The truest physical expression of human empathy may well be to cringe: the grimace, the shoulders drawn to the ears, eyes narrowing or going shut. Cringing is an involuntary response to another’s humiliation or pain that reinforces compassionate connections with others. For a story to inspire a reader to cringe for its character is evidence of high, fine craftsmanship. Only the right tone, gesture, phrase, will inspire true empathy cramps.
I cringed a lot while reading Lena Andersson’s Willful Disregard, so visceral and succinctly put is the heartbreak of its heroine, Ester Nilsson. The book’s subtitle proclaims it to be “a novel about love,” but the book goes farther, one could argue, in encompassing all the bloody inequities of infatuation, particularly the unrequited. A writer and philosopher of sharp, unforgiving intelligence, Ester lives the life of a pragmatic ascetic until she meets Hugo Rask, an artist decades her senior whose work she is assigned to cover for a lecture.
What makes the story so enthralling is not Hugo, but Ester, whose powers of mind are so great that her solipsism becomes another character entirely. The love affair begins purely in her own head and ramps alarmingly: “With every day she devoted to preparing the lecture, her sense of affinity with its subject grew. From feeling respect on Sunday she progressed to reverence on Tuesday and by about Thursday she felt an insistent yearning, which on Friday turned into a deep sense of lack…it turned out that a person could miss someone she had never met, except in her imagination.” Ester seems unaware that a self-styled Hugo Rask is being assembled by her own considerable creative forces, forming a powerful persona into which, upon meeting, the lesser man steps.
Rask, for his part, encourages Ester; he may not love her, but who can resist being adored? Ester is galvanized by Rask’s reel-and-slack: late-night texts, cozy dinners, physical intimacy. When he abandons her without explanation for weeks at a time, she uses the rules of logic with which she has navigated every other facet of life to convince herself that he returns her ardor- that, sooner or later, he will commit. She becomes handy at rationalizing his behavior. “The dreadful gulf between thought and words, will and expression, reality and unreality, and the things that flourish in that gulf, are what this story is about.” Just when the period of silence has been long enough to convince us that Rask has mercifully cut ties and given
REVIEW: Lena Andersson's Willful Disregard
By Kayla Rae Whitaker
Ester her freedom, “he tossed her yet another juicy bone – and consigned her once again to the mincer. Forgoing the gestures of lazy concern. Being strong enough to wear the mask of cruelty. Amputating the leg that will otherwise rot from gangrene. These were not for him.”
For all his velvet manipulation, Rask is far less interesting than Ester, whose infatuation is such a hearty creature that even she is bewildered by how bulletproof it proves to neglect, Rask’s banal artwork, or even displays of lazy thinking she would, in anyone else, find repugnant. In interviewing Rask, she finds that “his answers turned out to consist mainly of impenetrable questions…Ester got the feeling she was providing the words for what he was engaged in and who he was, but that he simultaneously believed he was the one thinking them.” Indeed. Yet she loves him. Even when evidence that he is carrying on a relationship with a mystery woman in another city becomes impossible to ignore, the beast rages, stronger than ever. There is an urgency to Ester’s adoration that makes the reading of the brief book a heart-pounder; we look on in dread and anticipation as Ester descends, waiting for the best to commence: “The harmony would come once she had toiled for it. You had to earn it. You had to suffer and struggle in order for pleasure to arrive and then be worth something.”
The nature of attraction and infatuation holds enough mystery for the reader to draw their own interpretation of how, and why, Ester is held captive by her experience. It would be hard to read Willful Disregard and not devote some reflection to the larger issue of gender inequity in the Rask-Nilsson dynamic, a very specific relationship featuring a woman of uncommon intelligence and an older man who implicitly encourages her to destroy herself with those abilities. A contrasting theory: Ester’s infatuation as a reflection of not admiration but a certain envy for Rask’s success and stature as a man in his field, a regard and respect a female counterpart would perhaps have to work twice as hard to achieve and may still never find – relationships and the greater world both remaining arenas in which women, lamentably, find themselves at a senseless and frustrating loss.
These are two readings among many. That we care enough for Ester to attempt to find meaning in her adoration is a testament to the narrative’s power. In a rare bright spot, we are told that Ester “had a presentiment that one day she would be thoroughly tired of this story and indifferent to its outcome. She sensed that she would look back in amazement on her struggle and the fact that she had thought him worth it. And on that day she would thank her lucky stars at having escaped his company.” For Ester’s sake, we can only hope this proves true.
About the Reviewer:
Kayla Whitaker holds an MFA in fiction from New York University, and her work has appeared in Smokelong Quarterly, BODY, Bodega, Joyland, The Switchback, Five Quarterly and others. Twice nominated for the Pushcart Prize, she recently appeared alongside such luminaries as Lynyrd Skynyrd as a commentator in the History Channel’s southern culture documentary You Don’t Know Dixie. Originally from Eastern Kentucky, she currently lives in New York. Her debut novel is forthcoming from Random House in January 2017.