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the Complete Review
the complete review - fiction


The Waiter

Matias Faldbakken

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To purchase The Waiter

Title: The Waiter
Author: Matias Faldbakken
Genre: Novel
Written: 2017 (Eng. 2018)
Length: 245 pages
Original in: Norwegian
Availability: The Waiter - US
The Waiter - UK
The Waiter - Canada
The Hills - Deutschland
  • Norwegian title: The Hills
  • Translated by Alice Menzies

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Our Assessment:

B : artful, but ultimately doesn't go far enough

See our review for fuller assessment.

Review Summaries
Source Rating Date Reviewer
The LA Times . 29/11/2018 Bethanne Patrick
NZZ . 20/11/2018 Franz Haas
The NY Times Book Rev. . 2/12/2018 Pete Wells

  From the Reviews:
  • "Faldbakken’s novel contains so many oddities, strange characters and bizarre details that it’s easy to read it as a romp through a lost Europe where fine china and artistic graffiti both had their places in upper-class restaurants. (...) There is some satisfaction in reading The Waiter as a quirky slice of life. (...) Beneath the whimsy and strangeness lies a much darker story (...) Just because the clues are there doesn’t mean they’ve been used to best effect. You can read this surprising book several different ways." - Bethanne Patrick, The Los Angeles Times

  • "(E)in verstörendes Kammerspiel um obskure norwegische Stützen der Gesellschaft und ein verblassendes Europa. (...) Matias Faldbakken hat die rare Gabe, eine Atmosphäre extrem zu verdichten und Charaktere zu schaffen, die trotz ihrer Exaltiertheit keine Karikaturen sind." - Franz Haas, Neue Zürcher Zeitung

  • "These do not sound like the ingredients of a page turner, but Faldbakken has a way with nonaction. He builds a delicious tension between the paucity of events and the lavishness of the technique with which they are described." - Pete Wells, The New York Times Book Review

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:

       The Waiter is narrated by an old hand at the venerable Oslo restaurant The Hills. He's been there for thirteen years, comfortable in the routine of his work: "I wait. I please. I move around the room, taking orders, pouring, and clearing away". He has done his best to fit right in, and he does:

I stand here, straight-backed in my waiter's uniform, and could just as easily have stood like this a hundred years ago.
       The Waiter is a character-portrait of a would-be entirely unassuming character, pleased to have found his role, in an appropriate old-style, uncompromising (but also a bit long in the tooth) establishment, and to inhabit it to the fullest: to let himself be defined by his work. So also he admits: "I work as much as I can. My days might seem endless, but that's how I want them". He barely seems to have -- or be able to imagine -- a life beyond his professional one at The Hills.
       He sums up:
My job has two key criteria: I have to show pride in my work, and I have to be self-effacing.
       He put everything he has into doing both -- successfully, for so long, but in the November days he recounts here some cracks begin to show.
       The waiter acknowledges:
The farce of everyday life seeps in here at The Hills as well, where we try to keep it at bay through rigid routines.
       Ultimately, here, the efforts are undermined by a variety of smaller and larger incidents that throw the waiter increasingly off. It begins with one of the regulars -- and almost all the tables seem to have their regulars --, known as the Pig. Always dependably impeccably dressed, and with his own set of routines, he arrives later than usual for his lunch; even more suprisingly, one of his three guests doesn't show up:
     "Not every day the Pig gets stood up," says the Bar Manager.
     You can say that again," I say.
     "There's a first time for everything."
     "I don't like first times."
       The absentee eventually appears, after Pig has left; it is a striking young woman, who then shows up repeatedly, alone as well as to join Pig. The waiter doesn't know what to make of her; he's not even sure of what she is:
It's hard to say whether she she's a lady or a girl. Child or lady. She's some kind of child lady. In every respect, she's an adult. Definitely adult in appearance as well as in her habits, which are far too refined to belong to a child, not to mention expensive.
       He refers to her simply as the Child Lady -- and she continues to divert his attention when she's present, unsettling him and his routines. He admits, too: "I think the Child Lady's true face is also a mask, and an awful one."
       Among the goings-on in the restaurant the waiter recounts are the routines with the regulars, and the slightly out of the ordinary incidents that occur over the course of the days he's describing. For example, he's asked to make introductions: one party has a picture -- a Holbein -- they'd like to have evaluated, and they want to call on the expertise of others; the waiter declines to act as middleman. The waiter also has some troubles -- largely of his own invention -- with the florist. And there's his friend Edgar, who regularly comes in with his nine-year-old daughter, Anna, and the increasingly ruffled waiter is particularly thrown off his game when Edgar asks him to watch Anna one afternoon and evening when he has to go away. For the waiter: "Regularity and service act as a bulwark against inner noise", but his walls are increasingly under attack and, as the inner noise burbles up, he does not handle it particularly well.
       Mistakes creep in; the waiter injures himself. He continues to try to keep on track, but finds it increasingly difficult. Of course, he tries to maintain a stiff upper lip, and does his best to give the impression everything -- including he -- is under control:
     "What's going on ?" says Edgar.
     "Going on ?" I raise an eyebrow and try to hold my face steady; I try dragging it in the opposite direction to the downwards pull caused by the strain.
     "You look a bit harried.
     "We had a slight situation."
     "A situation ?"
     "A slight situation."
     "I see."
     Edgar doesn't have much patience for my uncommunicative tendencies. He shrugs.
       Faldbakken nicely uses his protagonist's correct and mannered bearing and diction to sustain a simmering tension in The Waiter -- that small-scale nervousness one feels in a restaurant watching a server balancing a slightly over-full tray. The story rises to the occasional bigger jolt, but Faldbakken is more low-key than sensational; the unease or even horror bubble beneath but only barely poke through to the surface.
       Much of the pleasure of the novel comes in the creation of atmosphere, especially in the presentation of The Hills. This is an establishment from and of a different age. It aspires to the Continental ideal and maintains certain standards. So, for example, it offers newspapers in "so-called Zeitungsspanner" (a wooden stick clipping the spine, allowing the newspapers to be hung on a rack for customers), but:
We don't offer the Norwegian daily papers in a place like this; they're too primitive. We try to maintain a Continental standard. Instead, we hang the few international papers still available in printed editions. Not that we're desperately Continental, but, unfortunately, offering the Norwegian papers isn't an option.
       So, too:
The Bar Manager has put her foot down when it comes to serving decaf. It's not possible, she says. She's not some coffee fanatic, no coffee Nazi -- she doesn't have any warped barista ideology -- but she is part of the old school, and the line has to be drawn somewhere, she claims.
       There's impressive art hanging on the walls, too -- a pre-cubist Braque oil painting, a Schwitters, a Léger, a Kippenberger, even a Valie Export photograph
       Faldbakken's portrait of these two main characters -- waiter and restaurant -- is rich and evocative, while the many incidental characters, divided up between supporting characters (the various other restaurant-affiliated employees) and clientele, is also very good. Indeed, The Waiter is enjoyable to read for the descriptions, of the people, atmosphere, and the various, generally fairly small-scale restaurant-happenings -- but Faldbakken doesn't quite manage the payoff that seems to be lurking underneath the narrative all along. Not so much tease, The Waiter nevertheless winds up, when all is said and done, a bit flat, more show than anything telling. Yes, there is substance to it, and to its protagonist, who obviously has quite a few issues, but the novel doesn't quite dig down deep enough into them (even in its forays into The Hills' splendid old cellar ...).

- M.A.Orthofer, 12 January 2019

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The Waiter: Reviews: Other books of interest under review:

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About the Author:

       Norwegian author and artist Matias Faldbakken was born in 1973.

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© 2019 the complete review

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