Review: Karate Chop by Dorothe Nors

41otnj0t5kl-_sx326_bo1204203200_The short stories in Dorothe Nors’ collection Karate Chop speak to the depths we lock away inside ourselves.  Together they form a brief but profound exploration of our interior lives under modernity; a sweeping survey of our own unspoken inner landscapes.

As I read this book I could not help but imagine a stone well.  I felt something a little cold, and endlessly deep.  I pictured someone boring a hole through solid bedrock.  I thought of water rushing where no one could see it.

Dorothe Nors writes beautiful prose.  Maybe that is where we should start. Her text feels cultivated, honed.  Pruned to perfection.  Nors is a writer that knows how to craft a sentence.  No part of it seems out of place.  Every word adds to the overall effect of its respective narrative, and the fact that the arc of these narratives feel largely unstructured, almost improvised—Nors actually drafted the entire collection over the course of two weeks—makes their obvious precision on a sentence-by-sentence level all the more impressive.  There is abundance here, but no mess.

If there is any repetition between these fifteen stories, it comes from this openness of structure.  Most of the tales are told from a first person perspective.  They feature very little overt “action” in the conventional sense.  More often than not, the conflict bubbles up from the interior.  We are presented a narrator in a moment of relative quiet, a place of stillness and reflection, though not necessarily calm.  In Nors’ stories the present moment tends to serve as a kind of anchoring point.  It keeps the narrative pinned to a spot in linear time, as her prose slowly revolves around it.  Her narrator’s thoughts move from past to present to utter fantasy.  They sway first in one direction, then another.  They bound forward.  They double back.  And it is through these dizzying mental leaps that most of the stories generate their momentum.

I was reminded of a hurricane.  The eye of the storm, and all the wind that surrounds it.

The overall technique is reminiscent of stream of consciousness, only much stronger, in my opinion, because it is free of the posturing.  There is a casual confidence on display in these one hundred and twelve pages.  It doesn’t feel like Nors has anything to prove.  Rather than assault the reader with noise in an attempt to agonizingly recreate the shifting rhythms of human consciousness, Nors chooses instead to use strong and considered prose to bring interior and exterior together.  Her stylistic clarity balances out any hurried, improvised effect.  She writes in such a way that the borders between the mental and physical worlds begin to break down, and the two are rendered equal under the broad sweep of her language.  She writes characters whose minds will shift from object to object, alight on one thing then another, with patterns emerging as they do so.  Slowly the story’s arc dawns on the reader, as each seemingly disparate piece falls into place, and the themes are developed through collage.

The collection manages to feel simultaneously dense and weightless in the way it parallels that very same dichotomy as experienced by any thinking person.  So many neurons firing in sequence.  So much thunder in our heads.

Take for example the story “Do You Know Jussi?”, in which a woman’s consciousness flits between childhood memory, the fantasies she had within those memories, and a news program playing on the TV.  Or “Female Killers,” an exploration of our fears and fascination with the perverse, as told through one man’s late night googling of famous female serial killers.

And it is no coincidence that one of the killers Nors includes in her story is fellow Dane, Dagmar Overbye, perhaps the most famous murderer in her country’s history.  The collection is peppered with small references to Nors’ native Denmark, almost all of which emanate some degree of menace.  Copenhagen in particular hangs like a shadow over many stories in what is an already dark collection.  Take for example “The Heron,” in which the titular birds wander like plague victims around the ponds of Fredericksburg Gardens, before the narrator digresses into the story of a murdered woman whose body was found there, stuffed inside a suitcase.  Or “She Frequented Cemeteries,” in which the seemingly blissful beginning of a woman’s new relationship is offset by gossip, the unspoken sadness of her partner, and her tendency to wander the gardens housing Copenhagen’s dead.

Then there is the final tale in the collection, “The Wadden Sea,” where the wild, untamable wetlands of northern Denmark parallel a mental point-of-no-return that the narrator’s disturbed mother is steadily approaching.  It is perhaps the most overt example of how Nors paints her Denmark in darker hues, and how the book works hard to conflate exterior environments with interior mental landscapes.

As individuals we travel such inside spaces day and night.  It is why this collection is so effective.  We cannot help but walk with one foot in front of us, and another planted in some deeper place, in which thought and feeling are wholly our own.  They remain inaccessible to anyone outside ourselves, save for when we choose to communicate them.  Painters translate them into colour.  Composers render them as sound.  A writer takes words, and arranges them in such a way that these otherwise inaccessible interiors are suddenly thrust forward.  Brought forth from the mind to rest in our hands.  To render them so vividly is no small accomplishment, and that is exactly what Nors has done in this small but remarkable collection.  She has built a fine book upon the air and bedrock we call thought.

***

Photo_Bob SchofieldBob Schofield is an American writer of British, Chinese, Pakistani, and Egyptian descent.  He currently lives in the Netherlands.  He is the author and illustrator of The Inevitable JuneMan Bites Cloud, and Moon Facts.  He likes what words and pictures do.  He wants to be a ghostly presence in your life.

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