Sunday, March 22, 2009

The Exception (A Review)

I had just finished reading Jakov Lind's Landscape in Concrete, a 1963 novella about a Nazi soldier and accidental criminal, when I came across a review for Christian Jungersen's The Exception. A 2004 European bestseller, The Exception has been translated from Danish by Anna Paterson and, like Lind's book, deals with questions regarding human behavior during wartime. Unfortunately, however, according to Bookgasm's Mark Rose, The Exception is also "deeply distasteful" and "its attitudes, as expressed by its characters, simultaneously signal the death knell of European culture and legacy while being masked under the guise of liberal progressivism. If European readers believe in the puerile philosophy expounded herein, then Europe is surely lost." Hmmm. While I wouldn't go quite that far, I do agree that the novel feels rather pointless - kind of like a misanthrope's big rant on Why People Suck - but I did enjoy (morbidly) the embedded articles on genocide and psychology. But everything else . . . meh.

Warning: Great Snark Ahead

The Exception centers on four women - Iben, Malene, Ann-Lise, and Camilla - who work for the Danish Center for Information on Genocide, a small non-profit in Copenhagen, headed by a man named Paul, that disseminates information on genocide for governments and researchers. Malene is suffering from early-onset rheumatoid arthritis and Iben is her longtime best friend (they are in their late twenties). Camilla is a middle-aged woman who works closely with Iben and Malene, while Ann-Lise (Camilla's age) is relegated to the back room, where she feels left out and ignored by her three coworkers. Things are going smoothly, despite some tension with Ann-Lise, until one day, out of the blue, Iben and Malene receive threatening emails from, an anonymizer server that makes tracking the sender impossible. Now, as professionals who write about and raise awareness of war crimes for a living, you would think that these two would be no strangers to anonymous death threats. But no, Iben has a big freak-out and the whole thing catalyzes a period of bullying and intimidation among the four women of the DCIG.

Basically, it's supposed to be microcosm of the group dynamics that lead perfectly ordinary people to commit horrendous atrocities, such as the Holocaust, the Rwandan genocide, and the Stanford Prison Experiment catastrophe. So, in other words, the characters are not meant to be particularly likeable. But did they really have to be so incredibly annoying? The four DCIG employees start out as these liberal progressive tolerant self-righteous Social Democrat types who then descend into immature playground tormentors. They even resort to breaking into someone's house at night to access her computer. One gets mad at another just for looking at her and not sitting with her at lunch. Practical "jokes" are played. Ergo: Mean Girls = Apocalypse Now.

At that point I was ready to hop into the story myself, go Super Saiyan Republican, and start bitch-slapping every one of these insufferable, whiny "ladies" until they starting acting like responsible adult human beings again. Of course, presiding distantly and benevolently over the four hysterical females is Paul, the level-headed man, which gives The Exception some sadly sexist overtones. I mean, other than that one war criminal and his goons, all the male characters in this book come across as pretty normal when compared to the DCIG drama queens. Probably the best part is when Iben starts researching split personality disorder and goes to Paul to inform him that Ann-Lise doubtlessly has this highly rare condition. Wow, srsly? Does Jungersen honestly expect us to believe that we are all potentially this neurotic, bratty, and self-destructive? But lo! there is hope. You can still be the Exception, that lone individual who rises up above the collective juggernaut and acts selflessly in defense of your fellow man, whatever the personal risk. Maybe, that is. Possibly. Uh, actually we're not quite sure. You know what? Humanity might just be doomed after all.

And yeah, that's pretty much the moral of the story. Again I ask, what's the point? This?
"We all know the bottle of wine we've drunk tonight could have paid for vaccinating twenty kids and saving the lives of at least one. We're no different from the Germans during World War Two. They knew that Jews were being killed but they ignored what it meant."
Okay, so enjoying a bottle of wine with an old friend is the moral equivalent of going about your daily business in Weimar while Buchenwald was in full swing? WTF? So where are you while your two bosom buddies Iben and Malene and bullying poor Ann-Lise into emotional hell? Oh, Iben. Does Jungersen expect us to believe you are an Everywoman who merely acts as any of us are capable of acting given the right circumstances?
Iben can smell the evil inside a young man cutting in just ahead of her. He is wearing a long coat and carries a briefcase, but she has a vision of him inside a Russian army helicopter, throwing out mined toys to kill children in Afghanistan. Ruthlessness oozes from his pores and the smell prickles inside Iben's nostrils, like the drinks of freshly opened lemonade she remembers from childhood. . .

She lands near a young woman walking her old bike with a child seat on the back. She is the type of person who, as a trained nurse, helped eliminate invalids in gas chambers well before the Second World War. Her brand of evil stinks like the raw meat left in a plastic bag that you forgot to throw out before going away on a holiday.


Another issue: this attitude towards immigrants that occasionally popped up. Iben acts fearful around obviously foreign men while Denmark's Bosnian refugees are portrayed as a hard-partying bunch with nothing better to do than receive state benefits, toast to the memory of their lost homeland, and shelter war criminals. As someone who lives near Utica, New York, I found that so depiction so far off base it wasn't even in the ballpark.


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