The Exception

exception reviewChristian Jungersen’s THE EXCEPTION is one of those European left-wing Social Democratic novels where all the characters revel in the welfare state, the atmosphere is thick with their own self-regard, and if someone is individualistic enough to drive a nice car, they’re labeled a fraud. In other words: completely insufferable. I almost threw it away halfway through, but persevered in order to serve this site’s readers. Well, now you all owe me one.

Everything about this book is remarkably unpleasant: the deeply unlikable characters, the crazy-ass plot with its thumpingly obvious symbolism, the mind-deadening interludes of stodgily written articles on genocide, the wildly unrealistic behaviors, the psychological pseudobabble – it just makes me breathless thinking that not only is this a supposed European bestseller, but that someone would think it worthy of translation. Feh.

The Danish Center for Information on Genocide (DCIG) is staffed by four women and the center’s director, a man. The women all seem to get along at first, but after two of them receive threatening e-mails, the intraoffice relationships deteriorate to the point where they all end up picking on and bullying each other, following the herd mentality, remarkably like the “good” Germans who blithely followed Nazi directives that were inherently reprehensible.

Oooh, see the analogy? See it? We all have evil in us. There, I’ve ruined the plot for you. I don’t feel bad.

Iben is one of the book’s main characters. She has written articles for the DGIC website that takes certain mass murderers to task. After receiving a threatening e-mail, she thinks that someone along the likes of say, Slobodan Milosevic, could be bothered to hunt her down to kill her. Uh-huh.

Here’s an example of how she thinks: “Here we are, good people with university degrees. Day after day, we’re off to our jobs at the Center or the Institute for Human Rights or Amnesty International or Doctors Without Borders. We discuss the news during our lunch breaks and water plants and put up posters for UN special days. And we don’t realize that at any moment we might have to fight torturers or executioners or militia bosses. Because, although we never think about it, we’re soldiers at war.”

Sigh. Please.

She goes on (and on) (and on) to talk about how men have a “war button” that – when pushed – they can’t help but become killing machines. She talks about how a dog she once had was put down because it killed a deer and had developed bloodlust, so it became untrustworthy. At this point, you’re thinking, “Okay, this has to be satire. We’re meant to laugh at these characters because their worldview is so ridiculous that eventually the author will show them up for the pretentious self-righteous asshole blowhards that they are.”

But it is not until page 366 (out of 500!) that any of the main characters displays a recognizable human trait, and comes to the defense of someone she has been bullying relentlessly throughout the book so far.

It’s hard for me to explain how deeply distasteful this novel is, or how its attitudes, as expressed by its characters, simultaneously signal the death knell of European culture and legacy while being masked under the guise of liberal progressivism. If European readers believe in the puerile philosophy expounded herein, then Europe is surely lost.

If Jungersen meant to write a devastating expose of how this type of mealy-mouthed namby-pambyism does more damage than good, he has failed. Because there is no real moral message to take away from this giant block of a book that killed trees for no good reason. We are all evil. Yeah, whatever. We have the capacity for good. Okay. But we are not all as clinically insane or self-destructive as every single one of the main characters in this book. If I’m supposed to identify with any of these characters, then really, fiction from the European mainland has come to an end.

I want to believe that Jurgensen was trying to write a much more subtle story about how we must all examine our own perspectives, and sometimes, we will find that our perspectives differ even from what we ourselves perceive them to be. But I’m being way too generous, as that is not the book that was written.

This is a book that seems to hate its main characters, and portrays almost all of them as essentially hateful, hidden beneath a veneer of supposed psychological damage. It is somewhat misogynistic, in that only the men characters seem relatively well-adjusted (well, except for the one war criminal). It is just … not … worth the effort or the money. It’s not an evil book, because that would hint that there’s a cleverness to the writing that just isn’t there. It’s just a book, smug in its own worldview, and stunningly wrongheaded in so many ways. –Mark Rose

Buy it at Amazon.

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Comment by GB
2007-11-02 17:50:01

The characters sound a lot like some of the people working in DC politics. Maybe in the hands of someone more talented this could make for great satire (maybe someone like Max Barry or Joshua Ferris?).

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Comment by John A. Karr
2007-11-02 22:27:31

“…the atmosphere is thick with their own self-regard …”

What a great phrase. I may have to borrow it on some level.

Great review.

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