March 2014

Darren Huang


Karate Chop by Dorothe Nors, translated by Martin Aitken

Already in the epigraph of Dorthe Nors's story collection, Karate Chop, metaphysical considerations bristle alongside domestic dramas: "They got beaten up on so much, those dogs, that one year they'd saved up so much hatred they chased one of the neighbor's cats into a tree with the idea of hanging around until it came down again, after which they ate it." For Nors, hatreds not only accumulate like kindling but also ignite in their purest manifestations. "The intangibles," Nors writes, "take on natural substance." In "She Frequented Cemeteries," unreciprocated love, for the hopeful mother, parents a specter child. Lonesome, she has assumed the dead for her intimates. So fully does her child occupy the imagined outline that she ponders the age at which to initiate it to their shared fate -- "one day they themselves would lie, white through to the bone and tangled up in each other while the world carried on above them." These are realms where desires freely traffic. Dysfunction reigns with such little resistance we conceive of pastorals determined by foreign truths. It is less revelation than confirmation when Nors insists, "these stories... are all staged in a reality close to [ours]."

In "Mother, Grandmother, and Aunt Ellen," a surviving son records the successive deaths of the family women. Even the smallest mercies for the dead are overlooked in his cool reportage. A mother's sickness, as if an odd odor, is nothing more than slight departure from the normal. The inconveniences multiply for a son whose ardor never intrudes: "Maybe it was the cancer, but he thought she smelled sour, and she felt around with her hands." The younger pair is a repository, "full of stories" but their inclination to "right from the beginning... tell them all" is their enlistment ("they would look at him as if to encourage him to learn [the stories] by heart") of an impressionable boy against the older matriarch.

In Kazuo Ishiguro's Never Let Me Go, a recognizable dystopia polices a complacency in its protagonists so complete that we question their claims to humanity. Nors's protagonists may be circumscribed by more local constraints. Every family abides by its anomalies and relegates them to so much detritus beneath placid waters. In "Mother," Nors perverts the quotidian tradition of anecdotal history. Out of fear that their martyrdom will not be repaid, mother and aunt cannot abide by their mother's otherness and tyrannize its origins. When our protagonist observes an incident that complicates his grandmother's alleged vindictiveness, he suppresses its occurrence. Reverence for the spoken word gains primacy over the pieties demanded by blood. So too the body becomes more readily disposed once muted: "And then [his mother] was dead, placed inside the casket and buried... there are still a number of boxes, the bags for the Salvation Army, and above the kitchen sink, the obituary notice he reads every time he washes his hands." Is the reading of the notice an ironist's cruel jest -- his incantation of the obituary (perhaps the most truthful of stories) his own sermon against a way of life strangulated by the spoken word? Does he wash his hands of that doubly and falsely enforced malice? Or has he too learned to fetishize the authority of a story's canted truths?

Like Thomas Bernhard who followed pathologies to their ends, Nors is often leashed to the caprices of the mind. An unfettered romp through psychology presupposes an inward-looking soul.  The musings of the embittered narrator of "The Heron" carom from the ungainliness of a heron ("gray poultry shears in the sky"), the shamelessness of its death ("it was the suffering had to be drawn out like that, the way herons never really muster the enthusiasm"), to a best friend whose image splits between the untroubled child and the buried body. But as if to justify this uncharacteristic sentimentalism, he indicts the present world: all those presumptuous with the wonder of creation seize his wrathful eye -- the "flocks" of swollen women, their countless young, each an irresponsible claim to "eternal life." To make sense of these ruminations, we read (and reread) with more linear logic. In these layered works, we must disrobe artificiality to find what Nors calls the "essential self." These are still demanding intellectual feats: in "The Heron" and "She Frequented Cemeteries," to penetrate objectivity and find the wounded isolate; in "Nat Newsome," to measure our skepticism before a man of science and his philanthropic social experiment. But even after we have put these tasks to rest, struggled for revelation, caressed our hard-won certainties, more mysteries remain to decode.

Repeatedly, the arcs of the fifteen stories begin and end in the mundane (even a frequenter of graveyards assures us she is motivated by a want of quiet). There is the fascination with the full-blooded limb gone frail: In "The Heron," the narrator recalls "Lorenz skating through the mud, racing on around the pond on his pale, thin legs, long since dead, eaten up from within by sick-cell divisions, cremated and interred into the ground..." This catalogue of decay reminds us of Updike's contours of the flesh, whether flaccid or full, each more miraculous than the last. But for Nors, the miracle is that those malignant limbs were once lifelike at all. Lorenz, that wan youth, manifests the symptoms of decay upon conception; cancer, too, is another insidious form of sentencing. But still "whenever a tall, skinny boy runs past," our narrator, as if to resist another mournful refrain, pictures "Lorenz racing to come in first." To evoke this memory might be mere banality: what is more pedestrian than to remember?  But often in these works, this banality is all that remains: if they are displaced and confounded, at least these souls are the arbiters of their own remembrances. Memory is abraded with time, distorted by new attachments and old loyalties: who can ever be rid of those opacities? That the impotent, accorded the "creative human's longing to give life," can dream the contours of the child at all might be more miraculous than birth itself.

Karate Chop by Dorthe Nors, translated by Martin Aitken
Graywolf Press
ISBN: 978-1555976651
112 pages