Uncertainty by Michael Larsen

I wrote a little while ago about the delightfully random way books come into my hands. To paraphrase Poe, I cannot, for my soul remember how, when, or even precisely where I first became acquainted with Michael Larsen’s Uncertainty, but I can certainly say that I’m glad it did. I see a lot of books, and an impossibly large number of them look like something I wouldn’t mind reading. I guess what tipped the scales for Uncertainty was Kirkus Reviews description of it as “a whodunit with echoes of Robbe-Grillet, John Hawkes, William Gibson, and J.P. Smith,” and the description of the plot as a guy trying to solve the murder of his girlfriend, his search especially urgent because he’s the chief suspect. It’s the Laura trope, one I’m especially fond of, because the understanding of the character of the departed becomes the solution of the mystery, that character, of course, being much more ambiguous that the searcher imagines. But in the European tradition there’s an added philosophical layer, the usual question of if the past or even (gasp) reality itself is ever really truly comprehensible, or becomes more uncertain the closer you examine it, but in this case there is added the more modern complication of the further uncertainty of technology and the increasing ability, in a digital age, of technology to manipulate apparent “reality.”  In other words, the anxiety that appears to be affecting a lot of shaky psyches these days – is this real or some kind of virtual TV show? The thriller is the dominate contemporary form of narrative, mostly because it’s so flexible and so effective. The protagonist of Uncertainty follows the ambiguous path in a sex and drugs haze, invoking for me Brett Easton Ellis or Jerzy Kosinski. Larsen is remarkably prescient about the problem of authenticity in our cyber-world, but pulls back from the full Blow-up in his resolution, opting instead for the usual pages of explication from a sneering villain and even a car chase. The final vision is dark enough, however, to qualify the book as a work of Virtual Noir.

Uncertainty was a smash in Larsen’s native Denmark when it appeared in 1994 and was at least well received when it was translated here a couple of years later. Although he probably benefited from fellow Dane Peter Hoeg’s Smilla’s Sense of Snow, it’s bad timing that he was too early for the current “Nordic Noir” craze initiated by that crazy female with the dragon tattoo, as Uncertainty appears to be Larsen’s only book to be translated and has now gone out of print. It’s readily available used, however, and I would certainly recommend picking up a copy if you see one. In the interim, here are a few choice passages I hope you will enjoy:

Everything’s so disconnected. Her face with its polite smile. Her impeccable manners, impeccable façade. And underneath, her lust.

One is drawn magnetically to the edges of the shadow, but then one becomes wary.

TV is light: it’s the only medium that emits light; that’s the secret of our fascination with it.

Perhaps we’re a kind of mutation, the first of a generation that has become fixated on looking, and whose greatest revelation is also its curse: that life can only be looked at.


Progress is a leech, a parasite whose greatest accomplishment is to be able to allay, at a later date, all the catastrophe it creates.


When the world as we know it becomes formulized into an artificial universe, it’ll seem as incomprehensible as it does today. Images will pour down like multicolored rain from satellites dotting the sky like prisms.


The most important thing is to acknowledge beauty and preserve the ability to be fascinated. If you can see the beauty even in what you most despise, you have a chance of mastering it.


You’ve assured yourself a synthetic immortality, Monique. You’ll crackle across thousands of screens in the New World. They’ve reconstructed you and given you eternal life in a world that unites the seemingly incompatible: numbers and images. You’ve become the sum total of other people’s fantasies, a mathematical problem in the heads of sick people.


Brain-dead narcissists lead us through idiotic television games, news programs bring us to war zones with images of the wounded and mutilated, but the only thing that bothers us is that no one dies when we press the remote. But that’ll come too. It’s on its way.

About ubu507

memory documentation and manipulation
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