Frederik wasn’t himself

Nikil Saval

The Danish novelist Christian Jungersen writes topical novels with untopical frames, which appear to be of the moment though they look at the news askance. His second novel, The Exception, came out in Denmark in 2004, when liberal debates about the justness of humanitarian intervention were at their height. Jungersen’s novel was set in the made-up Danish Centre for Information on Genocide (DCIG), where the relations between the office workers appear to mirror the everyday blindnesses and cruelties that supposedly led to the mass slaughters of the 20th century.

His third and most recent novel, You Disappear, came out in Denmark in 2010. (His first novel, Krat, or ‘Thicket’, remains untranslated.) You Disappear is about the contemporary obsession with the supposed capacity of neuroscience to explain every aspect of our emotional and intellectual lives. But rather than narrate the novel from the perspective of someone affected by a neurological abnormality, in the manner of, say, The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night Time, Jungersen makes a ‘normal’ person the narrative centre. The interest turns on the way such people treat the diseased, and how neuroscience transforms, or corrodes, sociability.

Formally, The Exception and You Disappear share an odd feature: non-fiction ‘articles’ (written by Jungersen) are dropped into the story at crucial moments. In The Exception, these pieces take the form of discussions about the institutional conditions and basic resentments that drove ‘ordinary men’ to perpetrate the mass killings studied by the DCIG. In You Disappear, the narrator, Mia Halling, searches for information about the effects of a brain tumour on her husband’s orbitofrontal cortex, and comes across (invented) websites that Jungersen inserts in the narrative.

The presence of these documents sets up a competition with the more obviously fictional narrative and raises the old issue of how novels ought to treat ideas. In The Exception, the language of social science (the Milgram experiments) and human rights, provides a not very subtle interpretive frame in which to view the fictional events. You Disappear makes these documents part of the mental lives of the characters. The information we are given is what the main character acts on, but we read it independently of, and perhaps against, the narrator’s interpretation. ‘It’s as if I’m in some film, where suddenly I can see and hear all the ghosts who walk among us,’ Mia says. ‘People with brain injuries have been here the whole time. I’ve met them, spoken with them, argued with them – and suspected not a thing.’

Both novels – The Exception especially – are also convincingly executed thrillers, hingeing on flurries of revelations and almost stock moments of horror. Told in a clipped, unshowy present tense, The Exception switches between points of view to bring out the paranoid potential of misperceptions among colleagues in an office. Its central mystery arises from a series of death threats that arrive in the inboxes of Iben and Malene, two researchers at the DCIG. At first they suspect a former Serbian general called Mirko Zigic, who has sought asylum in Denmark, and whose war crimes they’ve exposed. Gradually they turn their suspicions to a colleague, Anne-Lise, who works in the centre’s library – attached to the main room, which they call the Winter Garden, one of many allusions to sites of genocide. She, in turn, begins to suspect them of trying to force her out.

Little miscommunications drive the employees further apart, hardening the main faction against Anne-Lise. When she tries to get closer to her colleagues, she receives a violent rebuff. ‘Malene almost throws herself off her chair and walks away. In the doorway, she stops, turns to Anne-Lise, and sneers: “I could reel off hundreds of examples when we’ve paid particular attention to what you wanted. You couldn’t have found a place where your colleagues treated you better; it simply doesn’t exist!”’ Alone, ‘Anne-Lise sits still, breathing heavily, her arms resting on the table. She looks at her arms and blinks several times. This lunch break will come back to haunt her. Everything. Her shaking – they will use that against her as well.’

The slightly comic notion of a haunting ‘lunch break’ is typical of the novel’s tone. The centre’s security code is 110795, ‘the date the massacre at Srebrenica began’. After the death threats, random acts of cruelty begin: someone replaces Malene’s arthritis tablets with placebos, leaving her in chronic pain; Anne-Lise tips over a box on the library shelves that turns out to be filled with blood. These are darker versions of everyday workplace pranks. Jungersen shows the way the sharing out of space in a small office can lead to hatreds:

After more than a week had passed, Anne-Lise felt that she could finally raise the matter of the copier room door. She was in the Winter Garden. Malene and Iben were sitting at their desks and were obviously keen to get back to work. She felt quite awkward, standing in the middle of the floor with nothing to do with her hands.

Malene smiled at her and explained that they had always kept the door open because if they didn’t, the air in the copier room became unbearable.

‘I see, of course. But certainly the best thing would be to leave the window open in there. Otherwise the awful smell permeates the library.’

No one responded.

Anne-Lise went on. ‘And of course the fumes spread to you as well.’

‘We’ve tried leaving the window open, but it gets too cold if you have a lot of copying to do. Your predecessor didn’t have any problem with it.’

Anne-Lise inadvertently raises the issue in their boss’s hearing, and the situation curdles: ‘The others apparently thought Anne-Lise had spoken about the problem within Paul’s earshot on purpose. For the rest of the afternoon, the women fell silent every time she passed through, punishing her for the unpardonable sin of “squealing to the boss”.’ The entire novel operates at this low level of social misery, down to the way the characters perceive each other: ‘Grith, the clinical psychologist … is a tall, thin woman with large, slightly droopy breasts. She has the kind of body that’s supposed to drive men wild. Watching her, Malene thinks that Grith’s erotic pull must be limited to when she sits down or stands still. When her long limbs are moving she looks like an awkward 14-year-old.’

Paranoia tightens its grip on the office and the characters begin sneaking looks at one another’s computers, breaking into apartments – all desperate to find evidence of guilt. Jungersen starts to load the book with writings purportedly by Iben and Malene that remind us of Auschwitz, as well as killings in Turkey, Bangladesh, Cambodia and Sudan, hammering home the question: are we so different? Characters give speeches that point out the novel’s moral too plainly, as when one of them tells Iben that ‘ignoring the small flash of doubt in yourself – that is what evil is.’ Though Jungersen intends to draw parallels between the Khmer Rouge and the workers at the DCIG, between classic ideologues and the bland Northern European petite bourgeoisie, his depiction of the accreting callousness of his characters nicely frustrates them. The workplace comes to evince a bleakness of its own. But in the end, The Exception is overtaken not by atrocity, but by neuroscience. In a cascade of plot twists, it’s revealed that at least one of the characters has been suffering from a dissociative personality disorder. The victory of brain science over social science constitutes a plot twist in its own right.

You Disappear inverts this model, as if Jungersen came to have second thoughts about what he’d done. Here he treats neurology not as a source of authority, but as a social fact among others, a now-default manner of reasoning that is in competition with traditional psychology, and with fiction itself. The novel’s focus on brains turns in on itself; Mia, the narrator, confesses halfway through that ‘my friends have told me it can be obnoxious, all the neurological terms I’ve started using in conversations on almost any subject.’ Jungersen even includes an ‘essay’ describing the threat to novels posed by neuroscience, and, less happily, has his narrator reflect on the gap between the two: ‘The water that envelops us and continues to intrude on us, flowing towards us over flagstone and cobblestone, the water that, a few nights ago on the web, I read could symbolise grief in an old-fashioned psychological novel.’

In tune with this obsessiveness, You Disappear limits the reader’s view of Mia’s husband, Frederik Halling. Halling is an administrator in the school where Mia teaches, brought low by a tumour discovered when he collapses on a family trip to Majorca. The illness proves important in another way, when it emerges that Frederik had been embezzling funds from the school. As his behaviour becomes more erratic, and Mia learns more about the nature of his disease, she tries to remember the moment when he ceased to be normal, a change that bears on his criminal case. She wonders whether she can identify what is normal, and what isn’t. ‘Among all the thousands of chaotic little conflicts and oddities that make up everyday life in a family, what’s the first episode, however minor, that I can point to and say Frederik wasn’t himself?’ She decides that it was the moment when, for an anniversary present, he bought her some special cheese.

In The Exception Jungersen gives walk-on parts to psychologists and other experts to add layers of social explanation to the thriller. He does the same in You Disappear, where the experts become unwitting accomplices to the general willingness to reduce everything to brain science, and to justify any action based on it. Unlike Ian McEwan’s Saturday, in which a neurosurgeon saves his family from an intruder who he realises is suffering from a neurological disease, then saves him by operating on him, in You Disappear the successes of neuroscience are a source of disquiet. Jungersen’s view of things is enjoyably nasty – Mia compares being looked at by a wheelchair-bound friend to ‘being watched by a gigantic half-boiled prawn’ – but the habit his characters share of using neuroscience to separate the healthy from the sick is the primary source of their viciousness. Jungersen shows how information functions as a meddling third character in relationships, affecting our judgments and our actions towards those we live with. When Frederik makes a pass at his son’s girlfriend, Mia tells him to shut up, then grabs a bowl and hammers him on the back with it. ‘Who the hell is he, this strange man who’s broken into my house? Who’s invaded my husband’s body, his head?’ she wonders. She treats him as an intruder, an alien: ‘once I strike him I can’t stop. I bang the bowl down on his back again and again while he writhes and yells that it hurts, that I’m a piece of shit.’

This is a smart variation on the ‘neuronovel’; Jungersen knows how smart, and his tendency to ventriloquise his own good ideas gets the better of him. ‘Our society risks becoming much more callous in its treatment of deviants,’ one of his fake articles reads, ‘and only because we are learning more about ourselves and our brains.’ Not content to spell it out once, late in the novel Jungersen has Frederik chastise his wife in an email. ‘The Mia I married … was so full of empathy and thoughtfulness for her friends, her family and her students,’ he writes. ‘But since my operation, you’ve come to regard all of us as if we’re no more than neurochemistry – mere brains in which everything is rigidly determined beforehand.’