Jo Nesbø’s mun­dane ‘Mac­beth’: ‘Out, out!’

Shake­speare spells toil, trou­ble for noir master

USA TODAY Weekend Extra - - BOOKS - Charles Finch Au­thor Jo Nesbø

The le­gions of read­ers who adore the dark Scan­di­na­vian noir of Jo Nesbø also will love Mac­beth, his adap­ta­tion of Shake­speare’s fa­mous play.

OK, thank good­ness that’s over. Now I can say with­out hes­i­ta­tion that if I had to pick one novel never to read again, it would be this one, a mam­moth, self­sat­is­fied, sim­ple-minded wilde­beest, creep­ing its petty pace across more than 400 end­less pages to­ward con­clu­sions that are never in doubt.

Nesbø’s great­est strength by far is at­mos­phere, and in fair­ness to him he pro­vides it here, con­vinc­ingly set­ting his Mac­beth (Hog­a­rth Shake­speare, 446 pp., ★★☆☆) in brood­ing, in­dus­trial 1970s Scot­land, a world of rain, mo­tor­cy­cle gangs, drugs, grime and rain.

Mac­beth is a cun­ning and ef­fi­cient SWAT com­man­der, in love with a casino owner named Lady. Rough and ready, he has lit­tle per­sonal am­bi­tion un­til Dun­can, an honor­able new com­mis­sioner bent on elim­i­nat­ing cor­rup­tion in the po­lice de­part­ment, makes the mis­take of pro­mot­ing him.

This is a promis­ing setup, ob­vi­ously. Why is the novel so bad then?

Where to be­gin. In the first place, a huge prob­lem is that any­one with even a pass­ing fa­mil­iar­ity with Shake­speare’s play will know from the first pages ex­actly how every­thing turns out for, say, Ban­quo. (He dies!) Mac­beth sticks al­most wholly to Mac­beth.

In the se­cond, Shake­speare was pos­si­bly the most in­ter­est­ing per­son in the his­tory of writ­ing down words, and Nesbø the stylist is vague, dull, mor­al­iz­ing and trite. The con­trast is ag­o­niz­ing. Shake­speare on Mac­beth’s fate: “Life’s but a walk­ing shadow, a poor player that struts and frets his hour upon the stage and then is heard no more. It is a tale told by an id­iot, full of sound and fury, sig­ni­fy­ing noth­ing.” Nesbø on Mac­beth’s fate: “It’s just one of those self-ful­fill­ing things.”

Then there’s that page count. Shake­speare’s play is known, among other things, for be­ing short, only half the length of Ham­let. That suf­fuses it with a ter­ri­fy­ing sort of mys­tery as Mac­beth and his wife ac­qui­esce al­most in be­wil­der­ment to a po­lit­i­cal am­bi­tion they don’t fully com­pre­hend, then to a guilt they can never al­lay. It’s not Nesbø’s duty to re-cre­ate that feel­ing, of course.

On the other hand, there’s a real ego­tism to the way he drags Shake­speare’s light­ning-lit story out over such length and keeps up a chat­ter of philo­soph­i­cal non­sense about power, guilt and loss.

Here’s Nesbø on the fa­mous witches: “It was Mac­beth’s ex­pe­ri­ence that it was hard to put a pre­cise age on Asi­atic women, but what­ever theirs was, they must have been through hard times. It was in their eyes. They were the cold, in­scrutable kind that don’t let you see in.”

This is, be­sides cut­ting aw­fully close to racism, plain bad, clichéd and silly. Still, Nesbø’s suc­cess has lain in trans­port­ing the silly clichés of noir to Nor­way and pre­sent­ing them as darkly au­then­tic. There it works, sort of, as we wait to see what hap­pens. In Mac­beth, it sig­ni­fies — well, noth­ing.

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