaningless and quits. He then moves into his brother’s apartment, agreeing to fax him his mail while he is away for business in the United States.
But our narrator doesn’t know what to do with himself. Just weeks after he’d been a well-functioning student, he regresses into making lists of “things I have” and “things that excited me as a child” — while also befriending a little boy in the neighborhood, who seems to share the same interests he had at that age. In his brother’s apartment, he also picks up a book by the quantum physicist Paul Davies about time and the universe expanding — way too much for him to take in.
According to the author himself, it’s a coming-of-age story “about being in your twenties and not knowing what your life will bring, and not being sure that you are in the right place.” The New Yorker writes that “One can easily imagine a promising twentysomething devouring Naïve. Super as he dreams of taking on the world, and then, decades later, remembering the book with wistful fondness.” Quite right!
I also remembered the book with fondness — rereading it, I was surprised by its simplicity. But there is something else curious about the book that sets it very much in its 1990s context: the absence of any real problems or worries. Sure, every twentysomething is a bit emo and should be allowed to be so — but it’s hard to imagine a book coming out today in which the young narrator’s main worry is that time is complex.
This motif appears even more strongly in Loe’s next novel, L. In this 1999 book, the narrator shares a name with the author, Erlend, and he is upset, not because of the mysteries of the galaxy, but that his generation doesn’t have anything to contribute. All the great discoveries have been made, the state is liberal and functioning just fine, and he, at age twenty-nine, has never built anything, either physically or metaphorically.
L marks the end of Loe’s “naive trilogy” about his generation. The mood of the trilogy was captured by critic Tom Egil Hverven: “It absorbs so much of that feeling, this 1990s mood . . . that we are existing after. After modernism, after industrialism, after seriousness, after the fall of the Berlin Wall, after Norway has been built, yes, even after postmodernism or post-structuralism.” Loe’s generation is living comfortably in the liberal end of history. Their problem is that they don’t have any problems. Maybe millennials can relate to some aspects of these books. But I doubt that this theme still rings true.
The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie
Mayor Pete’s story is not exactly that of Loe’s characters from the 1990s. While they get stuck where they are — the narrator of Naïve. Super spends his days banging on a BRIO hammer-and-peg set — Pete traveled the world and built a career. But we can still see why the problem of having no problems appealed to his sensibilities — and why the craving for greatness in a calm, liberal world made him keep reading. (I assume he did, since that’s why he learned Norwegian in the first place).
But while Pete is still embodying the 1990s or pre–Barack Obama feeling that everything is fine (claiming things just need to “get back to normal”), Erlend Loe has moved on — along with the times he lives in. Over the years, his books have become more cynical, satirical, and surreal. In Doppler, a family guy moves out into the forest to live with a moose, and in Fvonk, the main character lets a disillusioned prime minster name Jens move into his house (the now NATO secretary general Jens Stoltenberg).
The leitmotif in Loe’s books since the mid-2000s has usually been a man set apart from society — not fitting into modern, Western life — who is instead drawn to nature, animals, and mysticism. It seems Loe is a serious environmentalist. His most seminal recent works are also his most satirical and political — and they’re certainly not pushing the same politics as Mayor Pete.
Loe’s most important recent work comes in the form of the TV miniseries The Struggle for Existence, in two eight-episode seasons in 2014 and 2015 (written with Per H. V. Schreiner and Bjørn Olaf Johannessen), and the spin-off 2018 book The Animals in Africa.
The Struggle for Existence follows the Polish intellectual Tomasz, who comes to Norway looking for his unknown father but soon finds himself penniless and dragged into hard labor with his fellow countrymen. The Poles are made to sleep on bunk beds in the cellar of a flashy bakery in one of Oslo’s richest neighborhoods. There, they cater to the wealthy residents’ endless demand for further redecoration of their houses.
In this sense, the show has much in common with Bong Joon-ho’s Parasite, with the immigrant workers literally relegated to the cellar while they try to scrape by serving the rich and dumb. In the world created by Loe — rather unlike Buttigieg’s own imagination — the rich are absolutely morally bereft and self-absorbed, but they probably think they are doing the world a favor by being part of the meritocratic elite and providing work for others. They are beautiful families and flawless characters, but the facade cracks up almost immediately.
Poor Tomasz is pushed around and literally fucked over by the whims of his self-righteous employers. It’s biting satire, and the series explores well how these rich people raise their children as precious darlings who can never do anything wrong, and hence end up completely morally bankrupt.
For instance, a teenage girl sees that the choir leader in her church, who she has a crush on, is being given a hand job by one of the other choirgirls (while wearing a glove, to avoid sin). The girl is outraged that she has been spurned and burns the church to the ground. She then comes clean to her father, who thinks she was overreacting, but confirms that he supports her no matter what and helps her hide the crime. If the arsonist is never found, or if someone from a lower class gets the blame, there are no consequences for the girl and her parents anyway.
That’s not the limit of Loe’s lampooning of the rich. Take another character, Vidkun, a dentist with his own clinic, a high salary, and a strange sex drive. In Norway, the name “Vidkun” is directly linked to the traitor Vidkun Quisling, who led the Nazi puppet government during World War II — calling your son Vidkun is like naming him Adolf. The strange name is only briefly remarked upon, and it’s not easy to know for sure, but Loe may well be pointing to elites’ relations with the Nazis during the war.
Vidkun plays a remarkable role in Loe’s satirizing of rich liberals. He appears again in the novel The Animals in Africa, where he is joined by four other well-off Norwegians who share his erotic excitement for animals. The five meet in a lecture about animal welfare, and soon they come together with a great plan: they must go to Africa and fuck animals in order to save them.
Lise, the group’s self-declared leader, finds a company in Kenya called Fauna Fuckers that can help them fuck “the big five” of the African animals for $750,000. They agree and decide they will document the violation of the animals. There’s no lack of good intentions behind their plan — the idea is to use the pictures in ad campaigns that will make the world wake up to the harm our way of life is doing to nature. Yet once they’re in Kenya, this brilliant idea somehow always gets forgotten amid the sexual ecstasy on the savannah. But the main characters enjoy themselves — and tell themselves that they are morally virtuous and doing something important with this project.
I’m not mentioning this in order to say that Pete would embark on such an adventure. But the point is that while Loe’s books have gotten more and more surreal, the metaphor of a global elite, with high education and high opinions of themselves, that travels the world and literally fucks it over, is anything but imaginary. It sounds just like a McKinsey type who can work from everywhere, be it a café in Washington, DC, or a safehouse in Baghdad.
In The Animals in Africa, the members of the group use pretentious consultancy speak to describe themselves and what they’re doing. They underscore the importance of being a stable and robust unit that knows how to discuss and evaluate, even as they rely on large numbers of service workers who are invisible to them — and even though the aim of their project is to fuck a sedated rhino.
Between the lines, and not very well hidden, is a sharp critique of the modern Western upper-middle class, completely out of touch with the reality around them. A class that seems very much like Buttigieg and his base of meritocratic elites, who think they’re morally upstanding just because they recycle their trash and plead for bipartisan cooperation. Loe doesn’t let them off the hook that easy.
The Animals in Africa is a fun read, although it makes a simple and rather over-repeated point (don’t learn Norwegian for this!). Meanwhile, The Struggle for Existence is available on HBO Nordic. I hope it can be shown on HBO in the United States, too — Buttigieg’s campaign has come to an end, but a Norwegian Parasite, written by his favorite author, could be a fun watch during the election year.
Perhaps it won’t be to Mayor Pete’s own tastes, despite the Loe he once loved. The naivete of the 1990s has, unfortunately, been replaced with something darker — real problems like climate change and rising inequality. Buttigieg is still looking back to that past. But his favorite Norwegian, Erlend Loe, knows that the young Pete’s world doesn’t exist anymore.