The Details: A Novel by Ia Genberg

Author:  Ia Genberg
Translator: Kira Josefsson

The cover to The Details: A Novel by Ia GenbergNew York. HarperVia. 2023. 144 pages.

In her first novel to be translated into English, Ia Genberg delivers a lesson on how to effectively tackle the primordial questions about human relationships and their impact on one’s perception of self. “That’s all there is to the self,” Genberg writes, “or the so-called ‘self’: traces of the people we rub up against.” Our character is largely formed by the people whom we meet as friends, foes, lovers, family, and so on

The Details can be read as a novella or as a compilation of four short stories unified by the aforementioned theme with Genberg infusing her nonlinear narration with sharp observations and keen insights on scorching questions: How much of us is shaped by others, and is it possible to discern the border that separates us from them? Is autonomy a legitimate pursuit that benefits the subject or a trap that inevitably leads to solitude and the embrace of an alienated lifestyle? What is the invisible thread that weaves literature and human life together? These constitute only a fraction of the novel’s inquiries that extend to reach the core of one of the most vexing problems in contemporary Western civilization: the dubious nature of symbiosis and its influence on the chiseling of the individual’s own identity. 

The four interconnected stories are narrated by an unnamed protagonist in a jumbled chronological order. There is no definitive beginning or end. The only thing that matters is the now, the present in which the narrator’s inward and outward gazes lose their objectivity during a bout of fever that incites a feast of memories of her past. In her afterword, the book’s English translator, Kira Josefsson, writes that “chronology has no import and all that matters are the detailsin a story that unfolds backward and forward in time. Literature is the narrator’s steady companion, and in Genberg’s universe, a book can exert such an influence on a subject like that wielded by other human beings.

The unknown storyteller begins by detailing her failed relationship with Johanna, whom she met while attending a journalism course. The memories start flooding the protagonist’s brain when she opens a book by Paul Auster (The New York Trilogy) and finds a handwritten inscription on the title page addressed to her. The chain of recollections kickstarts, and the reader is plunged into the minutiae of an intimate affair that ended ingloriously more than two decades earlier.

Facts, events, feelings, and musings are blended and incorporated into the well-thumbed narrative, which unravels at a fast tempo despite the peculiarities of Genberg’s writing style, the most prominent feature being a fondness for overly long sentences. As we turn the pages, we learn more about the woman who tells the story than the significant other who lends his/her name to be the title of each one of the chapters. The first chapter is named after Johanna, and the following three for Niki, Alejandro, and Birgitte. The portrait of the protagonist is drawn diffusely, through her own descriptions and memories of the people who left a deep imprint on her. Johanna was also the woman who helped her in her first clumsy steps as an author. In the narrator’s words: “She was my main character,” a sentence that echoes Genberg’s explicit parallelism between literature and life, an omnipresent analogy throughout the book’s 150 pages. 

The second story is about Niki, another ex-girlfriend, whose chaotic disposition and mercurial attitude are given ample room to unfurl in the lengthiest chapter of the book. In conclusion, “Niki was an adventure,” the protagonist remarks, “an endless all-genre drama where nothing was static and nothing could be predicted.” Her volatile temperament is juxtaposed with that of Johanna’s, who possessed a more collected and practical mind; something that eventually proved to be the decisive factor and made her walk away from the relationship. In the third chapter, the narrator chronicles her romantic entanglement with a male partner, a man named Alejandro, perhaps the most frivolous of the four liaisons but also the most consequential. Regarding Alejandro, the narrator stresses: “Our relationship was the length of a breath and yet he stayed with me, as if there was something in me that bent around him, a new paradigm for all my future verbs.”

The last story concerns the narrator’s mother, Birgitte, a woman who had been fighting mental illness since her early youth. I felt that her story might be the key that unlocks the secrets of the novel as a whole, and I won’t write anything more, as it would spoil a first-class reading experience. Genberg makes a point by only mentioning in passing that the narrator is a mother, however, it is not upon the foundations of motherhood or friendship or any other social human institution that the author establishes and develops her portrayal of the narrator. It is only through the recovery of her past pain and the memory of the details surrounding each of her relationships that her character surfaces and shines. Josefsson compares Genberg to Karl Ove Knausgaard and traces the main difference in that “Genberg’s narrator emerges refractively through her relationships as opposed to via forensic excavation of childhood memories.” Perhaps if the main character had been more attentive to what then seemed trivial regarding the nuances in the behavior of her loved ones, she would have led a different life and inhabited a more loving plane of existence.

Josefsson hints at the autobiographical element that is indeed present and permeates the totality of the novel, manifesting itself through various bits and pieces scattered all over the text. For example, in the first story, we read that the narrator had been labeled as having “a melancholic eye for detail” by the tutor of a creative writing seminar she attended. We can’t help but think of Genberg’s own keen eye for the little things that make such a big difference when it comes to human contact and communication. Apart from Auster, there are more references to works of literature. In the second story (“Niki”), the narrator is left in the finale with a mangled copy of Birgitta Trotzig’s The Marsh King’s Daughter, a sad reminder of another ruined chance for meaningful contact. 

The Details is a mature and erudite look at the modern human condition, a book that has deservedly gained the respect of the global literary establishment, breathing fresh air into the status quo that is represented by so many genre fiction authors.

Dimitris Passas