Sunday, September 18, 2016

Slaap zacht, Jonny Idaho - Auke Hulst

Earlier this year the inaugural Harland Award for novels was awarded to the novel Slaap zacht, Jonny Idaho by Auke Hulst. The Harland Award for fantastic (read F, SF and H) short fiction has been around since 1976 and now they have expanded to longer works. It really is named award. I can't get over the irony of using the English word for an 'award' instead of the perfectly adequate Dutch word 'prijs'  when celebrating the best fantastic novel published in the Dutch language. But never mind that, let's move on to the book.

Liberally translated the title means something like 'Sweet Dreams, Johnny Idaho.' It's the first novel I've read by Hulst. From what I have seen of him, he is an author who doesn't seem to be bothered by labels like literary and genre. His inspiration is drawn from a number of classic works of literature - Melville's Moby Dick is often referenced - but also from science fiction greats such as Frank Herbert and Kurt Vonnegut. The novel uses elements of both, fusing it into a story that can be approached from either direction, although it is probably best to leave literary conventions behind completely.

After the financial meltdown of 2008 and the years of government involvement, regulation and other hardships, the financial world has decided to try a new approach. Somewhere in one of the world's oceans an archipelago arises. A place governed by corporate principles, where society is stratified by economic success. It is a place where people live to work and consume, and where Big Brother makes sure that is what you do. The story follows three people drawn to this capitalist paradise. Dutch investment banker Willem Gerson, promising, young, Japanese researcher Hatsu Hamada and traumatized, American teenager Johnny Idaho all have their own reasons for coming to the Archipelago. Although their economic status separates them, their lives are inexorably pulled together.

Slaap zacht, Johnny Idaho is a full blown dystopia. In the book we are shown the relentless pressure to perform, to rake in the big bucks, to consume and to do all of it within the contracts the archipelago offers. All of it is overseen by a nasty police force and ever present electronic surveillance. Society shows no coherency beyond economic status. It is a multinational group of people drawn together by greed and desperation and kept in check by the self-imposed laws of capitalism.The archipelago is tailor-made to suit the needs of corporate entities rather than people.  It is, in other words, a nightmare beyond what Orwell imagined in his 1984. A book that clearly inspired Hulst.

It is not surprising then, that the characters spend most of their time being completely miserable. They cover the full spectrum from pitiful to pathetic. In true dystopian style this novel is a very depressing read. I've always considered it a failing of Dutch literature in general that it cannot seem to discuss the human condition with even the slightest hint of optimism. The Dutch literary canon is a parade of losers, anti-heroes and tortured souls that, after being forced to read a bunch of them in school, made me wary to pick up more than one or two a year. I have to admit that in this case it is fitting. Mirroring their dismal environment, the characters explore greed, jealousy, revenge, guilt and, perhaps above all, mortality.

One other striking feature of the novel is the way it depicts loneliness. All three characters are intensely lonely. Social interactions are all business, there doesn't seem to be any room for something as intrinsically human as friendship or love. Everything is reduced to business or entertainment. Sometimes it is even hard to tell which is which. The characters are always connected to the rest of society, but more connections and more surveillance seems to result in more superficial contact. Human interaction is completely based on physical rather than emotional needs.

There's quite a bit of social commentary in the novel. Corporate greed is perhaps the most obvious one. On the Archipelago the mindset that caused the system to crash in 2008 is still thriving. The winners of this event are the ones that managed to push the losses and responsibility to someone else rather than the ones with a stronger sense of morality. Hulst has a few things to say about how modern means of communication, surveillance and data storage is changing the way people interact. A third one is the way the Archipelago deals with refugees. They allow a number of them in to keep wages low.

The language Hulst uses is something one does not come across often in Dutch genre novels. Most of them tend to be more focused on plot and storytelling. Prose is functional but rarely beautiful. Hulst approaches it differently. There is a lot of attention to descriptions, metaphor and internal monologue. Hulst emphasizes parallels between the situation of the Archipelago and the state of mind of his characters. One of the most obvious examples of this is the volcanic ash cloud that hangs over the islands. It nicely mirrors how Gerson's success in business turns to ashes in his mouth in the face of his imminent death for instance. Dialogue is used as an expression of loneliness and the superficial contacts the characters have with other people. Rarely do the characters have very deep conversations. If they do, suspicion and misdirection are often part of these conversations. Another interesting thing is how Johnny Idaho is telling his own story whereas Hulst uses a more standard third person narrative for the other two main characters.

In the end, Slaap zacht, Johnny Idaho is a very well written novel but also a very depressing read. Not just because of the miserable lives of the characters but also because the near future setting is so frighteningly plausible. While Hulst's corporate dystopia might not be the most original, the execution is very good indeed. Of course it is too 'literate' to market as science fiction and probably too genre to do well among the more science-fiction-can't-be-literature crowd. If you consider yourself not to be stuck on either side of the genre/ literature divide you could do worse than try this novel though. I was a bit doubtful when I picked it up, but it turned out to be well worth the read.

Book Details
Title: Slaap zacht, Johnny Idaho
Author: Auke Hulst
Publisher: Ambo|Anthos
Pages: 383
Year: 2015
Language: Dutch
Format: Paperback
ISBN: 978-90-414-2483-9
First published: 2015

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