Miki Liukkonen: O [O]
The book opens with a quotation from Don DeLillo‘s Cosmopolis: There are dead stars still shining because their brilliance has fallen in the trap of time.Where am I in this light that does not exist? which may,be a suitable motto for this book. However there is another way of summing it up. It is massive (novel)858 pages) in the Finnish original and 961 in the French translation which I read) with over a hundred characters whose tales are told over seven days and nearly everyone of them has some psychosis/neurosis/phobia. The list of the characters, kindly provided by the author, takes up twelve pages. Even if you are a professional in the mental health field, I guarantee that there will be some psychoses/neuroses/phobias that you will not be familiar with. And if this sounds boring it certainly is not. The book had considerable success in Finland, despite its length and, reading it, it is not difficult to see why.
Liukkonen skilfully mixes the serious and light-hearted. More particularly we have a whole series of stories running though the novel, some of which start early in the book, seemingly disappear, only to reappear several hundred pages later, often giving us a new slant on not only that story but other stories to which they are linked. Some of the stories are key to the book, particularly the suicides mentioned in the paragraph below, others less so. They all link in with other stories a well as with the various characters and their psychoses, neuroses and phobias.
Liukkonen starts how he means to go on. A young woman is climbing up a ladder on top of a high rise building, with a view to throwing herself off. The author ruminates on suicide and gives us a description of the landscape from her vantage point. Indeed, the narrator talks to her about suicide. She sees crowds massing below to watch her. The narrator tells her to ignore them. She thinks about it. As we shall see she is not the only female student at the university to kill herself and, indeed, the two women suicides are not the only suicides in this book. The story of the two women suicides story will remain key as the suicides are investigated by various people.
We start in May 2013 with the W family. Yes, their surname really is W. Jerome, one of the sons (the other is Alle) tells us that it used to be Wallenius but the father changed it. Jerome does not know why. He does know it causes them grief when dealing with any official bodies, who do not believe that that really is their name.
The father, Tuomaa, had been a hydraulic engineer in Kabul. When a widowed Finnish woman there had decided that he would be her next husband and told him so, he fled back to Helsinki and became a history teacher. He married their mother, Julia, but spends much of his time in his workshop working on hydraulic engineering projects which kept the boys awake at nights (they have now moved out). When he got oil on her nice tablecloth, Julia moved out for six months. Apparently she checked into an institution, which she does regularly. However neither parent will tell the boys either the name or location of said institution. She has a phobia about round glass objects, of which spectacles are the obvious by no means the only example . She has no problem with round objects made out of plastic or other substances or non-round glass objects.
The phobia stems from when she was ten and found her father, Jeremias, dead in his armchair. Jeremias was a deadhead, i.e. a fan of the Grateful Dead, and wore round glasses in tribute to them (though I would have associated round glasses more with John Lennon than Jerry Garcia and Co.). This is one of the many stories about which we learn a lot more later in the book.
Jerome is a keen competitive swimmer but was careful not to overdo it. Too many swimmers are over the hill by the time they are nineteen. He says all swimmers have phobias to motivate them. His friend Mikael, for example, imagines there are snakes in the pool and is swimming to escape them. Mikael seems to have various mental health issues throughout the book and is one of the main recurring characters.
At university Jerome is studying physics. All kinds of lines, tables, figures, calculations, percentages, all enumerations, we could say, have fascinated me since childhood, just for their appearance. At university he has a friend.Erik. Erik is unable go into the university in the morning till Jerome arrives and they go into together. That day, Jerome is late, and when he arrives there is a huge crowd. We soon learn that it is because of the suicidal woman we had met earlier. She is Emilia Jensen and, she is studying literature. Her father designs toboggans, about which we will learn a lot more. Jerome leaves as he does not want to see Emilia jump. Erik will stay and we will later learn she did jump, landing near Erik.
The two brothers have a tradition of having dinner with their parents every so often. Alle does his usual gymnastics. Once when doing this he killed Bruce Springsteen. No, not the musician but their pet hen. On this occasion Tuomaa gave Alle a cookery book. Jerome, apparently can cook. Alle can not. The book is called A Cookbook for Neurotics. We get examples of recipes and it is very funny
The slightest negligence in the proportions is likely to cause anxiety, despair, hyperventilation, phobic states / panic attack, fear of contamination, somatic fixed ideas, dysphoria, altered sense of reality (depersonalisation / derealisation), amnesia, conversion disorders, flashback, sweating, heart rhythm disorders and so on and if you are not alone, make sure that others do not touch you. They are dirty and impulsive. We will meet the author and her book several times during the course of this book.
Interestingly, when Alle offers Jerome a lift, Alle does not know where his brother lives. On the journey they criticise each other’s friends, all, of course, having some sort of mental health issue such as the one who will not talk to anyone and the one who spends a lot of time examining the bottom of his feet.
At this point Liukkonen decides to give us a summary of various characters and their mental health issues, some of whom we have met (such as the father who is designing a More Efficient Hydraulic Network System without knowing why – the pipes lead nowhere: the system was only an extremely sophisticated mess of pipes that combined with each other or did not combine and did not fulfil any function) and many of whom we have not met (such as the man who spent three months of his life under a boat in Spain to escape difficulties and the man who brushes his gums every morning till they bleed and, in the evenings, is drawing a portrait of King Frederick IX of Denmark before hiding it behind a bookshelf – this is the father of the woman who committed suicide) and who is afraid that UFOs will turn him into a country singer).
I must mention the Kirkos Neurosis, a circus of neurotics, whose performers are, well, clearly neurotic, with details given, such as the man at the ticket office who had to check fourteen times each amount he received before accepting it. The founder of the circus, Truls Bertel had, a theory that the 2010s opened an era of growing confusion and “inner uprooting” as the world became more and more informative, labyrinthine and fast; he felt that the evolutionary purpose of neuroses was to provide people with a last something to cling to.
Well, yes the book is about neuroses, psychoses, phobias, obsessions and so on but Liukkonen is not just giving us a list of all of these people and their neuroses, psychoses, phobias, obsessions and so on, though he does do that, often in considerable detail, with both the genesis and effect, both on the individual and their family/friends/associates. We also get lots of side stories where the problems might be involved, directly or indirectly.
As mentioned we follow a key story, involving the suicides of the two female students. Yes, there had been another one before, we learn. In both cases their tutor was Magnus Brax, whom we have previously met because of his obsession with aubergines/eggplants. You can obsesses about vegetables, it would seem. The two students – Emilia and Aleksandra – had been studying literature under Brax and he had given both extra tuition. His colleagues raise their eyebrows. At the same time, Jerome and his friends, unaware of Brax’s involvement, decide to investigate as to why the two women both killed themselves.
We also get real people in the book. Nikola Tesla plays a key role, which means the obligatory reference to Musk. It seems that one of the families is descended from a man who assisted Tesla in his experiments. No-one, of course knows about this and, while we get some of the story, the family learns about it from a notebook they find. One of the family investigates. Science is also key as several of the protagonist are studying physics and related subjects, so we get discussions of quantum physics, information theory and entropy (of course). We also get Carl Jung who apparently travels round the world helping those in distress, as he does with one of the characters here.
It is not just families. There is fainting epidemic in part of a local mental health institution but only in one part. Why? Investigations take place. It is linked, of course, with other events. I can only touch on some of the stories and some of the characters. There are many more of both, in the same vein.
According to this report, Finland is the happiest country in the world. They clearly have not read this book.
However, according to this book A survey conducted by THL (the Finnish Department of Health and Welfare) in 2012 also revealed that, among people born in 1987, one in four committed crimes or offences, one in five suffers from psychiatric problems and one in six threatens to leave professional life. According to Kiti Müller, neurologist in occupational medicine and neuroscience researcher, today’s young people need structures rather than freedom, the “absence of a framework” is disturbing, people who do not live their lives, they execute it. A different but relevant point of view, quoted in this book, comes, from, of all people, Louis C K: It seems like the better it gets, the more miserable people become. There’s never a technological advancement where people think, Wow, we can finally do this!
Whatever the reason w all seem to be having mental health problems – and, if this book is your guide, we clearly are – Miki Liukkonen is not going to offer any easy solutions but just show us that it is happening, is happening in many different ways and that there is apparently no easy way out. Miki Liukkonen himself sadly died aged thirty-three in 2023. His family asked that the cause of death not be revealed but we know that he had mental health problems of his own. He has left us what can only be described as a brilliant, complex, stunningly original novel that we can only hope appears in English before long.
First published in 2017 by Werner Söderström Osakeyhtiö,
No English translation
First published in French in 2020 as O, ou, Traité universel sur le pourquoi des choses by Le Castor Astral
Translated by Sébastien Cagnoli