Kjersti A. Skomsvold, translated by Kerri A. Pierce, The Faster I Walk,
the Smaller I Am. Dalkey Archive Press, 2011. Hardcover, 112 pp,
Kjersti A. Skomsvold’s first novel, The Faster I Walk, the Smaller IAm, is the absurdly gloomy story of Mathea Martinsen, a nearly one-hundred-year-old woman who is forced to reconsider the terms of her life and encroaching death when her husband Epsilon dies. Shrunken by social anxiety that prevents her from even basic interactions, Mathea is well aware of her insignificance. But her ego is delightfully elastic. Large and contradictory, it often inflates to unexpected proportions in the most ridiculous and heart-warming ways. The novel’s scale, too, can seem at turns both miniature and grand. Skomsvold manages—by a precise and original register, a self-assured authorial voice, and a merciless sense of humor—to sketch Mathea’s little world like a diorama that feels to the reader who enters it like an amphitheater.
The Faster I Walk, the Smaller I Am does not have much of a narrative plot. Instead, Mathea’s emotional arc is drawn by small, inconspicuous scenes that rarely take her out of her apartment, which incidentally has grass colored wall-to-wall carpeting and a ceiling that would have been painted blue if Mathea had her way. Symbolically, this setting is an effective statement that both contains Mathea’s agoraphobia and expresses her desire to transcend it. When she does get out of the house, her greatest accomplishment is asking a stranger for the time, a feat that spurs her to perform a series of small acts of courage. She dons Epsilon’s watch to encourage strangers to ask her for the time (which they don’t), buries a time capsule in her yard (which is dug up to make room for a flagpole), uses the dreaded telephone to dial directory assistance (to request her own number), and finally, attends a raffle for seniors (where her own sweater is mistakenly auctioned off).
The impact of these non-events is dramatic and affecting, as the reader’s sympathies for Mathea are expertly generated and provoked. One way Skomsvold achieves this is by her manipulation of tense. Mathea narrates between present action in present tense and past action in past tense, but her and the novel’s conception of time is greatly complicated by the fact that Epsilon, her dead husband, is a player in both realms. It may be several chapters before the reader sees through Mathea’s delusions and realizes that her life-long partner has died before the novel starts. When she mentions in the midst of present action that “Epsilon always buys in bulk,” or that he “is always careful to keep the watch wound,” a moving pathos echoes from her scattered, old-lady mutterings, speaking volumes about her loneliness. This is Skomsvold’s shorthand for communicating that Epsilon himself, not his ghost, still lives in Mathea’s flat like a child’s imaginary friend. As a result, Mathea’s infrequent acknowledgements of her husband’s death are all the more poignant:
The bookshelf can’t hold much more than Epsilon’s books. He has every issue of the Statistical Yearbook ever published…. They’re arranged in order and I don’t have the heart to take them down.
This moment in the novel represents one of several turns by which Mathea surprises with her self-awareness. Another is the wisdom as well as the delivery in the following insight: “I could have been an alcoholic. If I’d gotten out more, I definitely would have been.” That the novel makes space for such disclosures speaks to the layers of complexity of both it and its main character. For example, at one moment during a contemplation of her extreme isolation, she states, “I wish I were under house arrest. Trapped in my home like Aung San Suu Kyi.” It’s strange but notable that Mathea doesn’t kid herself into simplifying her desire. Most social isolates would probably wish, say, for less difficulty in getting outside. But such a wish is also the wish to be a different person, and that is not what Mathea wants. Rather, she wants to be justified in desiring what she desires, and she wishes the justification—in this case, justification of her containment—to be on a grand scale.
It is this contradiction that is the most prominent and interesting of Mathea’s traits—her desire to be both big and small at the same time. It is summed up several times, but perhaps most succinctly in this observation about a man she watches on the news “who thinks our goal in life should be to leave no trace … and I think I could be an honored member of that movement.” She is the best nobody that ever existed, and Skomsvold makes this point again and again. That she goes to the trouble of making and burying a time capsule of her own possessions is another example of her skewed sense of her own importance. But that she only ends up putting one item inside of it—not to mention her barely surprised reaction when the box is unearthed to make room for a flagpole—proves that she has a very solid sense of her insignificance. Mathea lives, mysteriously, in this contradiction. Situated solidly in the north pole of insignificance and invisibility, her ego still throbs every so often, asserting itself in a childlike, and yet one-hundred-year-old, self-centeredness:
I’ve knitted myself a hat, it’s plum red with an appealing lace pattern … I put it on and feel like a cranberry in the snow, and I wonder if they can see me from the moon. Me and the great wall.
Mathea’s childishness is certainly at the center of her character. She is constantly on the lookout for opportunities to produce in her monologue quaint and simple rhymes, which are inevitably followed up to humorous effect by the refrain, “That rhymes.” As is the case in this instance, she is rarely privy to the humor that arises from her thoughts and sparse interactions. At one point, she narrates a conversation she had earlier in her life with a neighbor woman, about the man who lives across the hall: “‘Did you know he’s schizophrenic?’ [Mathea asks] ‘No, he’s not,’ [the neighbor] said. ‘Oh, but he is,’ I said. ‘I’ve heard several voices coming from his apartment.’” There is no indication, even after all these years, that Mathea understands her misinterpretation of the sounds she hears. As Skomsvold reveals Mathea’s blind spots, the humor is presented for the reader’s sake, behind Mathea’s back. And yet, if at times it is merciless, it is never cruel.
However much this original, affecting novel is about Mathea Martinsen, it is much more than a character study. Rather, it is an arresting meditation on life and death by a very talented young author. The work’s beauty is most evident in the cracks between Mathea’s naïveté and the author’s wisdom, conveyed in often perfect pitch. It is evident, even in translation, that Skomsvold’s mastery of tone is the source of her wisdom, and her power:
I wonder what will happen to all our things, they’ll probably be thrown out and ourmemories with them. And I wonder what the deepest lake in the world is.