"Assisted Living" is a nonstop stream of human cruelty led by Grandpa, one of the more repugnant characters ever put on paper.
Assisted Living, by Nikanor Teratologen, was originally released in Sweden in 1992 under the title Äldreomsorgen i Övre Kågedalen (roughly translated: Caring for the Elderly in Upper Kage Valley). The book immediately caused an uproar, due in part to the book’s endless “Satanic” parade of rape, murder, sacrilege, bigotry, pedophilia, etc., but also the author’s use of a pseudonym, which led critics to accuse a wide array of major Swedish authors as the creator, including the now goofily popular Stieg Larsson. The result was not only instant-cult-classic and controversial bestselling status for the book, which later would be credited to the novelist Niclas Lundkvist, but also a slew of varying takes on the book’s content, both praising its wild innovations in the way of language and stylizing, and predictably defaming it for its utter lack of reverence, apology, or “humanity.”
But that kind of hype can be a load of bullshit in a world where anything that is remotely taboo without redemption can stir the whining not only of religious moralists, but also of those who think the novel, as a form, must wear its redemptive qualities on its face. Upon receiving a copy of the frequently compelling Dalkey Archive edition of an English translation of the novel, I was both excited at the possibilities and dismissive of anything referred to as “not for the faint of heart.” But indeed, if anyone is capable of using these taxonomies not only for their immediate prowess but for changing language and image at once in how they get invoked, it is the Swedes, as I’ve learned from many of their authors who have recently been translated to English, including Aase Berg, Johan Jönsson, and Johannes Göransson.
Teratologen’s particular manner in manipulating revulsive fields feels different, though, than even those. The book begins with two installed frameworks to give the book a clandestine, contraband-like feel, with both a preface from the author revealing his usage of the pseudonym as a mechanism rather than a shield (“A dear friend with exquisitely cruel tastes entrusted me with the text you now hold in your hands.”), followed by another foreword from said “dear friend,” who proceeds to explain how the body of the book to come had been derived from a child: a child the dear friend kidnapped, tortured, and killed before finding a stack of wallpaper samples in the boy’s belongings that detail a series of acts between the boy himself and a character known only as “Grandpa.” The opening structure evokes the feeling of the cloaked narrative tunnels of Dennis Cooper, arranging other screens around the reader always floating even as we proceed into the book’s primary body, where the true trauma begins.
Basically what happens hereafter is a nonstop stream of human cruelty. In scenes that span a single page to more than 30, we are held in the skull of the child as subject to Grandpa, who is one of the more memorably repugnant characters put on paper. He actually kind of makes the Judge from Blood Meridian look like a sweetheart in comparison. Grandpa fucks the kid incessantly, rants in endless streams of hate jargon meant to demean anything and everything at all, rapes and kills animals and children for fun, and so on. What makes this onslaught even sicker is the way it is related, in a playful, blown-up way, almost like a serial cartoon. The language rams together its subjects with the same impious banging as the described acts themselves.
A short list of the ilk of what can be found on pretty much every single page in Assisted Living:
1. On Grandpa having abducted two boys who’ve come by selling gingerbread: “When he was finished with their mouths, he told me to get him a fistful of steel wool. Then he started playing Open the Locked Door with the first kid. The other one curtsied and bowed to Hilding, but a knee to the face took his breath away. After that, Royal showed him how to smoke Sumatra cigarillos and Hilding forced the kid to kiss him down there.”
2. Grandpa fondly reminiscing about his Nazi lifestyle for a kid at the bus stop: “It was a raw February morning in the Whoregod’s year of 1945, and me and Dirlewanger were partying in the orphanage’s ruins. ‘You know that Himmer’s balls taste like Apricots, right?’ he asked.”
3. Grandpa asks the boy to say a prayer for his own “old Grandpa in hell”: “He who knows what a child is, fuck me because I’m small, wherever I go in this world, fill my hands with shit, Satan comes, Satan goes, he loves sheepdick, that’s all, I recited.”
4. Not all of the book is pure onslaught or sick jokes, however. The moments sometimes fold briefly to reveal an underside, though only crammed between the mass, such as here, where we find the central child left alone without Grandpa for a while: “Sometimes I play the quiet game… sometimes I play dead… sometimes I draw old geezers I’ve met and then I pretend I’m them… sometimes I lay on my back in a September field and listen to the earth hurtling though space… to victims shrieking at all the evil deed wrought upon them… then I try to sink into the light, soft, fluid grass and become a part of its mystery…”
It goes on and on like this, taking a historical and cultural shit and wallowing in it and spasming around in the most costume-party no-blinking parade of ways. The imagined last words of Jesus, fake literary histories appended with real ones, Axl Rose jokes, destroyed anatomies, gross contortions, confabulated smut literatures: it accrues such a mass so fast it doesn’t even feel like reading. One after another the blows come and before you have a chance to even think about the context the next idea is in your throat. It’s somehow almost… refreshing, in how it comes on. The pages of images and juxtaposing sounds are addictive in their composition and how they fold together, and the burning of the sentences is fun, which in some way masks the true filth of the scenes. It’s not an atrocity meant to be wallowed in, but somehow vacuumed of its own judgment in the presence of itself, which, stepped away from, makes it even more dangerous and deforming. And in its current, you are not released but almost mocked for how smoothly it unscrolls.
“He’s the world’s best Grandpa,” the boy tells us right at the beginning. No matter what Grandpa does or says to him, the boy remains faithful, ready, in love. The flapless stream of shit matched by the unjudged eye of both the boy and the decided tone soon take on a feeling much like some kind of hyper newsroom running through the reams of blinkless horror. There is no apology for what humans do, have done, will do. That power, and how it flows past, held in the pages of a book, makes Assisted Living much more than a shock totem or even a vicious catalog. It is, instead, an object both aware of its world and its own work, less like a mirror or a mural than the shitty part of the skin that itches when you want to sleep.