In Rob van Essen’s universe, everything is possible

In Rob van Essen’s universe, everything is possible

:A talking car that you can have sex with

My large aunt stumbled and fell forward. Almost. Because she could just put one foot forward. And then another. And then another. So she rushed forward, falling forward, all the way through her hometown (until she bumped into a stroller on a zebra). She said this very seriously, it was something of a terrible experience, but I had to laugh. And thought of the work of Rob van Essen, the author par excellence to write something like that.

Stumbling and stumbling, falling and falling, if necessary straight through time: leave it to Van Essen to deliver something like that convincingly. While many men of letters aim to capture something and preserve it, his aim seems to be mainly to open things up and explore possibilities. His work is teeming with alternatives, based on the question of what could have been done, and where something begins and ends. Is there such a thing as the correct, logical order?

Very strange things occur in this quest full of side paths. A talking car that you can have sex with. A tandem on which two men ride on and on. A time machine. Absurd, but completely believable. Idiot, but presented so laconicly that as a reader you easily go along with it. The main characters are sometimes fed up with everything that happens to them, which is equally conceivable. ‘When will everything stay the way it is?’ someone sighs Miniapolis (2021). Well. If that is your wish, you had better not become a character in a Van Essen story.

The human desire for something to hold on to, for direction, makes you long for a guiding authority, an omnipotence, something or someone who keeps an eye on you. It would be so nice if things were meant to be. The Only Intention. Or not? The author, raised in the experimental Reformed faith, explores this question in everything he writes, but always differently and always surprising. There is full understanding for the wish, just as much as for the distress that such an unambiguous truth (should it exist) produces. There is no freedom in predestination, on the contrary. But in terms of personal responsibility it is also only relative.

The playfulness, the panache, the speed, the humor but especially the courage of Rob van Essen to mix realism and fantasy in a controlled but free manner are rare in literature. Especially in literature for adults. So please come back to all of this, I would say.

:When the story threatens to become heavy, a quip follows

About a quarter of the way through I will come back to this main character Rob Hollander thinks: ‘I never know where a story should go. There are so many possibilities, why would you choose one sequel and reject all other possibilities?’

It is one of the many quotes I highlighted in this novel. Because it’s a question writers inevitably face – what do they work on, what don’t they? – and also because the question contains what makes this book so sparkling. Rob van Essen chooses I will come back to this for many wonderful twists, the plot makes every now and then detours and there are wonderful twists and turns – and all the while the writer seems to know exactly where his story should go.

Traveling back in time is an opportunity offered to Rob Hollander and it sets things in motion. For many writers, this would be the prelude to meticulously exploring a childhood trauma. Van Essen opts for something more original. There is a childhood trauma, but you have to look carefully for it. What unfolds around it is a wonderful, imaginative story, playful, sometimes serious, often funny, and always with that typical Van Essen style: both clear and elusive, at the same time uninhibited and steady.

When the story threatens to become heavy, a joke follows, not silly, but enlightening, as if windows are constantly being opened and new views are revealed. Nowhere is there an explanation about how everything works physically, time travel is actually presented: that’s how it is, period. And it is precisely that lack of explanation that is convincing.

I believed this world, just as I believe almost everything in Rob van Essen’s great oeuvre. Of course, time travel sounds strange and bizarre, but the point is: everyone does it all the time. People wander off in their heads, take thoughtful side paths, and end up with seemingly random memories. And that is one of the nice things about this novel: the plot may sound unusual, but Rob van Essen approaches something recognizable, how the most everyday and sometimes small scenes can hook into you, how every now and then you suddenly think of an incident. from decades ago, an elusive feeling, something between dream and memory and fantasy.

This novel is also about the latter, about that fiction. ‘Had something happened, something I couldn’t remember, had I repressed something?’ the narrator thinks after a while. “Did a lot more happen than I knew?” What may have been repressed, how it all works: in the long run I wanted to know as much as Rob Hollander himself.

:Dreaming of girls who could have made everything right

Some books are like old friends that you can’t imagine not having looked into the eyes for so long. So it turns out it’s been 22 years since I was seduced by Evil days. To call Rob van Essen’s third novel a wonderful book is an understatement. It starts in the atmosphere in which Van Essen’s early novels often (read also: England is closed) are rooted in: the undeveloped Amsterdam of the end of the last century, and especially the immoral subculture of expelled students, neglected houses, gloomy bands and dreams of girls who could have made everything right.

In Evil days Matthijs Verkerk, the 35-year-old hero of the story, is pointed out on Waterlooplein to an LP by a Christian boys’ choir. He sang in it when he was still in the very Christian village of Rijshorst (pardon me, not a village, city rights since 1354 – a running gag in the book) lived. Interesting detail: someone has marked Verkerk’s head with a circle in the photo. By the way, there is another record in the sleeve. It is from boy band The Pubers, of which Verkerk was later the frontman. Now he is the lyricist of the hit Hellbenderthe chorus of which concludes with ‘fucking hell fucking hell fucking hell fucking hell‘. A song that is not about anything, says Verkerk, but about the reader Evil days quickly understands that in this novel the devil lies in the details.

Verkerk returns to Rijshorst, where he appears not to be seen as a prodigal son, but as the devil in disguise – in a community where people like to take words literally. We are now in very familiar Van Essen territory, with scenes in which hallucination, memory and re-experience merge seamlessly. What was still missing in 2002 was the superior, apparently laconic narrative voice with which he has guided his readers through his books in recent years.

Furthermore, it supplies Rijshorst van Evil days for the reader of his laureate I will come back to this, in which the narrator also returns to the Rijshorst of his childhood, experiencing one déjà vu after another. Because also in Evil days we see a brother and sister who are initially mistaken for something else, a mysterious man lives in the woods with whom things end badly, and figures appear to be guided by a hidden past. Moreover, there is a moment when a collective anger turns against an individual, the question being to what extent the main character is the instigator of it.

They are issues I will come back to this, but 22 years earlier (and with slightly different nuances). The time machine that is Van Essen’s last novel also turns out to be a way for the writer to survive Evil days to come back.

:Rob van Essen gave me an identity as a student

I got my first Rob van Essen by chance. It was on (then) Queen’s Day, two girls were already tidying up their dress with books and I just bought a random book from them, for one euro I think, maybe two, it didn’t matter much to them anymore. It was the novella Fisherman.

I was just studying Dutch at the time, literature was not mainly something I enjoyed, it was something I studied from a distance. The books we had to read were by serious figures with weighty ideas, who wrote as if they already knew they would be canonized. I was intimidated by those books, there were always people who understood them better than me.

Fisherman could have been ideal for a study assignment at the time, it is about fascism and irony, among other things, and it only seems to have become more topical since its publication. But when I read it, something else happened: me felt It. It is a funny book, alienating and disturbing. It is deceptively well written, but I… felt that the absurdities were not just used for fun, they touched on something deeply human, at least for me: that the world is a strange place, and that we often don’t understand ourselves.

Somewhere in my brain something fell into place, a liberating insight that in retrospect seems very simple: that literature can of course be whatever it wants.

Since then I have read everything by Rob van Essen, he gave me an identity as a student. It was wonderful to say that Dutch canonized literature was too serious and realistic for me, that there is no appreciation for humor and imagination in this boring country.

By awarding him the Libris Prize twice in five years, the jury has definitively taken that identity away from me. Too bad for me, but good for literature.

I just recently read Rescue swimming, his debut from 1996, reissued in 2021, partly thanks to the success of his first Libris win. In an accompanying afterword, Van Essen himself reflects on his breakthrough after more than twenty years of writing with less appreciation. While it was initially his stories that inspired me, I now often think about the modesty of that afterword. “I have always been a happy writer,” he writes.

And maybe that’s just what I felt the first time I read it.