Wednesday, May 11, 2022

Men in My situation, a review


Last night I finished Men in My Situation by Per Petterson, published in 2022.  I didn’t initially understand the title, because Arvid Jansen had experiences and was engaged in activities that didn’t seem common.  But now that I’ve finished it, I do see some commonality.  There are differences, but to some extent I also am a man in Arvid’s situation and so at the end can identify with him.

Arvid came out of a blue-collar environment and educated himself through reading – something my grandmother did and encouraged me to do: Books are out there on whatever subject you are interested in so you can, if you are smart enough, read whatever you like and become whatever you want.  I took my grandmother’s teaching to heart and even though I did go to college I was reading alongside what I was being taught, whatever I liked.

Arvid chose to become a writer.  He admits to being successful, beyond what would have been achieved if he’d taken a job in keeping with his blue-collar background.  A consequence of that choice was that he had educated himself beyond his family and friends, which is a form of alienation.  My own background was similar to Arvid’s.  I was raised in walking distance of the Wilmington part of the Los Angeles harbor. My parents and the parents of everyone I knew worked in some relation to that harbor.  My father was a lumber-carrier driver, which I did for a while part time during my college days.  My stepfather was a truck driver and got me into the Teamsters Union where I could work part time out of the Hiring Hall loading and unloading trucks on the docks.  

Then, as was the case with Arvid, my education qualified me for something beyond my blue-collar background.  A difference however was that when I entered the engineering department of Douglas Aircraft company there was a break with my past.  I no longer lived amongst or worked with the people who worked on the docks.  Arvid and I had become interested in the matters we read in books, books of little interest to the people we were raised among.  Arvid, however, became a writer, and until he became so successful, he could move away, he had to stay amongst the people he was raised with.  He had to endure the alienation commensurate with his intellectual interests. 

As happened to Arvid and most of us, perhaps, our initial marriage-partner-choice turned out to be bad.  Even though I married my first wife after three-years in the Marine Corps, I was only 20 when that happened.  What happened next was different.  Arvid gravitated toward a life of one-night stands; whereas I found someone who was very different from, and much more suitable for me than,  my first wife.

Arvid and I were separated from our kids at some point, but, except for the youngest, my kids were grown.  My son stayed nearby and while my daughters, live out of state, Utah and Idaho, I talk to them regularly by phone.  Arvid’s wife Turid denied Arvid any further contact with his children after he had a driving accident and injured his eldest child, Vigdis.  There is a heart rending conclusion when Turid turns Vigdis over to Arvid with instructions that he is to admit her to a mental institution.  At first he intends to comply, but with Vigdis standing next to him, he can’t do it.  If not that he is supposed to have her examined by a psychiatrist, but by this time Vigdis, is in the more agreeable presence of her father, and is coming out of her funk; so Arvid and Vigdis decide to spend the day driving.  One concludes that Vigdis’s “problem” was her inability to accept her mother and her mother’s friends; which Turid concluded was a result of mental instability, but once Vigdis is in the more rational presence of her father, she becomes her old self.  Arvid does not always make the right choices, but Vigdis understands him and can work with what he does and who he is.   

I read many of the Amazon reviews of this novel, and the frequent one-word summation was “sad.”  In modern hermeneutics which I take to include literary criticism, the text is not complete in itself.  The reader is part of the critical process.   Criticism of this novel, one would hope, could advance beyond the word “sad.”  

If we consider our species, for most of it we didn’t live beyond the age of 30.  To become 40 was to become an old man or woman.  Perhaps we are not emotionally equipped, most of us who are in Arvid’s situation, to stay in one relationship beyond the age of 35.  Petterson ends his novel when Arvid has reached the age most hunter-gatherers are at the end of their lives.  We men in Arvid’s situation now experience a period of sadness when our initial relationship, but no longer (for most of us) our lives end.  But inasmuch as our lives don’t end as well, for most of us, that sadness isn’t perpetual.  We learn from it, if we are rationally disposed, and make better choices in the future.  Will Arvid do that, make better choices in the future?  His 16 year old daughter will, if she is truly mentally stable as Petterson suggests at the end of his novel, will want to marry when she is 20.  She will then make the same mistakes that women in her situation will.  Perhaps by the time her mistake becomes clear, her father will be in a more stable relationship and thus be a stabilizing influence.  Perhaps her breakup before she is 40 will be easier than Arvid’s, for surely as a species we must be learning from all those previous breakups round about.  Or, perhaps Arvid and Turid’s breakup has been so traumatic for Vigdis, that she will wait until she is in her late 20s or early 30's and then marry wisely.  Some people, I’ve read someplace, actually do.

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