In the Distance
Coffee House Press, October 3rd, 2017
258 pages, $16.95
Reviewed by Brian Birnbaum
Existential bankruptcy, despair, ennui: “These were the only events that vaguely organized his existence, which took place in an elastic present that kept on stretching without the slightest distortion and without ever promising to snap.” And yet, far from representative of narrative banality, this sentence acts as coda to quite a colorful sequence—the sexual enslavement of our protagonist, Håkan, at the hands of the succubus-madam of Western outlaws. Hernan Diaz’s debut novel, In the Distance, is defined by such conflation of monotony and vibrancy, abjection and hope—as if gorgeous hieroglyphs of biblical desert wandering were etched over lurid tragedy.
In the Distance tells the story of Håkan, a Swedish youth bestowed passage to America, where, presumably, opportunity abounds. As a period novel, it reimagines the zeitgeist of the mid-19th century, adorning an era with oblique detail and alternative specificity. And, as good writers do, Diaz plumbs from period, placing in the new American West a Swedish immigrant protagonist; Håkan’s only American primers are the fantastical tales told by his brother, from whom he’s separated before setting foot in California. “Having heard so many of Linus’s tales, he had come to expect a dreamlike, outlandish world.” But the West is much emptier than Linus’s tales of New York. Through Håkan’s cultural, linguistic, and geographical tabula rasa, Diaz puts character as exponent to setting, defamiliarizing not just the world but even our assumptions on which that antiquated world is predicated.
Diaz performs these masterstrokes of aesthetic, thematic, and narrative superimposition throughout the novel. Nowhere does it succeed more than how he reconstitutes the story of a legend. We view Håkan as Swedish emigrant rather than immigrant—we’re with rather than watching, avoiding the voyeurism of legends in favor of intimate narrative, which is most evident in his name; Diaz describes Håkan as diphthong—a quick u swooping into a long a, which sounds to the American ear like ‘Hawk can’. Hawk can what? No one understands and, referred to simply as the Hawk, his terrible size and deeds are made into a legend, more easily bandied far and wide.
Håkan’s nomadic travails, peppered with violent tragedies, both maintain the truer monotony of real-time adventure while elevating its desolation to a triumph of perseverance. Traditionally, legends are made from the stuff of grandeur. Narrative momentum is often built upon exhibitionism, drawing energy from the reader’s awe that such terribly powerful humans exist. Yet Diaz has decided that this is a story about Håkan and his deeply compassionate, curious humanity. He makes us forget Håkan’s size and might, rather focusing on his love for learning, for people. The reader sees not a heroic beast but a vulnerable (if precocious) boy who’s suddenly become a man without realizing it, having spent so much time in the wilderness avoiding the consequences of his legendary deeds. Thus it’s only during the waning moments of the novel, as Håkan witnesses with utter shock the literal exhibition that has become of his apocryphal figure, that we truly feel that we’re reading the lore of a legend.
For the novel’s insides are more bildungsroman than legend, more tragedy than hero. And necessary to the tragedies that befall Håkan are the friendships and alliances that prop them up. Alas, between those relationships and their tragic inevitabilities, rife and often violent, are stretches of solemn wandering: desert and prairie, prairie and desert. Though rendered by tight diamonds of sentences, the coals of monotony linger just beneath these stretches. This quiescence works in the direct aftermath of Håkan’s losses—of companions, hopes—and during certain manifestations of his abjection, such as when he builds an ever-complexifying network of thatched trenches in wake of the death of his dear friend Asa, who’d helped him escape the grips of a villainous town sheriff. Occasionally, however, the American West’s intractable vacuum sucks up the narrative momentum – though these moments are few and far between.
In the Distance is distinguished by inversions of traditional history, which color the novel’s terribly gorgeous landscape of 19th century west of the Mississippi. And yet, these inversions alone would be insufficient in crediting the novel’s ambitious scope of texture, language, and deep sadness. The breadth and deployment of Diaz’s argot is simply astounding. His sentences are crisp, speckled with terms esoteric to an era yet idiomatically clear in their function. And more than any historical reimagining, Håkan’s desperate, often desultory journey blurs the line between purpose and nihilism, hope and despair, swirling together the variegation of human agency and circumstance until we find ourselves staring at the ineffable being that has become of Håkan, a life so saturated with learning, love, and loss that we have no choice but to accept his final measure.