Like The Selected Works of T. S. Spivet, Larsen’s best-selling first novel, I am Radar is studded with illustrative photographs, scientific diagrams, and curious typography. His debut was adapted into a feature film, The Young and Prodigious Spivet, starring Helena Bonham Carter, and has been translated into 27 languages. Larsen lives in Edinburgh, Scotland, and spoke to me by phone.
Reif Larsen: I first read Heart of Darkness, like many people do, as an assignment for a high school class. It’s a short work, only 80 pages or so. That’s probably why my copy, the Penguin Classics edition, includes so much additional material: there’s a long introduction, a glossary, a map, and “The Congo Diary,” observations Conrad wrote down as he traveled through the Congo. These additions are compelling, but I don’t think they’re necessary. Heart of Darkness still feels novelistic to me, despite its length. There’s a wonderful ambiguity that surrounds it, this feeling you can’t fully wrap your hands around. It feels much bigger than the sum of its parts.
Obviously, the book has taken a lot of heat and rightful criticism over the years. There’s the famous Chinua Achebe post-colonial critique: the Africans in the book are faceless; it sets up a dichotomy of Europeans versus Africans, it romanticizes and oversimplifies “the dark continent.” Heart of Darkness has grown to be more than just the story Conrad wrote—criticism is part of literature, too, and the story around the text becomes part of the text itself. Still, I think it’s also important to go back to the original. As someone who writes fiction, I like to approach a novel on its own terms, and judge its flaws and merits for myself.
The first thing that struck me about Heart of Darkness was its language. I was completely taken with Conrad's sentences, which I initially found even more compelling than the story’s content. The language is borderline florid, but the unusual syntax, the heightened diction always kept me off balance. You can tell English is not Conrad’s native language. He approaches each sentence in this beautiful, backdoor way. You see this a little bit with Nabokov, too (although I think Nabokov had an English nanny as a kid, whereas I don’t think Conrad really came into contact with English until his twenties). Both writers have this syntactical jujitsu: the sentences often have you expecting one thing then midway through pull the rug out from under you.
I wanted whatever I wrote to have that potential for surprise. If you grew up speaking English, you can slip into these conventional linguistic patterns. It’s easy to get lazy. Conrad reminds me that, each time you end a sentence and begin a new one—every time you press period, space, shift-capital—all kinds of crazy things can happen. That was my first reaction to Heart of Darkness: wow, each sentence is a gift of possibility.