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the Complete Review
the complete review - fiction

     

They Know Not What They Do

by
Jussi Valtonen


general information | review summaries | our review | links | about the author

To purchase They Know Not What They Do



Title: They Know Not What They Do
Author: Jussi Valtonen
Genre: Novel
Written: 2014 (Eng. 2017)
Length: 485 pages
Original in: Finnish
Availability: They Know Not What They Do - US
They Know Not What They Do - UK
They Know Not What They Do - Canada
Ils ne savent pas ce qu'ils font - France
Zwei Kontinente - Deutschland
  • Finnish title: He eivät tiedä mitä tekevät
  • Translated by Kristian London
  • Finlandia Prize, 2014

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Our Assessment:

B- : a lot here -- but then also tears itself in too many different directions

See our review for fuller assessment.




Review Summaries
Source Rating Date Reviewer
Daily Mail B 16/11/2017 Anthony Cummins
FAZ . 16/7/2017 Oliver Jungen
Helsingin Sanomat A 13/11/2014 Jukka Petäjä
Le Monde . 26/1/2017 Elena Balzamo
Le Temps . 10/3/2017 Elisabeth Jobin


  From the Reviews:
  • "This is classy and engrossing drama but Valtonen’s plot jams together his various threads with sledgehammer bluntness, not least in how it forces Joe to face his past." - Anthony Cummins, Daily Mail

  • "Trotz aller Technologie-, Medien- und Gesellschaftskritik ist das Markenzeichen dieses in wechselnden Perspektiven extrem subjektiv erzählten Buches die Introspektion: Zwei Kontinente ist ein psychologischer Roman in Reinform, so rein sogar, dass ihm zeitweise das Romanhafte abgeht. (...) Das Problem besteht darin, dass das Buch mehr sein möchte als ein feinsinniger psychologischer Familienroman, nämlich eine Gesellschafts- und Gegenwartsanalyse en gros. Dazu fehlen ihm jedoch das Format und die stilistische Raffinesse." - Oliver Jungen, Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung

  • "Romaanissa kaikki on suurta, formaatiltaan normaalia kookkaammassa kirjassa on sivujakin lähes 600, mutta tärkeämpää on se, että siinä on sisältöä vielä enemmän kuin kokoa. (...) He eivät tiedä mitä tekevät on tärkeä kirja. Se on syvällinen ja viisas." - Jukka Petäjä, Helsingin Sanomat

  • "Il s’agit d’éthique mais surtout de responsabilité: peut-on revendiquer le contrôle de processus complexes, tout en étant incapable de mettre de l’ordre dans sa vie privée ? (...) Une réflexion contemporaine très subtile portée par une architecture romanesque qui ne l’est pas moins." - Elena Balzamo, Le Monde

  • "(L)e Scandinave expose la façon dont l’hyperconnectivité a peu à peu déréglé les modalités relationnelles de ses personnages. Dès lors, la narration à suspens de son roman soulève d’ambitieux questionnements éthiques et moraux (.....) Malgré ses quelques longueurs, le roman est aussi complexe qu’intelligent. Jussi Valtonen y anticipe avec pertinence les conséquences d’un monde où les opinions de chacun sont récupérées par des méta-pouvoirs capitalistes, institutionnels ou terroristes, les vidant peu à de leur sens pour mieux les neutraliser." - Elisabeth Jobin, Le Temps

Please note that these ratings solely represent the complete review's biased interpretation and subjective opinion of the actual reviews and do not claim to accurately reflect or represent the views of the reviewers. Similarly the illustrative quotes chosen here are merely those the complete review subjectively believes represent the tenor and judgment of the review as a whole. We acknowledge (and remind and warn you) that they may, in fact, be entirely unrepresentative of the actual reviews by any other measure.

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The complete review's Review:

       They Know Not What They Do is a sprawling novel -- and quite lumpy in its sprawl. It begins with a brief teaser-prologue, a little more than a page in length, printed in italics, presumably a scene from what the novel will come to -- but it's a longtime coming then. The novel proper begins some twenty years earlier, in 1994, in Helsinki, the focus on Alina, still married at the time to American scientist Joe Chayefski.
       Joe's Finnish fling -- a leap into marriage, a short stint as an academic in Helsinki, an aborted go at fatherhood -- is a brief detour on a promising career. He'd been offered a tenure-track position at UCLA -- and instead he accepted a year-long postdoc offer in Helsinki (yes, it's a bit hard to swallow, but there it is) -- an act as that seems as much re- or counter-action to family and other expectations as his whirlwind romance/marriage is (which looks as much as an excuse to get away from the woman he was previously involved with as anything else). Passionate about work, he finds Finnish academia mystifying (and, as described, it is), and the connection to Alina sputters, especially once they have a child, Samuel. Joe is actually reasonably hands-on as a baby-father, and he makes some effort to establish himself in Finland, but it just isn't meant to be. An offer comes from the states, he heads off, and that's the end of that family. Very occasionally in the years that follow he's in touch with Alina, and there's one attempt to have Samuel come visit him when the boy is six, but it falls through; Joe is a completely absent father-figure, for the longest stretches appearing in the boy's life solely in the form of an annual holiday card.
       The bulk of the novel then is set some two decades later: the prologue already introduced the cyclical coming of the cicadas, and Valtonen repeatedly weaves them into his story. Dormant underground for so long, they resurface with a vengeance; so too Joe's past would seem to be resurfacing -- and overwhelming him -- now.
       Alina eventually remarried, and Samuel has some much younger brothers; Joe, now living in Baltimore, also got married again, and has two daughters, fifteen-year-old Rebecca and eleven-year-old Daniela. (Bizarrely, the one connection to Finland Joe decides on is getting a Finnish au pair -- Saara, who proves comically all-too Finnish.) Alina gets in touch with Joe and tells him that Samuel may be in some trouble -- and he may be in the United States. Meanwhile, neuroscientist Joe, whose work involves using animals, has been having some problems at the lab, and at home, with protesters -- all the more frustrating for him, because he's not quite sure what they want, or why they have so specifically targeted him. The possible connection -- Samuel has been dabbling in activism -- grows worryingly more plausible, and the escalating threats hit worryingly closer to home .....
       Most of the novel focuses on Joe, sharing his perspective, and it's over halfway into the novel before there's a long section filling in the Samuel-blank, describing his childhood and then especially the last year in Finland, when he graduated from high school, and his girlfriend and practically all his classmates moved on to university and he missed the boat. It takes longer still to learn what precisely seems to have radicalized him, and how he wound up in the United States. Obviously, there are some father-son issues, and obviously eventually the two will confront them head on -- but Valtonen allows that there's considerable more to it, and though he spins some of this out rather teasingly -- there's no reason not to reveal more about Samuel earlier ... -- that storyline comes together reasonably well.
       There is however, a lot more to They Know Not What They Do. A lot more. So, for example, Joe is having some father-daughter issues as well. Not so much the nude selfie he catches his eleven-year-old taking -- a small shock quickly lost in everything else he is dealing with -- but all sorts of issues with the independent-minded fifteen-year-old Rebecca.
       Much centers around corporate infiltration of the American school system -- university as well as high school. Rebecca has been targeted by a corporation to be a trendsetter, agreeing to show off -- on social media, especially -- various wares in exchange for freebies (which, importantly, she gets before anyone else). Creepy though much of this is, the creepiest thing is the new super-gadget, the 'experience device' iAm, which she also gets before it's even released to the public:

     You could use the device to browse the internet, watch videos, listen to music. But there was no UI to speak of, as the company explained in the user guide: the experiences were transmitted via a few small, stylishly designed electrodes directly to the sensory cortices.
       With no user interface, the whole thing works simply in the mind's eye, so to speak -- and Joe repeatedly catches his daughter lost in this other-world (and worries about losing her there permanently). They try to ration her use of the device, but this alternate reality and all its potential is hard to resist -- so also for Joe, who can't help but try it out and easily falls into this particular rabbit hole. (He remains unaware of many aspects of how it functions however, and Valtonen amusingly reverses the usual situation, of a child racking up ridiculous phone- and app-charges on a parent's device, here -- though rather more damagingly so. )
       Of course, also:
The control software and circuits for the new iAm devices visual stimuli had to be based on the prie-winning research conducted by Joe himself -- not totally, of course, but in large part. Without his findings, it would never have been possible to develop the device.
       Consequences -- unintended, and/or ones people tended to remain oblivious (or indifferent) to -- of everything from scientific research to consumer activity, even of the most mundane, everyday sort, are yet another major theme of the theme-packed novel .....
       There's also the drugs Rebecca is carrying around with her -- "ALTIUS®" -- which: "wasn't a drug; it was a fine-tuner", a different sort of neuro-enhancement.
       Joe is also dealing with a different form of corporate interference and intrusion, specifically in academia, as academic publishing is here so firmly under the control of a single company -- Freedom Media -- that they: "could unilaterally dictate the terms for access to scientific information" -- and use this market power to insist that: "university libraries could either subscribe to Freedom Media's entire catalog or none of it". Every university, of course, has to subscribe -- but aside from the cost what really annoys Joe is that it means that all sorts of third- and fourth-rate journals ("bogus rags") were getting equal treatment and (the equivalent of) shelf space -- and sometimes relied on, even though the results printed in them were dubious and often entirely unreliable. Yes, They Know Not What They Do is also a novel that addresses questions of scientific reliability in a corporate-dominated information-flood age .....
       Then there are the protestors who are going after Joe and his work -- and, ultimately, even his family. Joe even wants to engage them in dialogue, and puts considerable effort into arranging some sort of conversation -- but it does not go well. Scientific issues -- and their moral implications -- don't lend themselves to public hearing of the sort Joe finds himself participating in (though it has to be noted that Valtonen stacks the deck here ...).
       Joe and his wife even deliberate purchasing a gun for protection -- and, yes, Chekhov's dictum necessarily comes to mind .....
       The gun, and much else, also provide fodder for Valtonen's comparing of cultures. The novels early chapters, mainly set in Finland, are amusingly critical -- very critical -- of zombie-like Finnish culture and society, which leaves Joe baffled. Valtonen exaggerates a bit here, but it is quite amusing in its exaggeration, as in his inability to encounter practically any of his supposed co-workers at his job:
The whole first month Joe was in Finland, he thought the university was closed. Or were Finns perpetually on strike, like the French ?
     Joe had gradually learned that if you sat still for a long time without making any sudden movements, you could catch the occasional glimpse of a Finn. In the wintertime, they would emerge soundlessly, especially in the morning dimness and the blue light of afternoon, to wander the corridors in solitude, mournful and mute.
       American violence, and the nation's apathetic reaction to it, is also repeatedly returned to -- and there are instances of violent eruptions, even if gunfire remains relatively rare. A near-miss targeting his daughters understandably hits too close to home, and brings Joe -- and soon his second marriage -- to the breaking point. (At which point also excursions into the iAm world, with its neuroXperiences are probably not helpful for his mental health.)
       And -- as the late-night infomercial salesman pitches ... -- there's still more ! Joe's Jewish roots and identity crop up here and there (including in Finland, for yet another odd crossed-cultural-wires experience), for example. Or also: Alina becomes a successful writer back in Finland ..... But these are sort of loose threads, left, like much else flapping in the wind.
       A lot of this is fascinating: the ethical questions posed by animal testing; fancy new technologies that sound all too plausible, and their potential effects; and -- surprisingly -- the question of child-rearing, both in how Alina raised Samuel (and the role Samuel is pressed into with his little brothers), and how Joe tries to wrangle his daughters. But all of these lose themselves in the tangle of stories Valtonen offers. And what a tangle it is, all over the place.
       The different perspectives are reasonably interesting, but unfocus the novel: what starts with Alina then quickly leaves her behind, while cipher-Samuel, an almost invisible presence for half the book, is suddenly at the heart of it. Meanwhile, others are neglected: Rebecca gets to argue with dad a lot, but the book never actually shifts to her perspective, and so she too remains under-drawn -- though she's at least a substantial presence compared to her younger sister, and her mother, who only get a few scenes in which they are front and center before vanishing almost completely in the background. And Valtonen doesn't just shift perspectives, he even shifts to the present tense on occasion, to create a sense of greater immediacy (and also further confuse readers ...).
       All too much of this -- and, in part, because there is all so much of this ... --- feels like a writing exercise, an experimenting with what Valtonen can do. (Hilariously, Valtonen explains in an interview that: "My original intention was to write a short story collection: stories about relationships, ideally Alice Munro-esque", so of course this five-hundred-page heap-of-heaps is what happened.....) This is a novel cobbled together out of far too many ideas and plotlines, with Valtonen too pleased with his tangents -- the criticism of Finland, corporate intrusion in academia, and in private life, American violence, animal testing, Jewish identity, etc. etc. -- to weight them appropriately. (Don't forget the cicadas ! Oh, right -- Valtonen won't let you forget the cicadas .....) A lot of these pieces are very good -- as is much of the story-telling. But the novel gets sidetracked in peculiar ways -- or rather never manages to stay on the one track. Valtonen has too much to say, and in letting so many of the storylines peter out, or compete for attention, it's like the debate with those opposed to his work Joe participate in, any main point or story drowned out by so much else.
       The writing in They Know Not What They Do is good, and many of these stories and ideas are gripping -- but in dividing his (and the reader's) attention, Valtonen doesn't present any part of it nearly satisfactorily enough.

- M.A.Orthofer, 18 December 2017

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Links:

They Know Not What They Do: Reviews: Other books of interest under review:

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About the Author:

       Finnish author Jussi Valtonen was born in 1974

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© 2017 the complete review

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