The OF Blog: Kjersti Skomsvold, The Faster I Walk the Smaller I Am

Saturday, June 01, 2013

Kjersti Skomsvold, The Faster I Walk the Smaller I Am

It's getting dark, I'm trying to concentrate on something useful, and the only thing that matters now is to figure out what my last words will be.  "The probability that we're going to die is smaller than ε, if ε equals a microscopically small quantity," I told Epsilon.  It wasn't like me to say something like that.  I wish I'd said something different.

I want to say something meaningul, make my last words rhyme, so I lay awake the whole night trying to think up something appropriate.  I know I'll never get out of bed again.  But then morning comes and I feel so hungry.

Epilson says that, statistically speaking, a given person will probably die in bed.

Maybe I should get up now. (p. 12)

Death is one of life's great mysteries.  We, even those who long for it, never quite can grasp it as being anything much more than the absence of life.  It is the exclamation point for some, for others it merely is a period or even a question mark to punctuate their lives.  It looms large for some of us, while for others, it is a distant cloud on the horizon, one that seems forever far from our daily routines.  But yet it still lurks out there, wherever "there" might be.  Will death find us content and happy with our lives, with children gathered around us, marking a life well-lived?  Or will it discover a broken, despairing soul, fretting over things not accomplished, achievements never done?  Who will find our corpses and what will be remembered about us?  Will there be a monument to our deeds or are we doomed to oblivion?  And when found, will the body be laid to rest quickly, or will it take days, weeks, or even years before our remains are encountered by others?

In Norwegian writer Kjersti A. Skomsvold's debut novel, The Faster I Walk the Smaller I Am, the elderly Mathea finds herself obsessing over these details.  She is lost to memory, it seems, as the past converges with the present so seamlessly that it is wonderfully difficult to decipher at first which is which.  She muses on her life with her statistician husband "Epilson," pondering the improbabilities that make up each life.  She is childless and nearly friendless and these developments disturb her, but her narrative is more than just the sum of her fears:

I can be a lot of fun.  I remember a joke I once made up:  "Have you heard about the man who was so thin his pajamas just had one stripe?"  I asked Epsilon.  "Yes," Epsilon said.  "Impossible," I said, "I just made him up."  "No, I'm sure I've heard of him before, Mathea," Epsilon said.  "Oh, yeah, you're right," I said.  "Come to think of it, I remember a whole article about him in that senior citizens' magazine Over Sixty."  Typical, you think up a good joke and it turns out you've heard it before.  But I laugh anyway, and I tell Epsilon that I'm the funniest person I know.  "You don't know anyone besides me," he says.  "But still," I say.

How sad it is for the world to have missed out on lively Mathea.  But it's sadder for me.  So I'm sad for a moment, but then I decide to bury a time capsule.  I push back the covers, haul my legs out of bed, and put my feet into Epsilon's worn felt slippers.  Then I walk into the kitchen and look under the sink.  Back behind the buckets and rags is an old cardboard box that used to hold bottles of detergent.  Epsilon always buys in bulk, I have no idea why.  The box says "Bulk," and I guess that'll have to be my legacy.  I plop it on the kitchen table and think about it a while.  Finally, though, I decide it won't work.  I need to bury something meaningful.  I know what I have to do. (pp. 32-33)
Skomsvold has created in Mathea a sympathetic character whose musings reflect so many of our own fears and reflections.  She has said in the past that the idea for The Faster I Walk the Smaller I Am was conceived when she was bedridden following an illness.  The thoughts that occurred to her as she laid in the bed was the genesis for Mathea's own cyclical thoughts on life, death, disappointment, and frustrated hope.  There is a quality to the prose that makes it difficult to tell when the author's experience leaves off and the character's fictional thoughts begins.  Mathea's struggle to make sense of her life in the midst of her impending death (or so it seems to her at the time) resonates with readers because she voices concerns that many of us have tried to bury underneath the minutiae of our quotidian lives.  William Faulkner once remarked in Requiem for a Nun that "the past is never dead.  It's not even past."  In Mathea, we see evidence for this, as she recollects little moments shared with her husband, as well as events from her childhood that still affect her in the present.  These recalled episodes are poignant, touching artifacts of a life that later had etched into it fear, loss, and anxiety.  They could be snippets from our parents' lives or from a neighbor down the street.  They feel "real" because Skomsvold never takes the reader out of Mathea's viewpoint.  We do not see if she is senile or sane, demented or brutally honest with her thoughts and actions.  One moment flows into another, the past swirling like an eddy in the current of time, occasionally spilling over into the present.  This is what Skomsvold apparently wanted to explore in her novel and if so, she did an outstanding job in capturing a narrative voice that is at once distinctive and yet universal in tone and rhetoric.  The Faster I Walk the Smaller I Am is a quiet, understated story at first but by novel's end it has become one of those rare works of fiction that move us to think of the ways in which we are akin to Mathea in her waning days.  That is the hallmark of a great novel and this debut certainly deserves to be read and re-read as we pass through our own Shakespearean "ages of man."

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