The Good Wood: On Matthew J. C. Clark’s “Bjarki, Not Bjarki”

By Josh BillingsApril 11, 2024

The Good Wood: On Matthew J. C. Clark’s “Bjarki, Not Bjarki”

Bjarki, Not Bjarki: On Floorboards, Love, and Irreconcilable Differences by Matthew J. C. Clark

AT FIRST GLANCE, Matthew J. C. Clark’s new book Bjarki, Not Bjarki: On Floorboards, Love, and Irreconcilable Differences seems to fall between two pretty well-defined journalistic genres. On one hand, it’s too sprawling and suggestive to be a single-topic study in the style of John McPhee; on the other hand, it’s too slim and ventilated to be the kind of Jared Diamond–style doorstop that attempts to encompass the entire world in its theoretical net. If anything, it feels poised and partial, like a cocoon dangling from a leaf. Even the table of contents, with its cryptic chapter titles—“Rangoon,” “Rangoon II (Eggplant)”—seems to be describing something unfinished, as if what we are about to read were less a completed artifact than an outline of a work still in progress. The whole thing feels surprisingly up in the air, especially for a book about lumber (which seems like it should be a pretty straightforward topic—at least before we actually start reading). At the same time, there’s a subtle thrill that comes with this openness too: a suggestion that the book we have in our hands is about to try something unexpected, or even legitimately new.

This tingle of risk we get from opening Bjarki, Not Bjarki repeats in its first pages, which introduce us to the author with exactly the kind of navel-gazing self-insertion that should be annoying, and has been in a hundred other postmodern treatments, but which in Clark’s hands feels grounding and sincere. It’s a disclosure that the book we’re about to read is going to be about many things—wood, America, connection—while at the same time being about essentially one thing: the author.

But then who is this Matthew J. C. Clark we meet at the beginning of Bjarki, Not Bjarki? He’s a carpenter refinishing a house in coastal Maine so that he and his wife can move into it; a husband trying to understand that this same wife has told him, in the middle of this refinishing, that she wants a separation; a writer whose nibbles of success have left him feeling vague and illegitimate. He’s a man in the middle, in other words, drifting through a bardo of “separation” that feels both personal and somehow derived from the growing separateness of the place and time he’s living in, which is not just the United States but also the much more specific fray of rural Maine during the waning (bloating? metastasizing?) years of the Trump presidency.

In the midst of all this middle-class, middle-aged, middle-of-the-road uncertainty, Clark’s first encounter with Bjarki Gunnarsson feels like a kind of answer—a way to address and maybe even overcome the general separateness that has come to feel so crushing for him. They meet for the first time at Clark’s house, when Bjarki delivers some floorboards Clark has ordered from the wood processing center Bjarki owns, the Wood Mill of Maine. A vehement Icelandic transplant who discloses later that he was first attracted to Maine for its lax gun-control laws, Bjarki presents an intriguing figure to the flailing Clark. On one hand, he is brash and definitive: a man not afraid to announce proudly that the last book he read was The Catcher in the Rye, in high school (he hated it). On the other hand, there is a weird receptiveness about Bjarki that Clark recognizes immediately, and to which he is drawn. “Mostly, he spoke with an emphatic confidence, but he didn’t always,” Clark recalls about their first encounter. “There was something tremulous about him, in his breath, in his hands, a timorous bluster that could precipitate action both cautious [and] headstrong.” Bjarki contradicts himself, in other words, displaying a mixture of idealism, charisma, and good old-fashioned libertarian bullshittery that is difficult to either accept or dismiss completely, and which Clark moves toward like a fish biting a fly.

For Clark the carpenter, Bjarki is a kind of pocket Ahab: a man whose goal is to find and perfect not just any wooden floorboards, but the “white whales of the lumber industry, Maine’s green gold, American Dream Boards.” For Clark the writer, he’s something even rarer and more exciting: a subject. More specifically, he’s exactly the kind of prickly but ultimately redeemable antihero around which one might build that most appealing of literary prefabs, the “magazine-style essay.” Looking back on his attraction to this form, Clark clearly has a good handle on its seductions and hypocrisies—which are also, of course, a huge part of its appeal:

[T]hough I was at that point rather obsessed with human connection, I was also in thrall to the condescending mockery of gotcha journalism. Bjarki would be the foil by which I exposed the cruel hypocrisies of both privilege and politics. In addition—and this seems even more reprehensible—I thought that I could somehow get Bjarki to be less disagreeable.

As pitches go, this is pretty exactly the type of offbeat long-form that we can imagine finding a home in the pages of The New Yorker, or for that matter in a glossy north-of-Boston lifestyle magazine like Yankee or Down East. But the appeal of such a story is more than just financial to Clark. On the contrary, it’s the opportunity to push back against the techno-juiced, Trump-era tribalism that, in 2024, we recognize with a groan but which, to Clark in his pre–January 6 incarnation, still feels open to the old exorcisms. One of the most popular of these is the hero’s quest narrative in which the writer, with all his prejudices, spends some time getting to know the downtrodden workers (or natives, or sharecroppers, or poor folk) who turn out to be, essentially, not that different from himself. Mission accomplished—separation over, connection achieved! And yet, as Clark comes to perceive the more time he spends at the actual Wood Mill, and with the actual Bjarki, this kind of easy pigeonholing is not so easy to pull off anymore, at least not for someone as self-aware and self-critical as Clark.

Part of this is simply the hyperconscious, hyperdeluded time in which Clark is writing his book (which is more or less the time we are reading it); part of it, however, is because, in working at the Wood Mill, Clark really does find himself having to rethink some of those myths and stereotypes that made his choice of topic feel like a good idea in the first place. Many of the most effective sections of Bjarki, Not Bjarki show him doing just that. These are the sections in which Clark describes his co-workers doing (and talking about doing) what they love, while at the same time describing himself thinking about them—or maybe thinking about himself thinking.

In another writer, we could imagine such a divided attention coming across as awkward, like trying to put out two fires with a single hose. But Clark handles the multiple levels of his story deftly, shifting between observations about, say, a log being graded and his own self-reflection on that process of observation. His prose has a rare capacity for synthesis, as well as the ability to dramatize that synthesis, to put it on the page in a way we can see and even take part in. As is the case with Clark’s most obvious predecessors in this kind of essayistic presence (David Foster Wallace, for example), the key seems to be a capacity for soliloquy, a willingness not just to think and feel in the open but to overhear oneself thinking and feeling—and not after the fact, either, but as it is actually happening. So, after pages of showing us his co-worker Nate Lesperance discussing the intricacies of planing (by which an unprocessed piece of wood is transformed into a board), he describes himself processing this processing:

The ethics of it is pretty complicated, potentially. In addition, in the car, I sensed that Nate might also think that my time would be better spent doing carpentry (ordinary things) full-time instead of doing carpentry not-quite-full-time while also writing—or in my case, trying to write—The Book. And I got that. It was easy to see how installing a floor was more useful than writing about a floor. Or maybe that was just my own insecurity projected, and what I perceived as aggression from Nate was really just a guarded curiosity about me—that what I felt as a threat was actually an attempt at connection.

Clark’s sincerity is insecure, grasping, frequently embarrassing—but at the end of the day, it is also, really, sincere, and insistent in a way that reminds us of his fellow New Englander Henry David Thoreau’s desire to “stand right fronting and face to face with a fact.” In many ways, it’s the same bullheaded self-reliance that Clark first saw in Bjarki, and which he thought (and continues to think over the course of the book, with hilarious results) he could overcome via long arguments about Al Gore. As common ground goes, it is absolutely not as satisfying as the transformative reconciliation Clark had imagined when he started out to write Bjarki, Not Bjarki. But it is solid, and derived from observation and experience, as opposed to trickled down from some pre-existing myth. Just as importantly, it is something we can imagine Bjarki recognizing in himself.

If such respect-within-difference sounds pretty similar to the separation with which Clark began Bjarki, Not Bjarki, that’s because it is—with the important difference that, as the narrative of the book winds towards its end (which is also, of course, its beginning, with Clark the author lying on a beach in Florida), it begins to feel inarguable that something has changed. But what? Certainly not the outside circumstances of Clark’s life, which is still suspended between disasters big and small, from a buckled and ruined floor to a still-dissolving marriage. Even the larger America around him is heading towards one of its darkest days, the storming of the US Capitol. So then, where is the moment we’ve been waiting for—the hero turn that will bring us all back from the brink, and Clark in particular to the aha of just letting his failing magazine-style essay fail?

For all its articulating, Bjarki, Not Bjarki does not give us a single definite answer, and this is uncomfortable, although also ultimately satisfying, since it points to the acceptance the book has been less teaching than showing us for all of its 160 pages. This is the exhausted but also placid acceptance of “irreconcilable differences” that Clark’s beached beginning hinted at: a poise that is not beyond disaster but growing stubbornly out of it, like a grass shoot out of a rock. It’s a state that feels strangely anticlimactic to those of us looking for revelations, and yet, at the same time, it suggests a shift that is practically seismic in the context of our larger world’s inertia. A move to some sort of bedrock, if not of transcendent love, then at least of mutual acknowledgment and respect. Something real, to start with.

LARB Contributor

Josh Billings is a writer, translator, and nurse who lives in Farmington, Maine.


LARB Staff Recommendations

Did you know LARB is a reader-supported nonprofit?

LARB publishes daily without a paywall as part of our mission to make rigorous, incisive, and engaging writing on every aspect of literature, culture, and the arts freely accessible to the public. Help us continue this work with your tax-deductible donation today!