Modern Classic Book Review: The Exception by Christian Jungersen

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Therefore I lie with her

The Exception by Christian Jungersen (Nan A. Talese, 2007, £ 6.99, 512 pages)

There’s more than just your average reading pleasure in spying on the inner lives of those who so obviously lie to themselves without fooling anyone else. Psychological thriller The Exception has at least four such people, and maybe that’s why I enjoyed it so much. Firstly, I gratefully acknowledged that I would never delude myself as they do, as though reassuring some inner jury of friends and family.

No, I could never be as self-righteous as the main character Iben, a politically correct young expert on genocide and assorted human cruelty, nor as pathetically defenseless as her co-worker Anne-Lise, who despite age and experience flees to a faraway corner of their workplace library every day to cry. Why?

Well, Iben and her best friend-cum-best colleague, Malene (whose relationship with boyfriend Rasmus is described as a tilting vending machine, and one that I certainly would have tipped over long ago) are picking away at Anne-Lise’s librarian confidence with a hundred different instruments that grow from tiny little silences to obvious taunts, replacing Anne-Lise’s trust in mankind with a carapace of eerie indifference. Camilla, the secretary, does nothing.

Then the charming foursome start receiving death threats, and Iben and Malene suspect that Anne-Lise sent them. If you don’t want to hear how that turns out, then don’t read any further.

‘In the weeks after the serb’s confession, Malene, Iben and Camilla changed their attitude towards Anne-Lise. Earlier, their hostility was confusing – Anne-Lise always doubted whether they had perhaps got their lines crossed – whether it was all a big misunderstanding. … It’s not like that anymore. Now that they’re no longer scared of what Iben would call Anne-Lise’s “segregated murderous personality”, they do whatever they can to destroy Anne-Lise. Their goal is for her to stop at DCIG. Break and disappear.’

Chop off your grandmother’s head
How cruel (much more cruel that I could ever be) and yet how consistent with what their job at the fictional Danish Center for Information on Genocide teaches them: That sane and moral people are much less divorced from evil and atrocity than they would like to think. Given the correct amount of coercion and wartime camaraderie, you’d chop off your own grandmother’s head whilst telling yourself it was absolutely the best thing to do. And this is, oddly enough, where the next level of reader gratification kicked in for me.

I know that in all likelihood I will never be told by a sadistic general to burn down the nearest village or feel the pressure from a dozen bloodthirsty friends to pull the trigger on the next pregnant stomach. Vulgar to even contemplate, right? So it doesn’t take much effort to intellectually acknowledge that yes, OK, fine, I probably would do all those disgusting things. I’ve confessed to my own latent horribleness, which will luckily stay latent for the rest of my peaceful Western existence, and with that kind of insight, gosh, I must be a very honest and reflective individual. No illusion, delusion or blatant lie that I won’t Occam-razor away as soon as I detect it.

And then there’s the third wave, not of gratification this time, but of gratefulness for having found a book that forces you to bullshit yourself while you’re reading about people who bullshit themselves. All this in terse, tense sentences scrutinizing every look and sub-look, creating war out of social observation, dissecting to us what we’ve always known about that voice people make when they want to sound efficient in front of their boss, or the way their story tails off when they’re interrupted by someone more important.

The voice of the selfish
The Exception
presents this daily routine as a relentless struggle, full of evil and banality, the former stomping more clearly into view towards the end. In a particularly well-edited scene, Iben, ever the fittest alpha female, suddenly switches allegiance and backs Anne-Lise in front of Malene. Despite Iben’s vast knowledge about how high-minded morality always originates in selfish needs, she sees her sudden defence of a former victim as her moment of truth. She’ll finally speak for the voiceless Anne-Lise.

‘It’s as though this is a test. A test on the most important qualities in a person. … Everything about this situation confirms what she wrote in her first article about the psychology of evil. Christopher Browning’s study showed that what drove ordinary German men to kill Jews wasn’t threats of severe punishment. It was the pressure from their colleagues. It was their best friends… whom they couldn’t let down.’

Later, she evaluates her brave sacrifice.

‘When I defended Anne-Lisa from the bullying, I thought I did the right thing. But was I lying to myself? Did I choose to risk my job and my friendship with Malene because I sensed that it would be to my advantage? The three million bodies spread out over the Cambodian rice paddies. Killed by people who thought they were doing the right thing – but only because they also sensed it would be to their advantage to think that. The five skulls sticking out of a watery ditch. The plants coiled around them.’

We’ve certainly come a long way from George Eliot who laid out the white lies, minor hypocrisies and occasional major crimes of the Middlemarch citizenry. Eliot was relatively innocent, dealing in bittersweet regret and poignant tragedy, not ethnic cleansing and Darwinian dead ends. Yet, she and Christian Jungersen both empathise with every one of their characters. Eliot by gently asking if we don’t all whittle our idealistic pride down to small and pleasent philosophies that are easier to overlook.

Jungersen does it by naming each of the chapters after one of the four main characters who is then allowed to construct things from her point of view. After Anne-Lise’s paragraphs of bitter resentment and bloody revenge fantasies I told myself I couldn’t possibly find anything remotely forgivable about Iben, endearing about Malene nor even interesting about the secretariest of secretaries, Camilla. Yet, I did, and I understood why they all felt the need to get rid of Anne-Lise. I lied to myself along with them, and it absolutely felt like the right thing to do.

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