Horror and comedy both require timing, and Dorthe Nors has it. The stories in her newly translated collection "Karate Chop" are less meditations on human savagery than riffs on it, understated monologues of everydayness through which the horror surfaces like a joke. Blink and you might miss the punch line, whether it's a suitcase full of body parts or a more ordinary dismemberment.
This piece first ran in Printers Row Journal, delivered to Printers Row members with the Sunday Chicago Tribune and by digital edition via email. Click here to learn about joining Printers Row.
Nors has published five novels in her native Denmark, but this is her first fiction to be published in English. Translated from the Danish by Martin Aitken, her prose is direct, almost flat, a series of uncluttered and voice-driven sentences that achieve their rhythm through careful juxtaposition and build. Only a few pages each, the stories are little more than character sketches and scenarios, and contain few of the revelations and decisive moments endemic to the form. The occasional epiphany, when it occurs, is more likely to be ugly than uplifting, as in "The Winter Garden," which chronicles the day a teenage boy learns to see his divorced father with contempt.
For the most part, however, Nors' characters plod through circular thoughts riddled with grapeshot ironies. "Once in a while everyone wishes someone dead, though no one should ever kill," pronounces the narrator of a story about a man who numbs his marital unhappiness by surfing the Internet at night, looking for tales of violence. The statement is immediately and humorously undermined: "It's human to consider it sometimes. People who drive recklessly in densely settled areas next to schools and kindergartens." This stream of consciousness flows on toward its grim climax: "Kill or be killed. Thoughts like that are free. Fun, even. Though not for Aileen Wuornos's biological child. Not with 224,000 hits for his mother's name on Google."
This story, called "Female Killers," is one of a handful that toy with the idea of gender dynamics as a mundane but deadly source of violence. In the title story, a psychologist struggles to assign blame for the end of her most recent relationship, mining her childhood memories as well as her lover's character for clues, but ultimately can only come up with a biological explanation, what she terms the "instrumental power" of the penis: "Because it could be inserted into openings, it had to be inserted into openings." As in "Female Killers," such declarative statements are feints, and Nors' free, indirect style leaves just enough room for the reader to distrust the character's perception of events. In the final sentence, the story turns itself inside-out — the title blow dealt to the reader as much as to any character.
The narrator of "The Duckling," remembering his philandering father, characterizes misogyny as a kind of dull pragmatism: "My sister sat looking into her glass of water while Dad said that a woman shouldn't have a deep voice either. And it was no good if she tried to be funny." The siblings quietly submit to their father's instrumental logic: "Dad had boxes and he put things away in them." It's the ruthless practicality of a farmer, and the story's ending contextualizes the father's brutality within the world of the farm so effectively that the narrator can even see it as a kind of tenderness.
But in other stories, this compartmentalizing worldview is easily unsettled. Nors' characters dwell in relatively tame settings—the suburbs of Copenhagen, a farm community near a fjord, the apartment of a Danish ambassador in New York — but they yearn toward wild lands like Dolly Sods, W.V., and the Wadden Sea, poking around the edges of dangerous places with fascination. In "Heron," first published in translation last year in the New Yorker, even a public park can be menacing, as an old man taking his daily walk through Frederiksberg Gardens fixates on the sick herons, the bicycle parts, and something worse: "There are many out-of-place objects there, and as well as bikes they once found a dismembered female body in a suitcase in the pond. An entire woman in little pieces put into freezer bags ... likely even the dog was never the same again. Things are contagious. Things want to get in through the cracks."
This, perhaps, is the closest thing to a moral. In Nors' stories, narratives about why humans are the way they are dissolve before the simple fact that they are. This is, after all, one of the tenets of comedy, which is only interested in motives to the extent that they are ridiculous.
One hopes Nors' novels are translated into English soon, and that they show as much promise as her short stories. If they do, they should be good for a laugh, and a shudder.
Amy Gentry is a writer living in Austin, Texas. She has a doctorate in English and writes a weekly style column called The Good Eye.
By Dorthe Nors, Graywolf Press, 112 pages, $14 paperback