Interviews


We’re all just bloody molecules

On ‘You Disappear’ –
Interview by Kjeld Hybel, March 2012, © Politiken.
Translated by Misha Hoekstra.

www.politiken.dk

 

In his new novel, Christian Jungersen probes deep into the human brain. Do you become someone else when you’ve suffered brain damage? Can you have a soul if life is just a series of chemical bonds? And is it even possible to tell a tale that reflects the new kind of human that science has revealed to us? In You Disappear, Jungersen has a go.

We fight our way down the narrow lanes between sand-colored houses, headed for the seafront. Christian Jungersen goes first, furled umbrella in hand, then the photographer and last of all me, struggling to zip my jacket all the way up to my throat. I can’t stop thinking about the email Jungersen sent me a few days ago.

“I live right by a long promenade that’s elevated over some rocks where the waves wash in,” he wrote. “It’s easy to walk down in the rocky landscape among old swimming pools chiseled out of stone, patches of lunar desert, and a lovely old fort. But we have to remember that the sun can get quite harsh in the middle of the day….”

We turn a corner and cut across the street to the promenade, where black, windblown palm trees stand and shiver. The few people who have ventured outdoors jump to the side every time one of the immense waves slams up over the railings and sweeps across the red tiles. The sky’s the color of slate. The Mediterranean roars. The windowpanes in this part of town are all milk-white with sea salt.

That’s just fine, I think. You don’t need sunshine when you’re going to talk about man’s dark impulses. About injured brains, corrosive love, and life in the suburbs – the kind of things Jungersen tackles in his new book. Or when you’re going to talk about the soul.

I’m lagging a bit behind when a gigantic wave surges over the promenade and with a mighty splash breaks over the heads of Jungersen and the photographer. For a moment they disappear in a cascade of water. Then they pop up again, laughing and soaked.

We’re in the Maltese town of Sliema, where the novelist has settled after a number of years headquartered in Dublin. The photographer and I have just landed, and we’ll be flying out again tomorrow. We agree to conduct the first part of the interview in my hotel room – for as a sopping Jungersen says about his one-room flat, “It’s not a room with a view. It’s a view with a room.”

 

On the couch

So once the photographer has taken a roll of pictures with his wet camera, and Jungersen has been home to change into some dry clothes, we meet up at the hotel, where the author flings his six-foot-six frame onto one of the beds.

His back’s been bothering him since a yoga mishap. And besides, he just thinks lying down’s a good idea. I seat myself in an armchair at his side. And pose the first question: “I just finished reading your book on the plane, and I wonder – do you think we’re all walking around with brain damage?”

“It depends on where you define the threshold for brain damage,” Jungersen says. “For instance, what if during your entire childhood, you ate lunch from a lunchbox made of plastic that contained female sex hormones?”

“Yes, what if?” I say, seeing clearly before me my childhood plastic lunchbox.

“Well perhaps that’s why you grew up to be so nice and sweet. All of us are affected by physical things like that, and of course it’s humbling to think about. It’s a bit like when Darwin said that we all descend from animals.”

“Why’s that humbling?”

“A hundred and fifty years ago, people said, There are animals, and they’re primitive beings. And then there are us humans, ah, we’re spiritual, we’re gifted. And then they realized that in fact, we’re monkeys too. People can’t accept that. Or that your very thoughts, your deep, deep thoughts about the meaning of life, are affected by the sort of plastic softening agents that were in your lunchbox. That’s pretty damn humbling.”

“Well okay, but I suppose it depends on the degree to which you’re affected?”

“Yes,” Jungersen says gently. “Something might have happened during gestation. It could have been when you were growing up. A minor blow you received, that no one gave a second thought – a fall from your bike when you were 7. Some of it could be what you eat. But of course, it’s all chemistry.”

 

When are we ourselves?

“So let’s just say that everything’s chemistry,” I say. “But what is the soul then?”

“Yes, what the devil is the soul?” Jungersen thinks a bit as he tries to find the most comfortable position on the bed. “I’d say that, even though we’re chemistry, we’re still responsible beings. We’re creatures who nonetheless take responsibility. And do we have a soul?”

I find myself interrupting this train of thought, thinking it’s time to connect the conversation more directly to the book that is the occasion for our being here. It’s called You Disappear. The narrator is Mia, a 40-something schoolteacher who discovers during a vacation on Majorca that her husband, the headmaster Frederik, has a brain tumor that is affecting him. And not just a little.

“When in the book is Frederik most Frederik, really himself – is it before or after the tumor?”

“All the characters in the book have their own interpretations of that,” Jungersen replies. “His father thinks Frederik was most himself when he was a workaholic, just like the father had been. And when Frederik becomes a family man who stays home and hangs out with his wife and children, he’s an inferior type of man.”

“And Mia thinks the opposite,” I say. “She thinks it’s a bit strange when she finds out that Frederik’s had a tumor during the best three years of their relationship.”

“Yes, my main character takes it rather hard. I really like having an alpha male who turns into a homey family man because of a brain injury.” Jungersen chuckles. “So his wife thinks he finally becomes nice and normal after he gets sick in the head. But are you most yourself when you’re unaffected? Of course, we’re never completely unaffected….”

“So we’re never ourselves – or what?”

“If you define yourself – and your soul – as someone who is unaffected by the physical aspect of being human, then no, you’re never yourself. But you could also define yourself as someone who encompasses the physical too.”

“And that’s how you define it?”

“That’s probably where I stand. We’re the sum of it all. Even when you’ve hit your head, you’re still a self.”

 

Avant-garde

”What is the book’s most important job?”

The book’s most important job,” he says. “Well, one reason so many author interviews end in the ditch, is that journalists have been taught that if you can’t say, This is the point, then you don’t have a position, a stance. For authors, it’s the opposite: if you can express what you’re trying to do in a few sentences, then you don’t have a novel.”

Then he makes an attempt anyway.

“What’s important for me – in this bewildering fog – is to try to introduce a new way of looking at the world. As you said yourself, we’re all brain-damaged…. I want to present a new mode of talking about how people become who they are.”

Jungersen calls it a fumbling effort to invent a new form of narrative, one that reflects our understanding of human nature – an understanding that has been undergoing radical transformation.

“A few years ago, ADHD and depression were personality traits; now they are illnesses that we can medicate our way out of. Soon we might also have drugs for laziness, hot tempers, self-absorption, and the inability to make long-term plans. It was my ridiculously ambitious hope to discover a story that fit this previously unheard-of way of understanding people – and with it, a genuinely new narrative form.”

“And therefore a more chaotic narrative form?”

“That’s the way people have gone about it when they’ve tried to be avant-garde; they break up continuity and chronology. But I’ve tried to write a page-turner. That is to say, a narrative that moves forward.”

“In terms of narration, then, how is this book different?”

“Well, the difference is certainly not in the structure. Some people say that if the world’s fragmented and doesn’t make sense, then you should write fiction that’s fragmented and doesn’t make sense. No, on the contrary – you should write a story that’s tight! But about a world that doesn’t make sense.”

Jungersen’s own world can also seem fragmented. You Disappear was written in Dublin. During the past winter he moved to Malta, but he has many of his things in Denmark, and a storage room in New York. He has printers in the US, Ireland, Cyprus, Malta, and Denmark, and telephone SIM cards for the same countries. And he has bikes waiting for him in Ireland, Denmark, and New York.

“But I have only one adjustable-height desk,” he says. “And that’s in Ireland.”

 

What about you?

I cast a sidelong glance over at the peeling yellow-brown wall that comprises the view from the hotel room. Then I ask Jungersen on the bed, “So do you have a brain injury?”

“I don’t have a diagnosis,” he answers slowly. “But then again, when I remember things as poorly as I do, and am as abstracted as I am, then I don’t know…. I hope it’s connected to such a large part of my life being illusion. It’s my profession to make my imagination just as real as my life. Ideally, my physical reaction to it should be just as strong as my reaction to what I experience in reality.”

“Is it?”

“It is, in fact. It can be just as amazing for me to lie on my bed and imagine that I’m walking barefoot on some tropical beach, as it is to actually walk barefoot on a tropical beach. That’s the way it should be, too. And I hope that my cursedly bad memory has something to do with the fact that my brain uses its resources on something else – and that it’s not because I’m slow-witted or demented.”

“How bad is your memory?”

“I have a hard time recognizing people on the street. I often feel as if what I walk around and experience is something I dreamt some time ago….”

“I also ask because illness is a pivotal element in all three of your books. Why’s that?”

It grows a bit quiet on the bed; Jungersen’s thinking.

“It has to do with … hmm. I have a personal fascination with illness. I have a dread of our vulnerability, of everything being so dangerous. It’s all just bloody molecules! The whole thing can collapse!”

The vulnerability Jungersen feels is something he wants to share through his books.

“At the same time, I believe that a heightened sensory intensity can be bound to a certain level of fear. So in a novel I want to create a sense that the carpet might be yanked out from under you. It’s also a narrative technique in which I want to give people the feeling that This stuff is real!

 

She dies

Jungersen believes that in his third novel, he’s finally found his voice. And that he’s more present in this book than in the previous two, Undergrowth and The Exception.

In You Disappear, one of the things he manages to do is to make the text vibrate by working in things that, in context, don’t immediately make sense. “’When it’s done right, it can contribute to the flow, the richness, if the text suddenly leaps sideways and the readers say, Where the hell did that come from? So they’re not just being hurried down a single path, but instead find themselves running a second and a third way.”

“Can you give me an example?” I ask, handing him a copy of his novel.

“Yeah, let me see now….” He leafs through it. “Yes, for example here it says that Mia dies.” He reads aloud: “‘Shaking, I collapse on the toilet, and there I die of food poisoning from the lunch we had at that small restaurant in the mountains.’”

He looks up. “She doesn’t die. But it’s not a mistake that it’s in the text.”

It’s quarter to eight. We have to break off this first session because we’re meeting Jungersen’s girlfriend, the journalist Mette Thorsen, at an Asian restaurant perched atop the Palace Hotel, not far from the much more humble Park Hotel the photographer and I are staying at.

 

Too blunt

While we sit and enjoy our Singapore slings, Jungersen talks a little about how it was to suddenly earn a lot of money from a book.

That’s not the way it was in the beginning.

First he wrote for four years, during which everything he sent out was sent right back. Short stories, film scripts, a theater piece. No one would touch any of it. Then he spent four years writing his first novel, Krat. That was sent back to him too. For two years, Jungersen sent the manuscript to one publisher after the other while he worked as an information officer and advertising copywriter.

“Then the book was accepted. It became a bestseller and won prizes, and I’ve been able to live off my writing ever since,” says Jungersen. His next book became an even greater success.

“What do you do with the money?” he asks rhetorically. “Do you use it to make your life comfortable? Or do you use it to challenge yourself? Do you use it to create more distance from people – or to get closer to them?”

Jungersen didn’t choose comfort. He traveled to New York and tried to learn something from his publishers there. He admits that he let himself be overly influenced. His style became too minimalist, and he got away from himself.

The detour meant that he had to scrap more drafts than he usually does. Four of them. He compares his method to smashing a clay sculpture and then creating a new one from the shards, again and again.

 

Back on the bunk

The next morning, Jungersen shows up again at the Park Hotel. We meet in the lobby and take the elevator to the fifth floor and room 402. He throws himself familiarly on the bed.

“I don’t think I’ve ever interviewed a recumbent author before,” I say.

“A brilliant idea,” he says.

“Do you lead a bit of a monklike existence in the periods when you’re working on a book?”

“Yes, there’s probably something monastic about it. You focus on your interior world – a daily meditation. But then when it’s over, you just have to go out and meet people and party and travel and experience things. So that as a person you don’t go to seed. In the two or three years between each monkish existence, I try to live life to the hilt.”

But in the monk’s cell, hard research awaits. To get up to speed on a topic, Jungersen’s not content to just hop online or call up people. He prefers to head out into the world to speak with them in person. He flew to Dartmouth College in USA, to talk to a neurophilosopher there. And he also visited a number of teachers in Farum, the Copenhagen suburb where You Disappear unfolds.

“I called up a school in Farum and said, ‘I’m writing a novel that involves a female teacher about 40. She has a teenage son, she’s quite good-looking, she teaches math and PE. I’d really like to talk to someone like that.’ ‘Oh, we have lots of people like that,’ they said. So I went out and spoke with some of them. I asked them, ‘Is it okay if I videotape your apartment? What sort of clothes do you put on when you’re in a good mood? How about when you feel more vulnerable?’ All kinds of questions.”

He spoke with doctors, lawyers, and accountants. And through an association for people with gambling problems, he contacted a man who’d been convicted of swindling. He spoke with the man for three days running over a phone in the corridor of the prison where the man was serving time.

We laugh a bit about that. Then Jungersen says, “For me, research also functions as a lovely break. When you sit alone for four years just writing, it’s pretty damn nice to be out visiting a school.”

Then he hastens to add, mildly irritated, “But the research isn’t really the crux of what I do, not at all. There’s way too much focus on that when I’m interviewed.”

 

The crux

“The magic comes from a whole other place. It’s difficult to talk about, and that’s why people talk so much about research instead.”

He lies on the hotel bed, twisting and turning. He can’t seem to get the pillows to behave properly.

“These pillows here,” he mutters. “Some weird sort of batting – some elf that’s had a turn in a blender….”

“Well,” I say, “shouldn’t we talk about the crux then?”

“We can certainly try,” he says carefully, and then his voice drops almost to a whisper. “What is the crux? It’s something strange, almost magical. I do all these superficial things: sitting down at the computer, talking with those people. It’s all just like the surgeon washing his hands before an operation. There are limits to how long we can talk about the damn hand-washing before it gets boring.”

He tries to explain how this impalpable aspect of writing reminds him of a dream state. “The next day when I read something I’ve written, I often think, What will happen next? I can’t actually remember what I wrote.”

“You surprise yourself?”

“Sure. Lots of people find that they get their best ideas when they’re in the shower or just about to fall asleep – when they’re not consciously looking for them. In a novel like this, there should be a hundred ideas on every page. And how does one create a working routine around that? Ideally, one would stand in the shower all day.”

“How does one do it?”

“It has something to do with directing yourself to a place that feels undirected, uncontrolled. If you say, Now I’m going to pull myself together and write – then nothing of quality will come of it. You need to situate yourself where you can let it all flow over you. That’s one of the reasons that I write in Ireland and other places. Where I can sort of fumble around half dreaming for hours every day. That’s easier in an unfamiliar place. You have to enter the zone. And I simply live there.”

Jungersen thinks that such a life is ill-suited to a job, kids, and family gatherings. “I’m only able to manage it because I’ve been lucky to have a girlfriend who is just as claustrophobic about relationships as any man I’ve met. Mette would flip if I were always around. Ha ha….”

“What’s it like being in the zone?” I ask.

Totally addictive. It’s like the coolest computer game inside your head, where all the rules keep on changing, and the language, and everything….”

 

The lobotomy

“Why do you need to write?”
Again he grows quiet.

“For me it’s one of the most meaningful things you can do. If I don’t write this novel, no one else will. And in my early 20s, I had the sense that I wasn’t really able to come in contact with things, with the world—”

He interrupts himself and starts again.

“The lobotomy,” he says. “I read about someone who’d been sitting in a hospital, simply screaming with pain, psychic pain. He’d been that way for years. Then the man has a lobotomy. The next day the doctor comes in, and the man is quietly playing chess with a fellow patient. ‘Well,’ says the doctor, ‘that’s wonderful that it doesn’t hurt anymore.’ And the man says to him, ‘But it does hurt, and just as much….’”

Here Jungersen drops his voice before finishing the story. “And then the man goes on playing. That is to say that the pain was the same, but he’s no longer in contact with it. I find that so spooky.

“And that’s a bit how it was with me as a young man. I didn’t feel that I was fully in contact with the world and my feelings. For me the years of writing have had the opposite trajectory of a lobotomy. By training my attentiveness and empathy for hours, each and every day for decades, I’ve achieved what feels like a very intimate contact with the world. I think I’ve simply developed certain neural pathways. The brain is flexible, after all.”

“So in a way, you’ve written yourself closer to the world?”

“Yes. I’ve written myself closer to the world. It feels utterly euphoric, utterly intoxicatingly delicious. Besides which there’s that entire dream world. One can just float around.”

 

Chemical love

“Where’d you actually grow up?” I ask.
“Humlebæk.”
“What did your parents do?”
“My father was a lawyer and a banker, and my mother taught Greek and Latin in gymnasium.”
“So you lived your entire childhood in Humlebæk?”
“Yes. Why?”
“It’s just nice to know.”
“Where do you come from?”
“Brønshøj.”
“Do you think that’s significant? Does someone know you better if they know you come from Brønshøj?”
“Well, no….”
We don’t go any deeper into his history. There doesn’t seem to be any particular reason to.
“Before we finish, we just have to talk about love,” I say. “After all, You Disappear is a sort of romance, isn’t it?”
“Yes, I think so.”
He rests his legs on the foot of the bed.

In the same way that crime has gone from being a trivial genre to being an influential literary one in the last 20 years, Jungersen says he’d really like to take the romance novel off the newsstand and invest it with something more than Um, should she choose the baron or the chief surgeon?

“So your book is sort of Barbara Cartland meets Dostoevsky?” I ask.

He laughs. “Sounds good.”

“Okay,” I say, “but isn’t love simply chemistry?”

“Well, with my head I want to say yes,” he replies. “It’s all the law of nature. We are animals. That’s what I say when I think about it.”

“What about when you feel?”

“Then I reserve the right to be confused. I’m not going to say that what I think is wrong, but … I’d like to reserve the right to say Uhhh….”

“What’s behind the uhhh?”

“Argh – I do think it’s all chemistry! But what’s interesting is, why does whether it is or isn’t chemistry mean something to you and me? We have the sense that a world that’s elevated above the chemical would be a more romantic or soulful one. But why, actually?”

“Good question,” I say.

The photographer steps into the room to take some pictures, and I go out to the bathroom. But I forget to turn off the tape recorder.

“What kind of watch do you have there?” asks Jungersen.

“It’s lovely, isn’t it?” says the photographer. “It’s not very accurate, and it makes weird sounds.”

“Really?”

“I’m quite fond of it. It’s got 260 parts, and that’s why it’s not very accurate. Sometimes it loses a bit of time, other times it’s fast. There’s no system to it. Sometimes it keeps perfect time for three weeks. Then it thinks it should gain a minute….”

“Well then. The question is: does this watch have a soul? We’ll have to ask Kjeld. Kjeld!”

“What?” I ask, stepping back into the room.

“Per’s watch – sometimes there goes a week when it loses time, and then three weeks when it tells time perfectly. So my question to you is: does this watch have a soul?”

“I’d have to say yes. Because metals are chemistry and chemistry has a soul. We did agree on that, didn’t we?”

“Now don’t go blaming me for that,” says Jungersen. “But look at it. That’s one soulful watch, right?”