Hernan Diaz - a weird anti-western western. A singular and haunting novel, an epic journey into the wilderness of nineteenth-century America and into the depths of solitude. In its majestic evocation of landscapes it bears a resemblance to Blood Meridian
Hernan Diaz, In the Distance, Coffee House Press, 2017.
A young Swedish immigrant finds himself penniless and alone in California. The boy travels east in search of his brother, moving on foot against the great current of emigrants pushing west. Driven back again and again, he meets naturalists, criminals, religious fanatics, swindlers, Indians, and lawmen, and his exploits turn him into a legend. Díaz defies the conventions of historical fiction and genre, offering a probing look at the stereotypes that populate our past and a portrait of radical foreignness.
“Hernan Diaz's In The Distance is exquisite: assured, moving, and masterful, as profound and precise an evocation of loneliness as any book I've ever read.”—Lauren Groff
“In the Distance is a singular and haunting novel, an epic journey into the wilderness of nineteenth-century America and into the depths of solitude. In its majestic evocation of landscapes it bears a resemblance to Blood Meridian, but in the meditative precision of its language and the moral compass that spins at its heart, Díaz’s novel is a creature all its own, and it’s one of the very few works of fiction that transport you, emotionally and imaginatively, to an utterly new place. It’s a breathtaking trip.” —Paul La Farge
“If I could hand you this book I would. Read this. Hernán Díaz’s In the Distance is a portrait of this country as both a dreamscape and a living nightmare. With echoes of John Williams’s Butcher’s Crossing, Andrey Platonov’s Soul, and Richard Hughes’s A High Wind in Jamaica, this is fiction at its finest—propulsive, unsettling, wildly ambitious, and an unforgettable journey that we will certainly return to in the years to come.” —Paul Yoon, author of The Mountain
“In the Distance by Hernán Díaz sends a shotgun blast through standard received notions of the Old West and who was causing trouble in it. Håkan and his adventures, which are truly extraordinary, not to mention beautifully written, had me from the novel’s first striking chapter to the last.” —Laird Hunt
“On its surface, In the Distance is a haunting and unique tale of survival—with all the thrilling frustrations of such. Deeper still, it is a story about the devastation wrought by the American Dream—the West as it happened to many, in spite of all they’d hoped.” —Colin Winnette
“Great stories are driven by desire. Håkan Söderström, the remarkable protagonist of Hernán Díaz’s In the Distance, sets off on an unremitting quest to find his brother. As he journeys against the grain of the frontier, Håkan confronts lust, love, honor, greed, and confounding betrayal. He also crafts a solitude that becomes, in Díaz’s skilled hands, as American as the landscape. In prose that is as bold as the western sky, Díaz has written an unforgettable tale of soulfulness and survival.” —Alyson Hagy
“While In the Distance can be read as a revisionist western—and totally enjoyed and chewed on as such—what makes Díaz’s book truly exceptional is how far beyond a simple genre it goes. A beautiful, thoughtful, and often heartbreaking exploration of lonesomeness, the simple confusion of just living, and the magnificent need for human connection.” —Justin Souther
Social theories of space have been vastly underrepresented throughout the evolution of critical discourse. From the Enlightenment to Marx, through to Foucault, most philosophers and critics have been primarily concerned with time and history, the sequential order of events and the effects of the timeline on human development. In his landmark 1989 work, Postmodern Geographies: The Reassertion of Space in Critical Social Theory, Edward Soja sets out the arguments for how and why the consideration of space might provide the answers to some of the dogged questions about humanity. Building on the developing field of Geography, and citing the work of his contemporaries (David Harvey, Doreen Massey, even Foucault, et al.), Soja suggests that the evolution of societies might be understood through examining the consumption and production of space, and the ways this shapes human behavior and social structure. In art, this discourse has been percolating for the past few decades, influencing stories and renderings that display the ways space affects us. Hernan Diaz’s recent novel, In The Distance, does that and more, exploring the traumatic effects of the exploitation of space.
In Diaz’s debut, a brilliant and fresh take on the old-school western, a young Swedish immigrant named Håkan is separated from his brother, Linus, en route to America. Håkan lands in San Francisco knowing only that he must get to New York to find Linus, but his journey becomes a series of increasingly dangerous episodes. He becomes a sexual hostage of a saloon owner with “black, gleaming, toothless gums, streaked with bulging veins of pus”; is roped into a kooky naturalist’s search in a dried-out seabed for a jellyfishlike proto-organism that supposedly created mankind; and is forced to kill marauders in self-defense. This latter episode leads to word spreading around the western territory that Håkan is an outlaw legend who literally keeps growing and growing in size, and, indeed, he becomes a giant by the book’s end. Diaz cleverly updates an old-fashioned yarn, and his novel is rife with exquisite moments: Håkan has moving relationships with a horse named Pingo and another traveler named Asa, there’s a drug-induced sequence in which Håkan looks at his own brain, and Håkan’s very limited grasp of English heightens the suspense of his tense encounters. The book contains some of the finest landscape writing around, so potent because it reflects Håkan’s solitude: “Nothing interrupted the mineral silence of the desert. In its complete stillness, the world seemed solid, as if made of one single dry block.” - Publishers Weekly
Violent, often surrealistic Wild West yarn, Cormac McCarthy by way of Gabriel García Márquez.
Håkan Söderström is a force of nature, a wild giant whose name, in the frontier America in which he has landed, is rendered as the Hawk. On the docks back in Gothenburg he was separated from his brother, Linus, and he has sworn to find him in a land so big he can scarcely comprehend it. The Hawk lands in California and ventures eastward only to find himself in all kinds of odd company—crooks, con men, prophets, and the rare honest man—and a tide of history that keeps pushing him back to the west. Along the way, his exploits, literary scholar Diaz (Hispanic Institute/Columbia Univ.; Borges, Between History and Eternity, 2012) writes, are so numerous that he has become a legend in a frontier full of them; for one thing, says an awe-struck traveler, “He was offered his own territory by the Union, like a state, with his own laws and all. Just to keep him away.” The Hawk protests that most of what has been said about him is untrue—but not all of it. As Diaz, who delights in playful language, lists, and stream-of-consciousness prose, reconstructs his adventures, he evokes the multicultural nature of westward expansion, in which immigrants did the bulk of the hard labor and suffered the gravest dangers. One fine set piece is a version of the Mountain Meadows Massacre, in which religious fanatics dressed as Indians attack a pioneer party—save that in Diaz’s version, Håkan tears his way across the enemy force with a righteous fury befitting an avenging angel. “He knew he had killed and maimed several men,” Diaz writes, memorably, “but what remained most vividly in his mind was the feeling of sorrow and senselessness that came with each act: those worth defending were already dead, and each of his killings made his own struggle for self-preservation less justifiable.”
Not for the faint of heart, perhaps, but an ambitious and thoroughly realized work of revisionist historical fiction. - Kirkus Reviews
Hernan Diaz’s In the Distance is more than just an atypical Western: it’s also an atypical ‘New Western,’ charting out fresh territory even among those postmodern novels that appropriate the conventions of the classic Western for subversive purposes. It follows the misadventures of a young, wayward, and largely speechless Swedish emigrant who finds himself accidentally traversing the harsh landscape of nineteenth century America. With its choice of protagonist, the novel casts aside the stoic, steadfast settlers whose presence usually defines the Western and replaces them with a confused, often clumsy adolescent incapable of settling anywhere. Then, not content to simply humanize one of the faceless beggars among the “wretched refuse” of the Old World’s “teeming shore,” In the Distance makes playthings of the narrative trajectory and language that are typically found in both the Western and the New Western. Much as its protagonist takes a childlike view of the unfamiliar world he lands in, and much as he relies on trial and error to figure out how it works, the novel itself finds a sort of innocent wonder in mixing and matching the key elements of its two genres.
Sent abroad by his father to escape a life of rural poverty, Håkan Söderström is a naive young boy dispatched to find his fortune in the place he knows only as “Nujårk.” Traveling in the company of his elder brother, Linus, he boards a ship in Gothenburg with a plan to cross the Atlantic. While changing vessels in England, however, the two brothers lose one another. Håkan promptly climbs aboard another ship bound for the Americas, convinced that Linus will reach New York first and await his arrival there, but instead of docking in the United States he is swept past Buenos Aires, five thousand miles off course, and then, after rounding Cape Horn, he ends up abandoned and alone in California. From San Francisco, still determined to reunite with Linus, Håkan sets out on a haphazard journey to the east coast on foot.
So much for a Western novel about purposeful pioneers intent on settling in the West. So much, too, for a Western whose hero either domesticates a frontier territory or is domesticated by it. Håkan’s wanderings see him embroiled in not just one of the mythic ventures of the American West, but outlandishly, implausibly, in an abundance of them — in a gold prospecting outfit and a small-town racket, in an eccentric naturalist’s scientific expedition, in a wagon train journey to the northwest, in conflicts with Indians and religious zealots, in a shootout and a flight from the authorities, in a standoff with a self-aggrandizing sheriff, and in more besides.
Yet despite applying the kitchen sink approach to a Western narrative, In the Distance never feels overstuffed or capricious, never reduces Håkan’s journey to a satire or a tragicomic picaresque. It achieves this feat largely because its prose is so tightly controlled, so grounded in its young protagonist’s perspective, and so respectful of the demands imposed on it by its guiding conceit. Prior to the novel’s release, Diaz spelled out this conceit in an interview with the Paris Review. “[O]ne of the most fascinating formal problems in literature is point of view,” he said,
because taken to its ultimate limit, I think it’s also an ethical problem, since it’s related to power. How much about your characters do you know? How far into situations or people can you see? … I [stick] with Håkan’s point of view in a very drastic way, in that regard. If he doesn’t understand, neither do we.This is no exaggeration. Håkan Söderström is an immigrant to America with almost zero command of English. To him the language is “a mudslide of running, slushy sounds” and “some particularly gelatinous vowels.” Simple sentences strike him like this: “Frawder thur prueless rare shur per thurst. Mirtler freckling thow. No shemling keal rearand for fear under shall an frick.” Moreover, Håkan is a child with virtually no concept of adult behavior, interests, and motivations. He doesn’t grasp the fundamentals of sexual attraction, commercial exchanges, assumed authority, the exercise of power, or the forces that encourage people to manipulate and exploit others. He looks older than his years — he is preternaturally tall and bulky, effectively a giant — but with his habitual silence amidst the hubbub of a foreign tongue, and his bafflement in a world governed by greed and guile, he comes across as the Michael K. of the wild frontier. He is a lumbering yet meek behemoth, abandoned to the elements yet capable of survival, and absolutely single-minded in his dogged pursuit of a distant desire.
Crucially, though, Diaz doesn’t go for the easy option of allowing an omniscient narrator to explain what’s happening around Håkan, or what’s going on inside his head, whenever the boy is mystified or alienated by events. Nor does he resort to first-person prose that allows Håkan to spell out his confusions, his emotions, his desires and his hopes. Instead, Diaz tries his hand at some aesthetic alchemy. Literary naturalism requires readers to infer the thoughts and feelings of a character from a more or less objective description of their behavior. Free indirect style conveys a character’s impressions of the surrounding world by channelling them into largely depersonalized, third-person prose. Diaz amalgamates these two technical devices, applying free indirect style to a character who has to read his own world the same way we read naturalistic literature — one who can only observe incomprehensible things and guess at their apparent meanings, their seeming causes, and their potential names.
At its best, the effect of this alchemy is both engrossing and disorienting, offering partial access to the thoughts of a person who watches strangers go about their business as if they belong to another species. “After a while,” Håkan observes of the gold prospector James Brennan,
he stopped, spat on the rock, and rubbed it with his fingertips. Suddenly pale, panting and stumbling stiffly like a flightless bird, he went to his children, dragged them to the hillside, and seemed to explain to them what he had just found. With eyes shut, he pointed first to the sky, then to the ground, and finally to his heart, on which he tapped while repeating the same phrase over and over.In other instances, alien sights for which Håkan has no terms of reference are described almost entirely in impressionistic prose. As he ventures into the Midwest, for instance, Håkan comes across a beast apparently “made out of two different bodies ineptly put together,” with a head “so massive [that] it seemed to have been dreamed onto the rest of the body,” “as if nature had changed its mind halfway through it.” Call it by its name and the buffalo loses the majesty these words confer upon it. Convey it through the eyes of a child who’s never seen it before, a child who also lacks the capacity to describe it, and by virtue of the language alone, rather than the imagination, the buffalo becomes a creature every bit as magical as something plucked from a fantasy novel. And even when the passage of time allows Håkan to pick up some rudimentary English, Diaz sustains his torque on the language by confronting Håkan with sights that shatter his syntax. Alone in the desert somewhere, the boy comes across a mutilated corpse. This is as much as he is able to articulate: “Corrupting, there, forsaken, becoming, already, nothing.”
It wouldn’t be quite right to say that Diaz takes the novel’s conceit to wildly experimental extremes or applies it with the rigor of an Oulipian constraint. There’s an ease and looseness to In the Distance that makes it easy to be immersed in the story of Håkan Söderström and to not have to attend too closely to Diaz’s technical tricks. But the novel is shot through with breathtaking imagery and moments of real profundity — an unforgettable incident on a salt lake, a gut-wrenching sequence in a desert cañon, a tense climax in a subterranean enclave — and all of these derive their power from Diaz’s meticulous approach to his protagonist’s point-of-view. If the raw action of In the Distance would make it a compelling Western in any event, it is finally a novel of larger, more sweeping ambitions which it realizes through the sheer force of its style. - Daniel Davis Wood
Håkan Söderström, the hulking hero of Hernán Diaz’s novel, “In the Distance,” makes a stupendous entrance, ascending onto the first page through a star-shaped void on a featureless plain of white sea ice. Longhaired, white-bearded, gnarled and naked, he pulls himself onto the floe and walks on bow legs to an icebound schooner, carrying a rifle and ax. We are somewhere, nowhere, in the frozen north.
Nowhere is also the place “In the Distance,” Mr. Diaz’s first novel, seems to have erupted from. He had no agent when he answered an open call for manuscripts by the nonprofit Coffee House Press in Minneapolis, which published the novel last October. In April Mr. Diaz was named a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize and the PEN/Faulkner Award for Fiction, causing book reviewers around the country to say, who?
Mr. Diaz is a scholar at Columbia University who grew up in Argentina and Sweden, studied in London and New York and lives in Brooklyn. His book is about an immigrant Swede of unusual size journeying in America’s desert frontier between the Gold Rush and the Civil War.
Though many of its elements are familiar to the point of being worn out — saloons and wagon trains, Indians and gold prospectors — the novel is not. Mr. Diaz’s long study of North American literature, much of it steeped in the 19th century, allowed him to expertly plunder an antique genre for parts. The rebuilt mechanism is his own design, and it moves in unexpected directions: west to east, around in circles, down into the earth, and north to Alaska.
Which makes “In the Distance” an uncanny achievement: an original western.
“He’s standing on the shoulders of a lot of giants,” said Chris Fischbach, publisher of Coffee House Press and Mr. Diaz’s editor. “It’s a modernist book in that he’s absorbing all these fragments and using those to create a new world, and a new piece of art.”
In a recent interview in a sunny Brooklyn Heights apartment that Mr. Diaz shares with his wife, Anne, a filmmaker, and their daughter, Elsa, 7, he talked about the bafflement that led him to Håkan.He was mystified, he said, by the absence of western novelists in the American canon. Who, besides Zane Grey and Louis L’Amour and a forgotten brotherhood of pulp novelists? Who, besides Larry McMurtry and Cormac McCarthy? And if those contemporaries write “anti-westerns,” where are the westerns they are writing against?
“They’re writing against John Ford, I suppose,” Mr. Diaz said.
“It’s weird,” he said. Weird that the western novel was so underachieving, given how tightly the genre embraces America’s most potent myths about itself. Westerns, he said, glamorize “the worst aspects of the imperial drive of the United States” — brutality against nature, genocidal racism, “the whole macho thing, the place of women, the frivolous violence, it goes on.”
Mr. Diaz, it should be clear, is a western writer who hates guns. He said it sickened him to think that telling Håkan’s story would require imagining and describing acts of murderous violence. “I came very close to not writing the book,” he said. “But I knew something really bad had to happen to him to make the plot plausible.”
Håkan is a backwoods boy from Sweden who leaves home with his older brother, Linus, for the American metropolis they call Nujårk. But he loses Linus on a wharf in Portsmouth, England, boards the wrong ship and ends up in San Francisco. He resolves to reunite with his brother by trudging across the continent, shoes against the current of westward migration and continental conquest.
He knows no English, and for a time the reader is almost as disoriented as Håkan is. Stray words float by in a river of frontier gibberish: “Frawder thur prueless rare shur per thurst. Mirtler freckling thow.” But Håkan learns fast. He meets people: a mystery woman in a corset with amber hair and black-red lips, like a hooker with a heart of coal. A demented gold miner. An obsessive naturalist who wades in alkaline pools for imagined proto-organisms. Homesteaders, marauding Civil War veterans and a sinister sheriff.
Håkan starves and thirsts. He survives and grows, in sorrowful wisdom and, inexplicably, to colossal size. And though he murders and maims and becomes a notorious outlaw, he is disgusted, and ultimately shattered, by his violence.
The reader, absorbed, has urgent questions. Will the misdirected Håkan ford the Mississippi and pass Huck Finn lighting out the other way? Will he find Linus in the sooty hubbub of Walt Whitman’s Brooklyn or the immigrant maelstrom of Five Points? How does he end up in Alaska?
More immediately, how do you pronounce Håkan?
Make a fish mouth and glide over the vowels: “Hu-oh-aahk-kan.” To Mr. Diaz, it sounds like a Long Islander saying “Hawk can,” which is pretty close for someone whose roots are from nowhere near Massapequa.
He was born in Buenos Aires in 1973. His mother was a psychoanalyst; his father a filmmaker who became involved in Trotskyist politics, which put the family in danger after Argentina’s military coup, when Hernán was 2. They fled to Stockholm. Moving there and then back to Argentina as a boy gave Mr. Diaz double doses of immigrant dislocation; the emotional aftereffect of isolation and bullying seem to echo in his story of lonely Håkan.
Unlike his reticent, hulking hero, Mr. Diaz has a slight build and a wide smile and an expression that gains intensity as he listens and weighs his words, which he delivers with rapid precision. He is associate director of the Hispanic Institute at Columbia, where he edits the journal Revista Hispánica Moderna, or RHM. His last book was a study of Jorge Luis Borges, the Argentine essayist and poet: “Borges, Between History and Eternity.”
Among the ideas Mr. Diaz challenges with “In the Distance” is the one that writing convincingly about a place requires going there at some point.
He didn’t. No rental car and GPS for him: “There was something that to me felt corrupt and dishonest about having an air-conditioned experience of the protagonist’s ordeals,” he said. “I defend the idea of reading over researching, which has this whole protocol that I don’t think applies to literature, which has its own relationship to truth.”
Instead he read widely and deeply and wrote the book in Brooklyn and Manhattan. He knew he was working within an old tradition. Many early westerns were written by men for whom “Go West” meant crossing the Rhine. They include Karl May, the German scribbler of sauerbraten westerns, and Franz Kafka (“Amerika”). Arthur Conan Doyle set part of “A Study in Scarlet” in Mormon Utah.
Mr. Diaz considered the risks of historical howlers (Kafka imagined the Statue of Liberty holding a sword) and found them tolerable. What he concocted is strange and transporting, a story that approaches but never enters the realm of magical realism. Håkan is one humongous Swede, but not a biblical giant. On a big-enough horse to match his proportions, he can plod down Main Street without causing panic.
Some characters stray toward anachronism, like the opulent winemaker, a sort of Finnish Francis Ford Coppola, who lives on a groomed estate out of Architectural Digest, or Asa, the good guy in a bad gang who loves to cook. Asa is a frontier foodie, adding sweet sap and blossoms to his dishes. He shares with Håkan a few ambiguously tender scenes of manly attachment, and his recipe for quail stew.
Weird. But give Mr. Diaz this: It’s a weirdness to which a reader willingly submits, because of the vigorous beauty of his words and his ability to keep Håkan’s bizarre adventures somewhere within sight of possibility. So when you get to a sentence like this — “Håkan tried to milk the lion” — it passes without a second thought.
An affecting oddness is the great virtue of “In the Distance,” along with its wrenching evocations of its main character’s loneliness and grief. And its ability to create lustrous mindscapes from wide-open spaces, from voids that are never empty.
“It all could plausibly happen,” Mr. Fischbach said. “It probably wouldn’t.” - Lawrence Downes
In the Distance is a historical novel which takes place during the uniquely American period defined by the doctrine of Manifest Destiny. Set in the plains, deserts, mountains and canyon regions of the western United States, Diaz portrays the vastness of the landscape, while shaping the mania it can cause. Håkan, the solitary main character, is a Swedish immigrant who immediately finds himself lost after landing in San Francisco as a young adult. With the money earned from the sale of a horse he had been lucky enough to procure for free, his poor tenant father had secured passage on a ship to New York for his sons, Håkan and Linus, who “had never even seen a picture of a city.” The boys are sent to America to find a better life and earn their fortunes in the proverbial land of opportunity.
Hernan Diaz was born in Argentina but grew up in Sweden after moving there as a young child. When his family decided to move back to Buenos Aires, he felt a certain foreignness that compelled him to move to London and finally to New York City where he has lived for almost twenty years. Currently he is the managing editor of RHM, a distinguished international periodical for academic research in Spanish, and an associate director of the Hispanic Institute at Columbia University. Diaz’s background played a large role in his writing of In the Distance. In an interview with the Paris Review he says, “The experience of foreignness has determined my entire life. I wanted to re-create that feeling…I tried to make genre and even language itself feel foreign.” Diaz accomplishes this with various tricks, such as silencing his protagonist for a long section of the narrative until he learns his first few words of English.
It doesn’t take long for Håkan to experience his first trauma away from home. The two brothers board a ship from Gothenburg to Portsmouth, where they are set to transfer to another ship destined for New York. On their journey, “they spoke no English, so the name of the city they were headed for was an abstract talisman to them.” Håkan and Linus are thrust into a newly globalised world when they land in Portsmouth. They find a milieu of multi-culturalism. With stylistic flair, Diaz paints this scene with a wonderful list:
…merchants, incense, tattoos, wagons, fiddlers, steeples, sailors, sledgehammers, flags, steam, beggars, turbans, goats, mandolin, cranes, jugglers, baskets, sailmakers, billboards, harlots, smokestacks, whistles, organ, weavers, hookahs, peddlers, peppers, puppets, fistfighst, cripples, feathers, conjuror, monkeys, soldiers…The list goes on, effectively echoing the chaos of a major 19th century European port. It is here that Håkan loses Linus. Amidst the hubbub the two brothers become separated, and in a panic, without knowing the language, Håkan hurries onto a ship he thinks is set for New York hoping he’ll find Linus there. But as the ship sets sail, his brother is nowhere to be found. As the vessel makes its way into the Atlantic, Håkan becomes feverish with despair. The Brennans, an Irish family on board, find him and care for him. After some time Håkan is able to communicate, learning the details of their journey:
…through signs and with the aid of a small piece of lead with which Eileen [Brennan] drew a rough map of the world, Håkan understood that they were an eternity away from New York–and getting farther from it every instant. He saw they were sailing to the end of the world, to get around Cape Horn, and then head up north. That was the first time he heard the word ‘California.’In Postmodern Geographies Soja argues, “this emerging postmodern critical human geography must continue to be built upon a radical deconstruction, a deeper exploration of those critical silences in the texts, narratives and intellectual landscapes of the past, an attempt to reinscribe and resituate the meaning and significance of space in history.” Here, Soja is laying the foundation for a Marxist Geography within social theory, and in doing so, he creates the opportunity for literary scholars to develop a spatial reading. With this project in mind, one cannot ignore the ways in which Diaz constructs In the Distance that make such a reading possible. Throughout the novel Håkan barely speaks and so embodies the “critical silence,” allowing the reader to read the composition and influence of the landscape as it takes control of the narrative.
In the novel’s prologue, set in the present, we are initially presented with the image of a mature and very different Håkan, seen emerging from a swimming hole in the frozen sea. Diaz brilliantly introduces his protagonist as one who literally issues forth from the bleak landscape of a frozen wasteland, “only then did his colossal proportions, which the blank vastness had concealed, become apparent…he was as large as he could possibly be while still remaining human.” He is a chiseled, bearded, giant man who instills fear and respect in the men who meet him. Following his polar bear swim, Håkan makes his way back to the ice-bound schooner of which he is a passenger. Some wary fellow passengers have heard the legend of The Hawk, a name given to him due to the poor understanding of his name by English speakers. At the urging of a brave few, a crowd gathers around him to hear his story while the ship waits for the warming days to break up the ice. From there the narrative turns back in time to the point when Håkan and Linus leave Sweden.
What creates the legend of the Hawk? How does Håkan transform from lost boy aboard a ship to California to fearsome legend? As the novel progresses he falls into the paths of many people, and through each encounter he learns something new. His life is dominated by the aspirations of those undertaking the rugged quest of settling the western United States. In many ways Håkan symbolizes a vessel carrying the imperial burden of new territory. Work defines him. Once they land in San Francisco, his first assignment is to haul the belongings of the Brennans. He believes that as long as he heads eastward he will find his way to New York, where ultimately he might find his brother. Håkan finds hope in his ability to move across the unknown distance.
James Brennan, however, is bent on gold. He has uprooted his family from their native Ireland in order to strike it rich in the goldfields of the territories. As the small family, which now includes Håkan, moves east, their prospects of success seem as unlikely as finding a needle in a haystack. Until one fateful day when Håkan loses grip of the wheelbarrow which holds all their belongings, and it falls down a steep descent, “tumbling and flipping on itself, and finally turning somersaults and pirouetting with surprising grace until it smashed against a boulder, shattering beyond repair.” The family is forced to camp for the night. An outraged Brennan mindlessly goes to pan a small stream nearby while Eileen pitches camp and Håkan nurses his blistered and bleeding hands. Then, “when the pan came out, he stared at it, transfixed, as if he were looking into a mirror without recognizing the face that was supposed to be his.” James Brennan has struck gold.
Time and time again, Håkan suffers trauma while others find fortune in the “blank vastness” of a territory slowly being claimed. After his experience with the Brennans, he is kidnapped and held hostage as a sex slave by a powerful land-owning woman. Then he meets and joins an evolutionary biologist intent on finding the missing link in the expansive, and deadly, salt flats. Time passes and Håkan finds himself accompanying a small wagon train, serving as the head of security until they are overrun by bandits. Thrown into a violent rage, Håkan slays the entire murderous band of attackers. It is in this event that legend of the Hawk is born. The trauma of the attack sends him into a lonely saga of avoiding humanity, trapped in the endless landscape that seems to contain him no matter how long he travels. After being alone for years he re-enters society only to find that he is a wanted man, wrongly accused of murdering the families of the wagon train he had saved.
Håkan is like the wheelbarrow he once pushed, endlessly “tumbling and flipping” and “shattering beyond repair.” However, he is often able to discover something new and worthy, some effort which keeps him alive. Along the way he encounters wonders of science and medicine, and uses those skills to help himself and others. He fine-tunes his ability to hunt and live off the land. He learns the joys of gastronomy using the herbs, plants and fowl of the wilderness from someone who becomes very dear to him, only to see that person brutally murdered. Håkan is the trauma wanderer, suffering the psychosis-inducing terror of empire-building. Everywhere he goes seems to be a site of profit-extraction. For instance, not far from the remote location where James Brennan first finds gold, there exists the small outpost of Clangdon. It is here, in a typical Western setting of lawlessness, that Håkan is held hostage. Eventually he is able to escape and flee to other distant parts of the territories. Years later, he revisits the small town, only to find it a bustling urban environment. Håkan’s story is not the typical immigration story, nor does he fit into the traditional protagonist role of the American Western novel. Diaz shows us a man exploited and tortured by the processes of capitalist enterprises in the spatial ordering of the American landscape.
Using the Borges story The Aleph to frame his discussion about Los Angeles, Soja compares the most expansive urban environment of the contemporary American west to the unexplainable location described in the classic short story:
…we still know too little about the descriptive grammar and syntax of human geographies, the phonemes and epistemes of spatial interpretation. We are constrained by language much more than we know, as Borges so knowingly admits: what we can see in Los Angeles and in the spatiality of social life is stubbornly simultaneous…the task of comprehensive, holistic regional description may therefore be impossible…there is hope nonetheless.Soja’s hopefulness might spring from the feeling that great literature can give us a glimpse of the unexplainable. When we think about the American West, we must think about it spatially. We must remember not only the timeline of events: When was this battle won or lost? Who purchased this land? Where did those people go? Instead we should focus on the atmosphere of space created under the efforts of claiming dominion: How did the site of battle determine its outcome? What gives land its value? Where might people flourish? This simple readjustment of inquiry invites a deeper reading into the consequences of social progress and development.
Diaz dispels the old myth of the West. In his novel, we see that even a giant white man can be taken advantage of amidst the setting of an emerging empire. Håkan interacts with very few Indigenous people throughout the novel, which might come as a surprise, but is fitting since those voices have been destroyed from the narrative of American progress. Håkan himself rarely speaks. Not due to the language barrier, because he picks up English easily. He actively avoids interacting with others after suffering the trauma caused by the actions of those he meets, affecting his navigation through an environment made hostile by human behavior. While the landscape and terrain itself proves uninviting and dangerous, it is the company of others that proves to be the most lethal. From the moment he sets foot in the New World, Håkan is used as a tool, exploited by various people and their enterprises. Labour shapes him. Even during his periods of isolation, he can’t resist mindlessly putting himself to work, almost as a way to ignore and suppress his emotions. And this work takes on an especially disturbing quality when he begins tunneling into the earth to escape the outside world.
In this novel, Diaz deftly creates the postmodern landscape, one filled with sites of profit-extraction and knowledge-digging. The main character experiences the mania of empire-building and is traumatized over and over again until he almost breaks. Like Borges, Diaz is unafraid to use formal tricks to express this. Towards the end of the novel, a certain passage is repeated several times to showcase the tedium of Håkan’s labors:
…Seasons went by and returned, and Håkan’s occupations never changed. A roof could leak less. Traps had to be set. A gutter overflowed. Tiles had slid out of place. An abandoned ditch had to be filled. The coat had to be mended. A trench had fallen into disrepair. Firewood had to be gathered. An extension to an old passageway was necessary. Drinking water was needed. A new tool had to be made. Some meat had to be jerked before it spoiled. Cobblestones had come loose. A leather flue was too decayed. More glue had to be boiled down. Before one of these tasks had been completed, the next one demanded his attention, so that at all times he was engaged in one of these chores, which, together, over time, formed a circle, or, rather, some sort of pattern that, though invisible to him, repeated itself, he was sure, at regular intervals…he did not even eat at regular hours. In fact, his diet had been reduced to the absolute, life-sustaining minimum.This passage,which recurs three times within several pages, also exhibits some of the haunting, halting prose that Diaz uses to evoke the monotony and tortured emotionality of his protagonist. Håkan symbolizes the repetitive mechanics of a machine, a man divorced from any sense of fellow-feeling for humanity. He exists in survival mode.
In The Aleph, the narrator, who is identified as Borges himself, lists some mythical examples of mirrors throughout the history of literature, and determines that the Aleph he experienced in the Buenos Aires cellar is a false one, describing what he saw as an example of one of those “mere optical instruments.” With In the Distance, Diaz presents us with one of those optical instruments through which the reader might see a totalizing view of the settling of the American West. It is a dark and haunting landscape. Diaz wonderfully distills the sweeping clichés of the era and region into the heart and soul of a single man, showing the violence and chaos of the imperialist age. Håkan’s emotionality is mirrored by the social production of space. As much as it was true in the nineteenth century, it’s still true today. Human behavior can be defined not by the moment in time, but its point in space. By engaging spatial literacy, spatial readings of works can be explored. It is unwise to ignore the environment which contains us. We might experience the quest and thirst for understanding, but we must recall those visions of oases in the distance. - Gabriel Boudali http://www.3ammagazine.com/3am/spatiality-emotionality-hernan-diazs-novel-distance/
"In the Distance did something new, subverting the Western genre and, in so doing, raising important questions about cultural attitudes made evident by assumptions we make about art, particularly toward guns and immigrants. It’s also just a great story."—The Paris Review Staff’s Favorite Books of 2017
"Hernan Diaz's strange, absorbing novel "In the Distance" . . . upends the romance and mythology of America's Western experience and rugged individualism. . . . Diaz's take on the immigrant's experience strikes me as a modern story. It resonated most strongly when my mind went to the millions of people on the move around the world today."—The Star Tribune
“Stitched through with humor, this often-unpredictable novel will keep readers running along with every step of Håkan’s odd escapades.” —Booklist
"[In the Distance] is the story of a young Swedish emigrant to the United States, some time in the middle of the 19th century, which begins as a vividly observed and emotionally nuanced Western, and evolves into a kind of epic of loneliness, as our protagonist wanders farther and farther into the desolate landscapes of the West, and comes dizzyingly close to a psychic point of no return. It's a hero's journey, or possibly a monster's journey—the ending recalls the austere beauty of the last scenes of Frankenstein—and one of the great pleasures of Diaz's singular book is to observe the complicated ways in which the hero and the monster coexist."—BOMB, “Fall Books Preview”
"Be on the lookout for Hernan Diaz’s short story in our pages next year. Until then, thank goodness we have In the Distance (Coffee House), his first novel—a sensitively written, often harrowing odyssey through the desert—which will have made ten more year-end lists since breakfast."—The Kenyon Review, "Holiday Reading Recommendations"
“[In the Distance] is an episodic picaresque adventure, but the transitions are so smooth—and the prose is as unbroken as the horizon—that the past fades away like a dream. It’s as if Herman Melville had navigated the American West, instead of the ocean.”—The Nation
"Debut author Hernan Diaz depicts a bonafide Western character, an original born in the spirit of expansion and innovation and formed by “the business of being that took up all his time.” Jorge Luis Borges’ influence on Diaz is palpable in his pithy prose; lists convey the sparsity of Håkan’s surroundings and the emptiness that feeds him again and again on his circular path. Diaz is bound to join ranks with Borges on the literary scene with this mythical personality, still at large in our consciousness long after we’ve put down the book."—BookPage
"While set in the American West, this is no conventional Western, as it turns the genre's stereotypes upside down, taking place on a frontier as much mythic as real with a main character traveling east. In this world, American individualism becomes the isolation that is its shadow and the dream of freedom devolves into anarchic violence. And while Håkan longs for community, he finds himself a stranger everywhere. VERDICT: Resonant historical fiction with a contemporary feel."—Library Journal, starred review
"A powerful and singular novel . . . in which Hernan Diaz succeeds in the most difficult thing—creating a character that lingers in your mind. . . . The book, indeed, is anomalous, a meteorite in American literature."—Il Giornale (Italy)
"Stunning . . . The writing style is free of sentimental conclusions and emotional directives, yet Håkan is a perpetually engaging and sympathetic character, so expressively drawn that bouts of loneliness, heartache, and shame vibrate off the page. . . . The American wilderness is Håkan’s only constant companion, and descriptions of salt flats, canyons, and prairies shimmer with an almost hallucinatory power. Fine writing, diverse and well-imagined exploits, and Håkan himself keep the pace flowing, and mounting tension over just how it will all end makes for long reading sessions. As gritty, unromanticized tales of the American West go, In the Distance ranks with classics like Thomas Berger’s Little Big Man and Larry McMurtry’s Lonesome Dove."—Foreword Reviews, starred review
"Díaz’s great gift lies in reconfiguring the possible, the expected, the taken-for-granted into something extraordinary."—Paste
"A gritty, dreamy anti-Western Western. This book’s unflinching exposure of our foundational American myths about individualism and violence is so well-executed that it feels nothing short of subversive. Surreal, cerebral, and affecting beyond what I thought possible."—LitHub
"A a truly haunting narrative. . . . A gorgeous journey, a profound homage to America’s natural beauty. Dip into Hernan Diaz’s In the Distance slowly, read a little bit at a time, enjoy the pure beauty of Hawk’s journey, his sense of being in America’s mythic past."—Counterpunch
“Hernan Diaz’s In the Distance will haunt me forever, a narrative that continues to astound me, and I think a near perfect portrayal of aloneness and solitude and deep longing.” —The Millions
"Perhaps most striking is Díaz’s ability to describe the known as unknown, the all too familiar when it is yet unfamiliar. The nature of his protagonist, Håkan Söderström, a lost and wandering Swedish immigrant in the rough, largely uninhabited American territory, allows Diaz to write of what it is like to encounter the foreign or forgotten, such that the reader has a similarly enlightening experience, encountering it anew." —The Paris Review, "Staff Picks"
"The musical prose of Hernan Diaz’s debut novel In the Distance is as rich and surprising as the quest that the novel’s protagonist, Håkan Söderström, embarks on through the volatile American West. . . . Though it successfully mines many elements of a classic western novel, In the Distance is far more than a western. The meticulous care with which Diaz has clearly crafted each sentence proves he is a highly versatile author, one who is virtually limitless in scope. . . . Ultimately, it is a combination of nuanced characters like Håkan and finely-tuned, lyrical prose that enables Diaz to wildly succeed here in humanizing an often mythologized time in history.—The Arkansas International
"This is the perfect marriage of adventure and literary fiction. The sprawling narrative covers an entire lifetime of traveling and growing, and it always stays fresh and exciting."—PANK: "Best Books of 2017"
"For someone not afraid to read a difficult but extremely rewarding literary work"—The Feminist Press: "The Best Books of 2017"
"Diaz performs masterstrokes of aesthetic, thematic, and narrative superimposition throughout the novel. In the Distance is distinguished by inversions of traditional history, which color the novel’s terribly gorgeous landscape of 19th century west of the Mississippi. . . . The breadth and deployment of Diaz’s argot is simply astounding. His sentences are crisp, speckled with terms esoteric to an era yet idiomatically clear in their function. And more than any historical reimagining, Håkan’s desperate, often desultory journey blurs the line between purpose and nihilism, hope and despair, swirling together the variegation of human agency and circumstance until we find ourselves staring at the ineffable being that has become of Håkan, a life so saturated with learning, love, and loss that we have no choice but to accept his final measure."—Atticus Review
"[Díaz's] debut novel has a wonderfully old-fashioned feel. It sprawls across early America through the story of a Swedish immigrant who transforms from penniless young man to living legend."—BookPage, "First Fiction: The 15 Most Exciting Debuts of the Fall"
"The opening line (and, really, the opening chapter) is worth double or triple whatever money you spend on this novel. It’s that good."—Writer's Bone
"The prose is surreal and wondrous, especially in its evocation of a landscape that exists more in allegory than historical fact."—Tor.com
"An infectious story of one man’s quest for solitude and understanding, In the Distance is a noteworthy, original debut."—The Gazette
"A surprising anti-Western Western interrogating the archetype of rugged anti-hero, and the way we tell stories about America. Diaz constructs a piercing and highly original depiction of our history's weird resonances."—MPR News
"Diaz wonderfully distills the sweeping clichés of the era and region into the heart and soul of a single man, showing the violence and chaos of the imperialist age."—Gabriel Boudali, 3:AM Magazine
"A tremendous debut novel and an epic American story. . . . Just a flat out great book." —Brazos Bookstore, "Buyer’s Corner: Upcoming Fall Favorites!"
“The western as American myth is no new thing, but rarely has it been done so well. A picaresque, a bildungsroman, a parable, and a survivor tale all in one, Hernan Diaz’s story of Håkan, a Swedish immigrant forced to fend for himself in the American West, has an epic feel that belies the slender book’s page count. This is the kind of non-whitewashed American mythology that nurses a kernel of truth: Are we not all immigrants to a world we hoped would be better, encountering on life’s journey few friends and more foes, all of whom influence our understanding of the world and leave lasting impressions even after the memory of their faces fade?” —Christopher Phipps, East Bay Booksellers
"Through the story of Håkan, a Swedish immigrant to the United States in the mid 1800s, Diaz meditates on the nature of impersonal landscape, explores a life of isolation, and tours through some of the characters that carved the identity of the American West. This is a strange and brilliant version of historical fiction, twisting the genre into something unique. For fans of Cormac McCarthy and Eleanor Catton's Booker Prize winning novel The Luminaries." —Porter Square Books: Staff Picks
"Part coming-of-age tale, part survivalist story, you have never read a western frontier novel like this. Truly one of the best books of the year."—Third Place Books: Staff Picks
"The best novel I have read in 2017. Why? Because it is replete with qualities that seem increasingly scarce in contemporary culture; namely nuance, subtlety, and reflection. A young Swedish immigrant arrives penniless in antebellum America, his sole purpose to reunite with his brother. From this simple setup, Diaz creates a deep evocation of foreignness, adding a welcome complication to the Western genre. Exploring myth and shame, the episodic journey upends stereotypes while maintaining a gripping narrative. Written in beautifully tactile prose, In The Distance is a startling debut novel. I look forward to reading it again." —Elliott Bay Book Company