“The Pearly Gates did not exist, and if they did there was really no point in queuing to go through them.”
In the interests of Full Disclosure: I won an early copy of Hitman Anders and the Meaning of It All (due for publication April 26th) from Caboodle Firsts, which gives away a hundred early copies of a new book each month. Being a citizen of the literary world, I had heard of Jonasson’s earlier novel The Hundred-Year-Old Man who Climbed Out of a Window and Disappeared, but hadn’t read it.
In any case, Hitman Anders, translated from the Swedish by Rachel Wilson-Broyles, is the story of a priest, a receptionist and (funnily enough) a hitman, who through a concatenation of unlikely circumstances decide to set up a business together: for a fee, the hitman will go and break people’s legs and/or arms (no killing). It all goes horribly wrong about a third of the way into the novel when the hitman gets religion from the priest and decides that breaking people’s limbs is not a very nice thing to do; and so the trio lurches on to their next capital venture, setting up a church based mainly on extracting vast sums of money from drunk people. They are pursued by sinister characters from the Swedish criminal underworld, having rather unwisely taken their money for killing people without doing any of the actual killing. And so on.
The tone of the book, as you may have guessed, is one of whimsy; either Jonasson or Wilson-Broyles is trying for Douglas Adams but doesn’t quite get there. The result is not particularly funny or particularly clever; it’s more an impression of a sort of relentless inconsequentiality. Nothing matters, because everything is so utterly without meaning, contextual or otherwise. But I’m not actually convinced that this isn’t part of the book’s project.
See: none of our protagonists have, in the beginning, a particularly desirable or fulfilling life. Hitman Anders is, well, a hitman. The priest, Johanna Kjellander, is the daughter of an emotionally abusive father who disbelieves in God in order to spite him, and is homeless after being thrown out of her new parish for calling her dead father a name relating to the female anatomy in front of his devoted clergy. The receptionist, Per Persson (har har), works and lives in a seedy hotel that used to be a brothel and basically doesn’t do much else. The point being: the inconsequentiality that informs the novel is a function of the inconsequentiality of these characters’ lives.
It’s (mildly) interesting, in this light, then, that the two things the novel seems most interested in are religion and money, and the relationship between them. Religion (in the form of Christianity) is at the beginning of the novel defunct: even its priest doesn’t really believe. In the middle section of the book, it is subordinate to money. But its most profoundly strange manifestation comes at the end of the novel. The third of the businesses our unlikely triumvirate set up, and the one that turns out to be stable enough to offer us closure, is one that revolves around not God, not a personality cult, but – wait for it – Santa Claus.
There is, perhaps, no folk figure more essentially capitalist than Santa Claus. He is the closest that capitalism can come to a god: a bearded man whose obesity represents unbridled consumption, who trades not in symbols as many other folk figures do (the Tooth Fairy, for instance, is not really about teeth but about adulthood) but in stuff: sherry and mince pies for Santa, carrots for the reindeer, toys for the children, over and over again. Santa Claus as we know him today was made up by a company (Coca-Cola), for advertising. If we can see the book as a move from inconsequentialism, from emptiness, to consequentialism and new meaning, then it’s tempting to read the novel as a remaking of narratives for a very capitalist, postmodern age.
But. The novel’s attitude to money is more interesting and more nuanced than that reading might suggest. Hitman Anders, in one of the novel’s more inspired pieces of nonsense, plagues the priest and the receptionist (his de facto agents) after his Christian awakening by frequently running into random charity shops, terrifying those within who recognise him only (and inaccurately, due to a highly successful publicity campaign by Johanna and Per) as a mass murderer, and handing over an enormous wad of cash. He loves, in fact, to give. By contrast, the priest and the receptionist love to receive; that is, to earn as much money as they possibly can. Not, it seems, to spend on anything in particular; there is mention of their staying in expensive hotels and dining on room service and suchlike, but they seem to enjoy making money out of all proportion to what they actually do with it. Again: this is a quintessence of capitalism, the prizing of money divorced from what it can buy, and is therefore particularly interesting (if a little reductive) read against Hitman Anders’ unmixed desire to give money away regardless. The novel is a struggle to balance two impulses: giving and receiving; for through Hitman Anders the priest and the receptionist learn that they quite like the warm feeling they get when giving money away, although not as much as the warm feeling they get when receiving money.
So: Santa Claus. Their solution to the dilemma is to give money to people who have suffered hardship in as high-profile a way as they can manage, and to take donations from their adoring public for doing so. They give almost as much as they receive. The ending feels like a success: balancing religion, meaning, consequence, karma, with money, capitalism, modernity, randomness.
But – and perhaps this is the heart of my problem with the novel – I feel like this sense of restored purpose, this successfully-created balance, is, well, inadequate, an anodyne unaware of its falseness. The binary the novel so interestingly raises, between the feeling of giving and the feeling of receiving, isn’t really explored, and this sentimental ending glosses over the inconsequentiality the novel and its characters experience. It feels like an ending that accepts capitalism, the absurd disconnect that modern systems of exchange create, that works within it rather than meaningfully balancing it with anything else. It offers no solutions, only opiates.