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Replacement

by Tor Ulven

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Replacement by Tor Ulven
© Dalkey Archive
Dalkey Archive, April 2012

Considering the sunrise and sunset in Norway, it may seem like time flows differently there. During certain months of the year, days pass in a blur of endless twilight, where midnight feels no more dark or light than any other evening hour. A frozen, dimly lit frame would give hardly any indication of whether the sun was coming or going, a new day beginning or one softly coming to a close.

With this in mind, Tor Ulven's excellent novel (although "prose-poem" may be more apt a description) Replacement feels wholly Norwegian. While the book very directly deals with the significance and semi-permanence of light and shadow, the text flows like a Norwegian sunset: beautiful, yet indeterminate and undefinable.

Replacement is one of the author's few attempts at stepping away from poetry to write a novel, and was published two years before the author's suicide in 1995. The novel begins, unassumingly, with a man in his nineties, tottering around behind a set of almost-closed curtains. "A tentacle of light gingerly feels its way through the dark room," possessing the man to contemplate the day (or lack thereof) that is passing behind his window. The novel seethes in allegory: almost every concrete item in the book could be considered symbolic, a conduit for reflection and reminiscing. Ulven works these symbols into Replacement with hauntingly effective technique: a bicyclist with a pedal-powered headlight is almost as resounding as the handgun in the old man's bedside table, its ammo unused and nearly "half his age."

As the man begins to reflect on his past, Ulven switches the novel into a surprisingly unintrusive second-person perspective. Addressing his protagonist with "you", he writes of a boy, scared of monsters, and of a security guard investigating a noise in the warehouse he patrols. The text flows between these ages to yet another time: here the man is in love and unsure of how to voice his feelings to his nameless crush. And then a further shift, this time towards some fascinatingly redolent minutiae, to quick, fleeting moments packed full of powerful memories. Ulven doesn't spend the novel simply going through the momentous and significant phases of the man's life; for example, a short portion of the novel deals with a hangover as the man scours his refrigerator for a cold beer. At one point, he finds a cigarette in his mouth but no way to light it.
The man slowly ages as Replacement progresses, but something strange happens about halfway through the novel that will make readers second-guess their understanding of what's been going on. As these anecdotes stack up, a question inevitably will come to mind: what if all these memories don't actually belong to the same person? What if Ulven's been secretly drifting through a range of characters, disregarding their independent traits and instead focusing on their internal characteristics, their memories and their aging? When observing the memories of Replacement as the product of an ensemble, it becomes apparent how interchangeable a lot of these memories could be. But, if it's not clear which past belongs to which person, what's stopping readers from applying these memories to an even broader body? What if Ulven's nameless protagonist is not just a large cast of nameless characters, but actually every man? There's an illuminating moment in Replacement where this nameless protagonist reviews x-rays from a recent accident:

"At first glance, they seem blank. It's only when you, a balding, fifty-year old man, hold them up to the light that you're able to see your twenty-year-old skeleton, from a time when, aside from a mild case of hypochondria, you were still young and strong."

If this moment is not relatable to most readers, Ulven suggests that it will be once they're older. The memories that Replacement is built with read like these x-rays, the hidden bones from which a life is built. And, beautifully, Ulven shows that it could be any life. And suddenly, his decision to use second-person perspective feels all the more appropriate. The "you" in the novel could just as easily be any one of us.

Ulven pushes the limits of prose and of the novel's form to create a piece of writing that's entirely new. Replacement has a narrative arc like a novel but becomes something more personal, more reflexive and introverted as the story evolves. Ulven has a masterful command of language and uses his craft honed as a poet to create a text like no other-this is an exceptionally good novel and one that will challenge its readers, rewarding them with an expanded, almost limitless new understanding of what a book can do.
Disclosure: A review copy was provided by the publisher. For more information, please see our Ethics Policy.
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