Wednesday, June 15, 2016

What I Read: The Invoice

I remember bloggers (not which ones, sorry! comment if it was you!) talking about Karlsson's The Room ages ago. At the time, I tried to find it in Swedish because I wanted to keep up with my Swedish reading and because it sounded kind of quirky and interesting. My efforts were fruitless and I ended up reading The House of the Spirits in Swedish instead.

Fast forward to now, and The Invoice turns up on NetGalley. The name Jonas Karlsson rings a bell, and I decide this will be a good way to take him for a test run before I try to hunt down Den perfekte vännen (the short story collection where Rummet was originally published; turns out it has no standalone Swedish edition).

Anyway, the premise for The Invoice is simple: everyone in the world is being billed for their happiness. The happier you are and the luckier you've been, the more you have to pay. Our narrator is a young slacker who has a tolerable, if dull, job (clerk at an independent video store) and is still stinging from the end of a painful love affair. He's also missed all the announcements about this new happiness "tax," and when the first bill arrives, he dismisses it as an advertisement: the cost is simply astronomical (5 million kronor, or around $600,000 US) and he knows he's never purchased anything that expensive.* But it quickly becomes apparent that this is for real. He calls the company and tries to negotiate his bill, since he has no means of paying it off. The story follows his meetings and negotiations with the company and with his handler/representative, Maud. Along the way we learn more about his interests, his accomplishments (or lack thereof), and his life.

The concept is cute and also patently Swedish—a bureaucracy devoted to reallocating wealth and resources to ensure that everyone is treated fairly? only in Sweden!—without being some heavyhanded morality play. Someone on Goodreads called it a satire but I don't agree. There's nothing in here being mocked, as the concept of the happiness tax is leveraged not to make fun of the Swedish system but as a way for the narrator to reflect on his life and for the author to posit what he believes is a happy life. Overall, it's quite sweet.

That said, it wasn't flawless.

Spelreglerna is now on my list of Swedish books to find, if only because I want to read this in the original language. Not just because I'm Team Original Language, but because the English translation felt clunky, somehow. Sometimes I read an English translation of something Swedish and it has flow and poetry and I just lose myself in it (for example, Doctor Glass). Other times I read an English translation of something Swedish and there is something tinny and I start to wonder more about how the original was probably phrased, or how I would have translated it, than about what's going to happen next. Like, I think I'd probably dislike The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo in either language, but I couldn't get over how weird the English translation was and put it down after 20 pages. The Invoice wasn't nearly as weird as that one, but it just felt choppy, and I wonder how choppy the original was.

This weirdness wasn't helped by a combination of US spelling and punctuation rules with UK terms: so the granite was "gray" and he talked to "Mr." someone-or-other, but he lived in a "flat" and rode up there in a "lift." I've asked around the editing neighborhood to see what professionals make of this, and it's apparently not unheard of for publishers to prefer this mix of styles. Others pointed out that the author has the final say, rather than the publisher, so now I don't know if I should be side-eying the translator (who I can't name because there is some formatting fuckery with my ebook edition, so that the "About the Author," book design, jacket design, jacket photography, and translation are all just "TK." Or is that some kind of publishing jargon I don't know about?), someone at Hogarth, or Karlsson himself. Or should I even be bothered by that at all? Am I just being way too picky? I think I would have noticed this mix if I'd read it elsewhere, but maybe not. (Now when I'm back in the US in October, I'll have to dig through my copies of Roald Dahl, C. S. Lewis, and Ian Fleming to see how they were handled.)

Putting aside questions of language, there was one thing about the actual story that bugged me, and that was the narrator's relationship with Sunita. The whole affair is introduced rather clunkily, with the narrator flipping through movies to sort and seeing one that reminds him of Sunita, "the love of [his] life." Much later on, Sunita comes up when he's trying to sort his accounts with the company billing him for his happiness and we hear the whole story, so introducing her so early and so obviously as his One Twoo Wuv seems kind of pointless. Or it would have been more frustrating to hear nothing about Sunita until he suddenly mentions her? I don't know. Ugh.

Thinking about this aspect of my issue with Sunita, I realized what's weird to me about the tone: the whole story reads like someone telling you about a thing that happened from their perspective, rather than you riding along with someone while something is happening. If we were riding along with the narrator, it would be really strange for the first-person flashback about Sunita to introduce her as "the love of my life." The narrator would obviously already know that. But if the narrator were sitting with us and telling us this story over a coffee, explaining who Sunita is like that makes more sense. But I don't know how much I care for that level of...narrative distance?

Anyway, back to Sunita. What is definitely off-putting about her is the way she's fetishized. Not a whole lot, but Karlsson goes to some lengths in describing how foreign and different she looks and dresses when a simple, "She was an international student from India." would have sufficed. To be fair, everyone in the book (except the narrator) gets a pretty lengthy visual description, so this moment isn't entirely out of place. It's a small thing, in the grand scheme of things, but I was still a bit put off by it.

 Anyway, to get to the point: The Invoice is a quick and cheerful read, perfect for flights or to break you out of a reading slump. And if you feel like you're an aimless slacker (like me!), then it'll probably help you feel a little (or a lot) better about your life choices. And, as always, I received a free copy from NetGalley in exchange for a review, but that made me no less honest in expressing my opinions.

*Fun fact: there is some bullshit company called Bolagsupplyssning that thinks it's cute to send advertisements that look like official forms or invoices. So when the narrator throws out the first bill, it's completely believable, because I've done the same thing (not before having a small heart attack first—fuck you, Bolagsupplyssning, for sending that out in the middle of tax season).


  1. Oh yeah, I remember The Room! I so wanted to read it but could not get a copy of the book. This one also sounds fun and quirky, just what I thought The Room would be like. It's interesting that another Swedish author (Fredrik Backman) writes similarly quirky books.

    1. Ohh, A Man Called Ove! I keep seeing that in the store and meaning to pick it up. It seems like it's a really good book but also at a level of Swedish I can deal with.