In Zero (2018, tr. Rosie Hedger. Original: Null, 2013), we follow a middle-class Norwegian girl from age ten to twenty-one, as she comes full circle in her struggles with serious mental health issues. She is our unnamed narrator and, from the start, we feel that something is amiss with her: “I think about death almost every day. I do the kind of things to my sister that suggest I’ve got hidden sociopath traits” (Here she is ten)
We are thrown into her stream of consciousness, in short, fragmented sentences full of gaps, trapped in a perpetual present tense, from one jolt to the next. She is angry, contradictory, erratic, spoiled, self-absorbed, reckless. She is seriously ill – and invisibly so.
“I don’t want help
I like it at rock bottom
I’m drowning in my own ego
It feels glorious”
She moves to Oslo, jumps from one dead-end job to the next, lives on social benefits, and dumps everyone who shows her true affection. It’s all about alcohol, drugs, sex – and, to be fair, not much rock’n’roll. We fell in love with a girl like that before, we recognize the pattern. She will make us mad; she will break our heart; she will bore us to death. We will eventually move on. The beast love what it loves. The beast is lonely.
“I’ve fallen in love with one of the girls in my year
She’s not a lesbian, she tells me
I tell her that she is, that I can tell that sort of thing about people”
Our narrator will invariably be sent to a psychiatric ward, they will bung her up with medication, and she will be left feeling empty.
“There are no thoughts in my head at all
There’s just me and the hollowness inside”
She will be in and out of medication, in and out of the hospital. She will be forever stuck in a countdown from zero to zero.
“I realise these people are sicker than I ever expected
That I’m going to have to inwardly oppose them”
She will end up impulsively travelling to Peru – where she will trip on some hallucinatory drug. Here things will get hazy: she may or may not have been kidnapped, taken to the jungle, and used as a bait by a gang; and she may or may not end up murdered. We don’t know. Maybe she never got to Peru in the first place, and this is just the product of her imagination under heavy medication.
This whole section was rather a huge blow: the depiction of Latin America could not have been more stereotypical. Human trafficking in Oslo would have been enough to do the trick – unless one is counting on the average prejudices against Latin America to elicit some sort of shock effect on the reader. And, if so, does this choice border on… racism? Maybe I am overthinking <press ENTER> Maybe not.
This book is described as ‘punk-rock’. I appreciate its crude depiction of a mind trapped in its own pain, and I think the book is at its best when it is odd and distorted and breathlessly angry. But, when it makes use of problematic stereotypes to elicit their typical shock effect on the reader, it is neither punk nor rock, just lazy: a docile circus beast repeating an old trick to the audience, and getting its expected reward.
“I don’t cry anymore
Nothing feels sad
Like déjà vu”
“I seek out the madness
Seeking and seeking but never finding anything
Madness has turned to logic” – Gine Cornelia Pedersen, Zero