Lang, by Kjell Westötrans Ebba Segerberg

When midlife crises come, they come not single spies
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The Independent Culture

Years of media adulation have ossified Christian Lang's vanity and arrogance, smoothing out internal conflicts beneath the brilliant glare of studio lights. Priding himself on an acute sensitivity to cultural trends, the hero of Kjall Westö's novel basks in the spotlight as the urbane host of The Blue Hour, the highbrow talk show on Finnish television that has made him a household name.

Years of media adulation have ossified Christian Lang's vanity and arrogance, smoothing out internal conflicts beneath the brilliant glare of studio lights. Priding himself on an acute sensitivity to cultural trends, the hero of Kjall Westö's novel basks in the spotlight as the urbane host of The Blue Hour, the highbrow talk show on Finnish television that has made him a household name. Rounding out his status is a string of intellectual novels. He drives around Helsinki in his Celica, a "divorce car" purchased once he saw his second marriage sliding down the pan, wherein lies the rub. Lang is not that good at relationships.

Lang's first encounter with Sarita is caustic: strangers rubbing up the wrong way in a pizzeria, before recognising a mutual loneliness that leads to sudden intimacy. Their affair is eager, stimulating and fulfilling for Lang. Sarita reciprocates his carnal hunger with no interest in his public profile; he makes the effort to ingratiate himself with Miro, her school-age son who poignantly misses his absent father, Marko.

From a drifting sense that both he and his show have passed their prime, Lang emerges rejuvenated to record a successful sixth season. "Neither stress nor evil can reach me here," he purrs in Sarita's cosy flat. Then Marko turns up.

The meat of this novel is the uneasy, menacing menage à trois that Marko forces upon Lang. Short but absorbing, Lang is more character study than thriller, observed by Konrad Wendell, who grew up in Lang's shadow but won modest success of his own as a writer. Wendell neatly fills in childhood gaps, and fleshes out Lang's own carapace of mean-spirited ambition and emotional selfishness.

In the first few pages, Wendell confesses to lending his shovel to a desperate Lang one wet November night to bury a corpse. Westö is manifestly uninterested in engineering a thriller's twist to Lang's inevitable murder conviction. Instead, he uses Wendell, who admits a lifelong jealousy of Lang, to pick apart the frustrations, hopes and anxieties that accompany Lang's descent into jail.

Wendell could extract his revenge in these pages, but Westö allows nothing so plain. Wendell is trapped in the vortex of Lang's charisma, which adds depth to his narration. Lang is a strong, confident novella, demanding attention for its vexed hero as he struggles to re-engage with sensibilities cauterised in youth, and fend off an avalanche of midlife crises.

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