Regardless of what we accomplish in our lives or how we may see ourselves, the way in which we are remembered is filtered through the perception of others.
Regardless of what we accomplish in our lives or how we may see ourselves, the way in which we are remembered is filtered through the perception of others. Such is the premise of Norwegian writer Carl Frode Tiller’s first installment in a trilogy, Encircling. Stricken with some unnamed condition that has resulted in a total loss of memory (or has it?), David sits at the center of the narrative. And yet despite this, we never actually meet David. Instead we are presented with a Rashomon-esque portrait of a young man whose story is primarily told at a great remove from the events as they occurred. Writing in 2006, his close friend Jon, vicar stepfather Arvid and former girlfriend Silje are all penning separate letters to David in hopes of helping restore his lost memory. While no exact ages are given, it is heavily implied that the younger trio of friends—Jon, Silje and David—are all now in their early-to-mid-forties as the majority of the events recounted in each letter took place in and around the late 1980s in the small town of Namsos.
Opening with Jon, we are presented with an individual whose bleak outlook, insecurities and lack of interpersonal skills has led to a parting with his band while in the middle of a tour of the Norwegian hinterlands. Accused of being overly negative and essentially a drag to be around, Jon flees to his ailing mother. Here we find the first of several mother-child relationships viewed from multiple perspectives as Jon projects his own insecurities onto his mother’s perception of him, reading deeply into each and every infinitesimal glance, gesture or moment’s pause. It’s a claustrophobia-inducing bit of inner monologue coming from a place of unchecked anxiety. To make matters worse, Jon’s more successful brother and his wife show up with a surprise for their mother. Seeing this as little more than a charade and yet another chance to tear him down, Jon is almost immediately antagonistic, calling into question every statement made as though they were a pointed dig at him.
Meanwhile, Jon’s letter to David recounts the pair’s time spent together first as outcast friends obsessed with death and the Beat poets, and then as secret lovers whose physical manifestation of love is either just that or a form of playacting in an attempt to replicate the lives of their idols Ginsberg, Kerouac and Burroughs. The ultimate dissolution of their clandestine relationship leaves Jon reeling and attempting suicide—one of many such attempts, as we later learn. Jon is nothing if not tragic, particularly after storming off and looking to stay with an ex-girlfriend who immediately begins needling him, putting him on the defensive and ultimately back out into the street, no surer of who he is and where he is going than his first of three major exits with which the novel opens.
Next, we are inside the cancerous and hopelessness-riddled mind of Arvid, David’s stepfather and former vicar. Their relationship proves far more complex and nuanced than either Jon or Silje could’ve perceived in their juvenile take on the world around them. Arvid simply wanted to make both David and his mother happy in their new life after a tumultuous upbringing—we’re never told who David’s father is, though it is heavily suspected and implied that he was the product of rape. Here we see David as a young boy who gradually becomes more sullen and standoffish as he ages and takes up with Jon and Silje. With his health rapidly declining and his wife long since dead, Arvid finds himself with nothing left to live for until he sees the notice in the paper about David’s condition and the call for letters from family and friends.
This newfound sense of purpose enlivens Arvid’s narrative, moving him from death’s door to become determined once again to act as savior to David. It’s ultimately a fool’s errand and little more than a retread of the events recalled in his letter, but it helps further flesh out David’s character and psyche as perceived by those who believed they knew him best. Here is perhaps the most complex interpersonal relationship of the three, spanning a far greater length of time and more significant personal upheavals. We begin to see David as a tragic figure (or is Arvid just projecting to make his task seem that much more noble?), one who became a product of circumstance and unable to cope with the life that’s been laid out before him.
Which brings the narrative around to Silje. In Jon’s assessment, Silje plays the role of manic pixie dream girl, that stock character trope inhabiting many a coming-of-age story. She, of course, does not see herself as such; instead, she’s a simpatico artist who, in middle age, pines for her lost youth and time spent with David. Trapped in a marriage made miserable by her own discontent, Silje’s inner monologue is full of wonderment at her own accusatory words directed at her husband and others. Her letter becomes something of an extended, poetic yearning for a life yet unfulfilled. As with the other two, her motives and recollections are unclear, but they are nonetheless apparent when compared and contrasted with the accounts of others.
Ultimately, Encircling becomes an examination of all the characters in the novel, with David only serving as the cohesive center around which all these other lives intertwine. Masterfully written and considerate in his approach to how we view ourselves versus how others perceive us, Tiller’s first installment sets the scene for what is sure to be an enrapturing saga of a life as seen not by the main character, but rather those who felt they knew the real David. Clues pop up here and there as to David’s true character; Silje is particularly insightful as she recalls his death fixation, worsening mental health (something neither Jon nor Arvid remark upon) and the potential for his faking the whole thing as some sort of grand performance art piece. By the end, you’ve no idea who to believe and, with David absent, you’re left to make your own assessment based on the conflicting, biased information presented. In this, we become yet another sentient satellite attempting to make sense of an unfamiliar world.