The book cover is all like, "Whatevs."
Peter Handke’s 1971 novel, Short Letter, Long Farewell, is a deadpan and irony-steeped travelogue, a treatise on the emptiness of American culture and the dislocation of the individual. Throughout the narrator wanders in an unromanticized version of America that is as rootless and rudderless as he. The novel's slight narrative thrust is provided by its thin plot—the narrator simultaneously runs away from, and right into the arms of, his estranged lover who may or may not want to kill him. Along the way, he travels across a stretch of the country with an old flame and her child. The most enjoyable moments of the book are in these scenes, where the group achieves a temporary harmony as an ad-hoc family, affording the narrowest glint of humanity the book sorely needs.
Throughout, Handke's dialogue never attempts believability, and that's entirely the point. Handke's characters exist to talk and to pontificate about their feelings, about their lack of emotion, about observations they've made, and more. While these characters are doing a very human thing in contrasting their current lives with not only their memories of the past, but their expectations of what their lives would be, the dialogue is so alien, so deadening at times, that the book tends to drag and the whole endeavor takes on the tone of a philosophy bullshit session by seriously minded, but drunk, college students.
Knut is a serious Knut.
When the narrator's worldview leans outward and away from his navel, his descriptions are unsentimental and stark. Quotidian events are catalogued exhaustively. It's as if the film Funny Games had concerned itself with the washing up and shopping list, rather than torturing vacationing suburbanites. While Handke is too intent on the reader drawing their own conclusions to say anything overtly leading, there is an underlying criticism, as well as melancholy, in the narrator’s liturgy of bars, diners, and town after town of the same blank culture. An though the book is fascinating in turns, Short Letter never quite makes up for its narrow formal restraints. It’s not so much of a novel as an awkward and hesitant culture study that loses the plot during the third act, tumbling into a bizarre and prolonged conversation with director John Ford.
Short Letter often made me think of Knut Hamsun’s Hunger, a novel that shares similarities in underpinnings and root systems: both showcase young European men intent on destructive over analysis of their surroundings and both are comfortable gazing into the void, welcoming destruction with a shrug. In Hunger, the narrator is a young man wandering the streets of Oslo looking for food. The novel makes hunger a the secondary character, much like the alien in Jonathan Letham's "Light and the Sufferer." It follows Hunger's narrator as a companion, or, less charitably, as an accomplice in survival.
Ultimately, Hamsun's novel is the more gripping and memorable, complicated by fascinating survival instinct that trumps Handke's self-consciously post-postmodern take on America. Perhaps Short Letter is best described as a travel book that leaves the reader more insulated. Everything looks the same, feels the same, smells the same. Handke's message—"criticism" would be far too strong a word for a novel that holds its cards so close—is that America is a country that is doomed, but beautifully and abstractly so. He's most likely not wrong, but it's been phrased far more artfully before and since.