Seeing my peers and friends — people I know with no connections to Denmark or Scandinavia — exult over the brilliance of hygge was emblematic of the way that “Scandinavia,” the concept, ripples through American culture. Our Nordic brothers to the north — Denmark, Sweden, Norway, Finland, and Iceland — end up in the international news for their cultural exports (ABBA, Dr. Luke, murder mysteries about “cold” places), their generous social benefits (hey ladies, want to have it all? Start with a year’s parental leave for mother and father), and their tendency to be on the top of the odd social science poll about, say, “the world’s happiest people.” Don’t forget the otherworldly cheekbones of the actors that we import to Hollywood, including Alexander Skarsgard or Game of Thrones‘ Nikolaj Coster-Waldau.
British journalist Michael Booth is starting from these thinly drawn stereotypes in his book, The Almost Nearly Perfect People: Behind the Myth of the Scandinavian Utopia. Booth, who married a Danish woman, is drawn to the question of “is there a Scandinavian template for a better way of living?” In much of this 400-page book, he visits various lands and explores topics like “hygge,” “elves,” “saunas,” economics, from oil to H&M, and immigration. What he finds runs counter to the sunny ideas presented in your average piece of “Scandinavia does it better” click-bait.
The difference between Scandinavia and the rest of the world, with Sweden as, perhaps, its most prominent representative, is a surprisingly thin space in pop culture. It’s the center of Welcome to Sweden, a sitcom created by Amy Poehler’s brother Greg Poehler, that was a hit in Sweden (which has about the population of New York City, in short) and a summer burn-off series on NBC over the summer.
For me, personally — someone with no connection to Sweden until my sister moved there, marrying a Swedish man — it was a show that I was primed to love, since I actually could relate to the “Swedish people have weird customs like this… but Americans have weird customs like this!” level of the jokes. Yet even though I was the target audience, the show was just flimsy and unfunny, with Poehler exhibiting a smarmy, Greg Kinnear-level charm. There were no interesting characters behind the basic jokes about cultures clashing, and that’s where the show lost me.
Like Welcome to Sweden, I wanted to love The Almost Nearly Perfect People. Booth presents himself, initially, as a witty and charming host, ready to take you around to all five Nordic countries, ready to puncture any bit of cliché around the happiness and brilliance of the Nordic lifestyle — and yet the book left me cold. Most of the short chapters were thoroughly reported magazine pieces on each topic. Regarding hygge, Booth makes the point that hygge, as a custom, is mostly a celebration of bourgeois smugness. It is insular, self-satisfied, and mostly a reason to stay at home, celebrating yourself, your family, and your friends. It is like the Bravermans on Parenthood through candles and organized singing, and it lacks the real, vital energy of a true party.
Booth makes these points over and over again: about the sameness and the repression of the Nordic countries, the way that nobody wants to offend anyone. He tells us about how the economic booms, so liberating in theory, chain people to ridiculous taxes that take half of somebody’s income and risk future penury [and provide them with health insurance, a pension, etc — Pro-Nordic Ed.]. This insularity means that these countries deal with immigration (ineptly, with a far amount of racism and prejudice for good measure) in a matter that makes America look like a land of welcoming kindness in comparison. He even takes down Sweden’s vaunted social systems surrounding parenthood by noting that children who are in daycare from a very young age display more neurosis than other children, and that mothers feel an inordinate amount of pressure to return to the workplace.
These facts are interesting on the face of it, but in the context of a very long book that reads like tons of tiny little magazine features, the net result is just one of exhaustion. Booth, ostensibly the main character in this book, takes a seat back to give us fact after fact. Things get livelier in the few chapters where he takes the initiative to do things, to show us how the Swedes react to a British man eating chips very loudly, but there’s no story to this book. It’s simply a series of reports.
We need these reports from the fringes of Scandinavia, to realize that a country that can be simplified to “the happiest” has its own struggles and its own darkness. I see that when I talk to my Swedish relatives — what they have in security (they own housing in their twenties) I at least have in careening American ambition. Americans like nothing better than self-flagellation and pointlessly idealizing a faraway land, but these cultural artifacts, from Booth’s book to Poehler’s sitcom concerning what it’s really like in Scandinavia — even if they aren’t very good — do puncture the myth of Scandinavian efficiency. Even if a Stieg Larsson book would probably do the same thing, while providing a modicum of intrigue as well.