The succinctly ornate dust jacket of “The Waiter,” the first novel of contemporary Norwegian author Matias Faldbakken to be published non-pseudonymously, suggests an exquisite look into the minutiae of high society life, with the same attention to detail as the illustration on the front cover. Accolades comparing it to the work of Kazuo Ishiguro, Kingsley Amis and Wes Anderson further bolster the hopes that what is contained within these pages is tightly anchored by droll wit and an aesthetic eye.
There is no doubting the technical ability of Faldbakken’s prose, as he perfectly captures the ins and outs of the restaurant at which the titular character works day in and day out, a once-luxurious relic of “Old Europe” slowly approaching its twilight years as the digital, consumerist society of 2018 looms over it. However, the core narrative of the “The Waiter” is frustratingly sparse. Opening the book, one expects “The Grand Budapest Hotel,” but instead we get what amounts to a story contained entirely within the kitchen of that establishment, while an exponentially more interesting plot unwinds somewhere off in the distance.
Perhaps reading the dust jacket summary prior to delving into “The Waiter” is a bad idea, as the reader will eagerly await “the finely tuned balance of a timework European restaurant” to be “irrevocably upset by an unexpected guest.” That unexpected guest arrives, but the balance of that restaurant, The Hills, mostly stays the same throughout some 200 pages.
The only disturbance comes at the expense of the unnamed titular character, whose precise routine of seating the same frail upper-class patrons at the same tables at the same time every day and taking the same food and drink orders is interrupted when a persuasive guest, referred to primarily as the Child Lady, starts to encourage an unfamiliar intermingling between tables. So much of what happens in The Hills is dictated by procedure, be it the way the chef always prepares his dishes with the finest of ingredients or the florist always comes every Friday to make the flower arrangements out front look pristine, and when an understandable break in this procedure occurs, the waiter silently begins to go insane.
The whimsical exterior “The Waiter” presents is quickly obliterated by its protagonist’s descent into madness. Much of the book is occupied within his headspace, and his meditations, musings and rants become increasingly neurotic and nonsensical with each turn of the page. He voices his frustrations about the current fashion industry and the online world, he blathers about Mandelbrot sets and Romanesco broccoli, and most primarily, he agonizes over what could be possibly going on in the heads of his restaurantgoers. And while his lucidity vanishes, he loses his grasp on reality as well. He fumbles dinner orders and accidentally slams his finger in a cellar drawer while he tries to piece together the mystery behind this unwelcome strangeness.
Yet the problem is there is no mystery to “The Waiter.” The core guests he waits on are an odd bunch, yes, but the merger of two table groups that the Child Lady presides over can be chalked up to “one person wants to buy a rare drawing the other claims to have.” At the end of the book, one realizes that the people in the restaurant are simply minding their own business, and almost all of the trouble the waiter sociophatically agonizes over is practically caused through his own volition.
The rest of “The Waiter” is a bore, as characters drivel on about extremely specific European musicians, philosophers and architects that most likely resonate more with a native Norwegian audience. It is simply not worth the time looking up these references; they seem thrown only to make the 19th-century atmosphere of The Hills seems even more foreign to the current world that encloses it. Like the restaurant it spends all of its time in, the book is a reminder of why some things are best left in the past.
The book has virtually no action, no climax — this would be OK if under the surface it had something interesting to say, but it doesn’t. Reading it was nothing more than a rambling chore. While “The Waiter” entices one with a sweet appetizer of aesthetics, it is nothing more than a lean cut of steak that leaves you unsatisfied, wanting more.