Quietly Disruptive: Nicolai Houm’s The Gradual Disappearance of Jane Ashland
Words By Jordan Ryder
Meet Jane: an American writer with a severely clogged creative drive. Jane hasn’t written anything in years. She’s escaped to remote Norwegian mountains—which ones, we never learn, and from what, we don’t yet know. But right now, Jane is freezing to death.
She shouldn’t have lain down, she knows. “You get it wrong that final, fatal time and then, there you lie in your underwear, your bluish-white skin stretched tight and your eyeballs frozen solid.” Jane is alone.
In the next scene, we jump back—to her flight from America, where Jane drinks Southern Comfort out of a bottle still inside the liquor store bag. Her seat neighbor, a Norwegian man named Ulf, works in far-flung habitats; everywhere from Nunavut, Canada, to remote Norwegian mountain ranges. (You don’t say.) Other times, we’re in America—a courtroom, a hospital. And then it’s back to the mountains. How does all this fit together?
Although his novel is disjointed at first, Nicolai Houm builds tension by consistently pulling us from the past in America and the events that forced Jane to Norway to the present expanse of white, blustery, and isolated mountains. And while we’re trying to piece it together, Houm is deftly, artfully dropping hints in the wrong order using time jumps. The tension builds in one timeline while it simmers in another. Houm keeps his finger on the pressure points, working the beats into a rhythm. The stark and frigid landscape backdrops the novel and hangs there behind Jane as a monster might, lurking in the background and overbearing—as, you discover, so much else is. A drop-off at a gymnasium involves a seizure and ends in disaster. The smell of gravel on a hot day is a trigger, as is unwashed hair. Poor Jane struggles to get through each day surrounded by anything and everything, including herself.
Despite its chaotic chronology, nothing about this book is sudden. You’re discovering the whole way through: what’s happened to Jane, and why she ends up in the middle of Norway; the “before” Jane, and the “after;” and how these two personas somehow fit together to make the same person—by name, if little else. A tragedy in its spine, the novel grapples with addiction and loss. Yet The Gradual Disappearance is not just a sad story. It is also unendingly insightful about the human spirit inside trauma and grief, which, as Jane-who-once-was-a-writer reminds us, is so very different from a literary arc. This novel shows us the face of grief, minutes, months, and years later.
Set primarily in Norway, Houm’s home, The Gradual Disappearance of Jane Ashland is his third novel, and his first work translated into English. It’s clear why his previous publications have garnered so much attention in Norway. Houm’s poignancy shapes the novel: “The nonsense of language reaching towards the void it was not equipped for, developed as it was by the living for the living, made us laugh.” How do you talk about something that simply isn’t there?
This is, if you haven’t guessed, a lonely novel. Jane can’t bear to be around others, let alone herself. When she finds herself in the middle of wild, silent mountain tops—it’s a recipe for disaster.
Houm at least gives us small, beautifully wrought bits to laugh at—if sardonically—in the wake of Jane’s pervasive despair. “Now,” says Dr. Rice, speaking about her upcoming trip to Norway, “I imagine that’s a chilly country, Jane! Just how cold, I wonder? Come on, tell me, how cold can it get?”
How cold can it get, indeed.