If melancholy can be sweet, then The Faster I Walk, the Smaller I Am (Dalkey, 2011) is just that. Kjersti A. Skomsvold’s debut novel, which won Norway’s Tarjei Vesaas's debutantpris (2009), provides a brief, sentimental glimpse into what it means to be lonely. The gloom of such a weighty (and tried) theme is relieved, refreshingly, by the narrator, Mathea, an aging introvert who is charmingly naïve, occasionally funny, often whimsical, but always … sad.
Mathea Martinsen, fragile in mind, body, and soul, nears the sunset of her life. For reasons not fully explained, she is easily intimidated by the outside world, especially by other people. The causes are both real and imagined. At the grocery store, for example, cashiers ignore Mathea completely. For them, she represents just one face in a thousand that they will serve that day. This fact is devastating: “I just pack my groceries into my bag and go. And if I was kidnapped five minutes later, and the cops came by and showed him my picture, the boy would say he’d never seen me before in his life.” Even though she is desperate for attention—from anyone—Mathea cannot muster the courage to engage anyone in conversation. The abyss between Mathea and the rest of the world is just too immense.
The Faster I Walk… reveals the sad trappings of life at its loneliest, but in such a way that does not depress. Eagerly she reads the newspaper each morning in order to discover who has died before her own time is up. That she hasoutlived the deceased is a sense of pride, until Mathea realizes that while she lives and breathes, she is nobody. Only upon her death, when her name is printed in black and white, will she become someone. “An obituary would be proof of my existence,” she considers, “and I wonder if I should send in my own obituary and tell the newspaper to hold on to it and print it when the time is right.”
For a debut novelist, Skomsvold is deft at transporting the reader into the world of an imaginary other. The reader becomes so fully absorbed in Mathea’s brief arc that, when the final notes of this literary sonata are rendered, we are neither surprised nor saddened. Rather, we are simply satisfied. Oscillating quickly between hope (she will go out and make friends) and depression (she totally avoids her neighbors), Mathea’s approach to life is schizophrenic. Oddly, this characterization seems natural. Will she find a way out of the darkness? Or will she slip further into irredeemable melancholy? We hope for the best.
As a tragicomic novel, The Faster I Walk, the Smaller I Am invites reflection: what is it, exactly, that determines whether or not we are truly alive? Mathea is sad because, like so many lonely people, she cannot find validation. Fortunately for her—and for the rest of us—Skomsvold’s novel may provide the corroboration we seek.
The review above was originally published in World Literature Today (Jan/Feb 2012).
Because of WLT’s 500 word count limit, I could not fully explore interesting tidbits about Skomsvold's story and its characters. After the review was published, I reached out to the author (who published a moving essay on loneliness and writing on The Mantle here) and shared my thoughts on her novel as well as proffered a couple of questions. Here is our exchange:
RANDOL: One character I wanted to explore, but couldn't, is Mathea’s partner, Epsilon, who is utterly clueless to Mathea’s distress, sadness, and existential angst. What is the significance of this name? As far as I can tell, its origins, which are to be found in the Greek and Phoenician alphabets (close to the letter “E”) and whose numerical value of 5, bears no significance on the story. In the story, Mathea gives the equation to Epsilon, the mathematical symbol, claiming, “The probability that we’re going to die is smaller than Ɛ, if Ɛ equals a microscopically small quantity.” This equation is also the epigram to the novel, which one deduces (from the equation), that the end does not turn out positive for Mathea. My question is, why “Epsilon”? What is the significance of this selection for a name and theme?
SKOMSVOLD: From my physics studies I remembered that when the chances of something happening are microscopically small, one would say that they are smaller than epsilon. Mathea’s husband, who is a statistician, keeps referring to this, and that’s why she calls him Epsilon. For example, the chances of Mathea being struck by lightning twice in the same place is smaller than epsilon, but it happens anyway. The epigram to the novel is the opposite: “bigger than epsilon.” Even though Mathea is “invisible” and no one knows about her, she is something more than a microscopically small quantity, and her life is something more than her life with Epsilon.
RANDOL: For me, the most intriguing character was Åge B., a silent, mysterious individual Mathea encounters a couple of times on her walks outside of her apartment. Mathea always sees him, but Åge B. hardly sees her, at least not directly. There is an air of nonchalance about this character, as if he sees through Mathea, rather than looking directly at her. Their encounters, however, revolve around time; at one point he asks Mathea for the time, and she answers, in a sort of surrender, with the hour—as if she knew time was limited, somehow, or running out. “I feel incredibly tired,” she says. “But it’s not Åge B.’s fault, and so I give him the time of day.” Åge B. does not seem concerned with time, so much as he is concerned with Mathea’s time.
In the end, there is an exchange with Åge B., in which Mathea takes off her watch and gives it to the mysterious man. She is, in effect, out of time and gives what time she has left to Åge B., before she walks off into eternity.
Why the name Åge B.? What is the significance? And is Åge B., as I suspect, a personification of Death, an entity obsessed with time whose responsibility and actions is predicated on an individual’s (like Mathea’s) time running out?
SKOMSVOLD: I like your thoughts on Åge B., and time. The novel is about how time passes, and that’s one of the reasons why I named it after Einstein’s theory of relativity. Another reason is because Mathea always hurries away when someone might talk to her, and this makes her much smaller than she needs to be. Mathea would only be able to communicate with someone if this someone is as much of an outsider as she is herself. At first she suspects Åge B. of presenting himself as KGB (this rhymes in Norwegian). She doesn’t want to ask him what the B stands for, in case it’s something embarrassing. The name is mainly chosen because it gives her opportunities to reflect around it.
Whether or not Åge B. is a personification of death, he certainly plays an important role in Mathea coming to terms with dying. In one of the final scenes, Åge B. looks at the lace pattern on her hat and says: “Oh, and just so you know, I can see your skull.” To make one’s existence visible is perhaps ultimately to visualize oneself as mortal.
Follow Shaun on Twitter @shaunrandol
Kjersti Annesdatter Skomsvold, Norway