August 30, 2007

Book review: "The Exception," by Christian Jungersen

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The Exception
By Christian Jungersen
Nan A. Talese / ISBN: 978-03855-162-97

"Ignoring the small flash of doubt in yourself -- that is what evil is. Nobody thinks of himself as evil, but that deception is part of evil's nature. And you can't lie to yourself all the time. Once in awhile, there's that moment when you question if you are doing the right thing. And that's your only chance to choose what is good, to do the right thing. And the moment lasts maybe fifteen minutes every other month, maybe less."

The little lesson about life quoted above is something a lot of us (especially Americans) are starting to realize more and more; that the root of what we traditionally call "evil" lies not in the cartoonish villainy we've assigned over the decades to such groups as the Nazis and the Klan, but rather in the small everyday lapses in ethics all of us commit regularly, which when multiplied by millions is what leads to things like Hitler, Franco, Stalin, Bush, etc. "Evil" is when we see something happening that we know is ethically wrong, but turn a blind eye towards because it's easier to do so; evil is when we overreact, when we rush to judgment, when we affect a self-righteous tone, when we abuse whatever tiny little amount of power any of us might have in our particular lives. It is something we're all guilty of, that none of us ever think we're guilty of ourselves, but when multiplied by an entire society is what leads us into the grand messes of both the world and of history.

The Exception, by Christian Jungersen

And perhaps the guiltiest parties of all, or so argues Danish novelist Christian Jungersen in his brilliant new book The Exception, are those who believe they could never be guilty in the first place -- radical liberals, for example, humanitarians, those from pacifist countries -- because it is these people precisely who are blundering through such small evil acts without ever acknowledging them, without recognizing them for what they are. it's a fascinating and controversial thing for someone in Jungersen's position to posit, which is what has made Jungersen a fascinating and controversial author in his native Denmark; for Denmark, you see, has a long and proud tradition of pacifism and humanitarianism, including being one of the only countries on the planet during the Nazi era to officially and publicly harbor Jews. As a result, or at least according to Jungersen, there is now a certain amount of "liberal haughtiness" inherent in the Danish national character; a certain proclivity these days, for example, for the average Dane to take a dismissive stance towards what's been happening in America this decade, to profess how glad they are that they live in a "more enlightened" country that is "above" such things. Jungersen argues in this novel that no society is "above" such behavior, because such behavior is an ingrained part of the human condition; that all it takes is the right combination of kindling, fuel and flame to ignite a bonfire of hate and violence in almost any situation you can name, in almost any society on the planet.

And the way Jungersen demonstrates this in The Exception is even more brilliant; he sets the entire story within the delicately liberal world of "non-governmental organizations," or NGOs, which deserves to be explained a little for those not already familiar, in order for today's review to make sense...

Most Americans, of course, are already familiar with not-for-profit organizations, whether religious in nature or cultural or historical. In northern Europe, though, where they're known as the aforementioned NGOs, such groups have taken on an entire culture of their own, because of the governments there being much more socialistic in nature; that is, places like Norway and Sweden and Holland and Denmark extract a lot more money from each citizen through taxes, but provide a lot more things in return, like national healthcare and a pervasive welfare system, deep financial support for NGOs and the like. As a result, you see the following in small amounts in America, and especially in big cities with large liberal bases (New York, Chicago, San Francisco, etc), but in northern Europe especially you see a sizable proportion of the population who will spend their entire careers working in the NGO "industry," attending an endless series of conferences in progressive global cities, and going on an endless series of sabbaticals to third-world countries. Needless to say, this keeps the NGO world a highly insular, highly gossipy one, especially considering the close ties it has to the insular, gossipy world of academia; and also like the academic world, needless to say that the vast majority of its "lifers" are ultra-liberal in political makeup, just like the majority of military lifers are ultra-conservative.

Now, I don't want today's essay to become one big unchecked ultra-liberal bashing; being in the arts myself, of course, I have lots of friends who are radical liberals, and there are lots of things to like about these people as well as be frustrated by. (And for what it's worth, I consider myself a strict moderate with progressive leanings, a political stance that can also be criticized in certain undeniable ways.) And I also want to specifically point out that I'm marking a difference here between mere liberals and radical liberals, just like there's a difference between the merely religious and Fundamentalists; that there's nothing wrong with simply having opinions about the world, and with standing up for these opinions based on your own ethical convictions. But it's undeniable that Jungersen's novel is in many ways a scathing indictment of radical liberals specifically, which is why today's essay is going to mostly concern this topic too; and this is even more shocking, of course, because of it coming from an author who is a pacifist northern-European liberal himself, and that it devastatingly points out step by step all the terrible things about most ultra-liberals that such people can rarely even admit about themselves -- the passive-aggression that borders on psychopathic, the tendency to wildly overreact to honest misunderstandings, the utter lack of a sense of humor, the proclivity to go around "preaching" to others from a standpoint of moral superiority. And not only that, but Jungersen also shows how when these traits are laid on top of each other in a certain order, even a group of ultra-liberal NGO lifers can create an environment of emotional terror and intimidation as oppressive as any fascist society.

The novel takes place at one of these NGOs, in fact, the fictional Danish Center for Information on Genocide (or DCIG), whose entire staff consists of five people -- Iben and Malene, old personal friends who do most of the "big thinking" as well as administrative chores; Camilla, the group's secretary, receptionist and administrative assistant; Anne-Lise, their part-time librarian intern; and Paul, the only male, who heads the group and raises most of its budget, and who is out of the office more often than he's in. It is a bad time when it comes to money, in fact, reflecting something that's true as well in the real world of NGOs; that the more we progress as a modern society, the more NGO administrators our planet's universities are pumping out, even as the money available for NGOs worldwide has grown at a much slower rate. It's created a situation of somewhat desperation at these organizations lately; where if you lose your current job, there's a very good chance that you might never find one again in your field, and be relegated to either working at a Starbucks in your forties and while holding a PhD, the humiliation of permanent welfare, or perhaps becoming a jaded alcoholic housewife, whose kids all have behavioral problems because of your soul-sucking, gin-swilling aimless ennui (a particularly deep fear of all these specific female characters).

It is a world where no one actually says to each other what exactly they mean, or what exactly they're thinking; where every statement made out loud, every single one, must first be vetted through an entire series of inner-brain filters, checking for political correctness and potential long-term impact, of how it might influence the way those around you perceive you, of whether it's too confrontational or not enough, of who else that person might relay the statement to themselves, as a codified passive-aggressive statement that you originally wanted to make to that third party to begin with, except can't because all the other NGO people would then passively-aggressively react to you, and run you right out of their insular little world altogether without a single bad thing ever actually being said to your face. Whew! Welcome to the world of radical academic liberals, Jungersen seems to be saying to us, deliciously adding to the conflict by making the office almost exclusively female in the first place; that is, so that the main characters are not only running around not saying what they actually mean, not only acting in a passive-aggressive manner, not only wildly overreacting to every situation, but as women doing it in the most cruel, catty, emotionally devastating ways possible. Which would normally, of course, result in not much more than the upper dramatic limits of the normal workplace environment that so many office workers have to deal with themselves; but then Jungersen ups the ante by having both Iben and Malene receive death threats one night via email, from someone who quite obviously knows who they are.

Is it a war criminal their organization has outed in the past? Is it the rowdy neo-Nazi kids in Copenhagen who give all the NGOs a hard time? Or is it more sinister and a lot closer to home? That's the mystery that fuels the entire storyline of The Exception, and is a brilliant plot device for Jungersen to employ; because under his deft skills, the story here quickly becomes not the one of the hate mails themselves, but rather the way the various staff members of the center react to them, creating a situation of inner-office suspicion and paranoia that gets worse with each day, and especially when combined with the natural personality flaws of each character as well. Because that's another smart element Jungersen has added to this story, of making each of these characters emotionally scarred ones, whose scars in fact are precisely what led each of them to the DCIG in the first place -- turns out, for example, that Camilla dated a Serbian war criminal in her past before knowing he was a war criminal, while Iben was a victim of a political kidnapping in Africa during her activist youth, one that ended badly for the kidnappers but not the earnest young white hostages themselves.

It creates the same kind of situation here that Tom Perrotta created less successfully in his novel and screenplay Little Children; where a series of annoying but innocuous personality flaws are layered on top of each other, among a group of people who already dislike each other and are prone to gossipy histrionics, until eventually exploding into a surprising orgy of violence and blood. Because that of course is the final touch of genius to The Exception, and what makes it so brilliant in the first place, instead of some whiny humor-free ripoff of The Office; that Jungersen carries events through to a shocking level of actual violence, in a solidly logical way that makes you absolutely believe it could actually happen, to the point where some people die, others have nervous breakdowns, and yet others might or might not be spending the rest of their lives in jail because of it. It's a powerful message here that Jungersen has to convey to his fellow Danes, a refreshing one given both its originality and the way he utterly proves it -- that maybe all the haughty EU liberals these days should lay off those crazy Americans a little, or at least acknowledge that every society on the planet is prone to what's going on in the US these days, given just the tiniest change to that society's status quo (like, say, having the tallest building in that country blown up by airplane-hijacking suicidal terrorists). It's a point that's hammered home over and over in The Exception, in fact, both in the actual storyline and in the historical cases of genocide that the characters are constantly referencing; that a wartime situation changes everything about a society, whether that's a large society like an entire country or a tiny one like a five-person academic research office. Bring together the right combination of innocent yet evil little behavior, Jungersen argues here, and you're bound to create the kind of "grand evil" we associate with those like Hitler and Bush, even if all the people involved are literally pacifist war-protesting radical liberals.

To be sure, there are also some problems with the book, mostly technical in nature which regular readers know I don't mind that much; it's kind of a clunky translation, for example, utilizing a personal style that's awfully bland and pedestrian, and with the narrative containing way too much expository material concerning the history of genocidal acts (however fascinating it might be). The reason to read The Exception, though, is not for the personal style on display, but rather the convoluted yet concretely realistic storyline, for the masterful way Jungersen guides us over 500 pages from usual petty office politics to a literal bloody civil war. It's easy to see why Jungersen has become as popular and controversial in Europe as he has; and while Americans are definitely not his target audience here, it's a story I think a lot of Americans are going to find fascinating nonetheless.

Out of 10:
Story: 9.7
Characters: 9.2
Style: 6.6
Overall: 9.4

Read even more about The Exception: Official site | Amazon | GoodReads | LibraryThing | Shelfari | Wikipedia

Filed by Jason Pettus at 2:00 PM, August 30, 2007. Filed under: Literature | Literature:Fiction | Reviews |