‘Kareoke isn’t our thing’ – Karate Chop / Minna Needs Rehearsal Space by Dorthe Nors

dorthe norsA book of what are essentially flash fictions (or shortish short stories if we want to police the flash fiction line a bit hard) combined with an unusual novel and published by those nice sorts at Pushkin Press so you read one (Karate Chop, say, the book of short stories) and then, on reaching the middle, flip the book over and begin reading afresh (on the unusual novel called Minna Needs Rehearsal Space). Dorthe Nors, we said to ourselves, sounds like she’s right up our street. We came looking for a Danish Etgar Keret and found, instead, a Danish Lorrie Moore. A Danish Lorrie Moore, you might be saying excitedly. Where do we sign up? We’ll get to our slight reservations about that in good time.

Let’s talk about Karate Chop first, the less Marmite of the two books. 15 stories, none of whom run to more than 10 pages. A good few of the stories kick off with an obtuse sentence or an obtuse paragraph that the reader has to consider carefully. It’s the readerly equivalent of taking  too large piece of caramel in your mouth – it taste nice, you’re keen to chew but, for a while at least, you have to chew in a slightly ungainly way. Nors has a busy-ness about her, at least in these stories, that could be a distinctive voice or could be a good impression of a distinctive voice. We can’t say entirely. Some of the stories are good, some of the stories are fine and some of the stories are unremarkable. Their brevity and proximity means that your view of the book will be determined by the ratio of good: fine :unremarkable. For us, more stories fell into fine than either of the other two categories so we came away thinking Karate Chop was okay but possibly not good enough to convince us to want to read more.

And now to Minna Needs Rehearsal Space.

Minna Needs Rehearsal Space is a novel written in short sentences.

Some of the sentences are statements of fact.

Some of the sentences are somewhat gnomic and suggest greater depth to proceedings.

Minna has been dumped.

But she also needs rehearsal space.

She feels lonely.

Her friends are irritating her.

Her sister is irritating her.

We get the impression she is irritating them too.

Minna’s name begins many of the sentences.

Minna this, Minna that, Minna the other thing.

Eventually it started to feel like performance poetry.

They should get a mouthy Liverpudlian given to over-pronouncing odd parts of certain words to do the audiobook.

Unlike Karate Chop, which is relatively straightforward in comparison, MNRS is a bit Marmite.

As we said above.

There’s a larger point to be made though. And it’s a point we’re reluctant to make because we’re not sure it’s an altogether fair point. The point also involves us taking a pop at a critical darling, which we know will get backs up. But here goes nothing:

Read three or four of the stories in Karate Chop and you’ll be reminded of Lorrie Moore. Has Nors evolved in isolation, or is she a big Moore fan? Is she to Moore what, say, a writer like Bo Fowler was to Kurt Vonnegut? As a Vonnegut fan, you could read Bo Fowler and experience a similar frisson of discovery that undoubtedly readers who are possibly Lorrie Moore fans themselves will feel reading Dorthe Nors. Combined with the fact that Nors is a writer in translation (there’s a certain kind of reader who feels a warm glow to read anything in translation, as if they’d strayed off the beaten track, discovered a find, become a better person for it), it could be that Nors will quickly be treasured by the readerly few. We say this and we take a deep breath because it comes (relatively) hard on the heels of  Eimear McBride’s A Girl is a Half-Formed Thing that we also didn’t get along with because it felt to us like a very good imitation of James Joyce. Ah, McBride’s fans might say, it’s been 100 years since Joyce was a big man on the scene, surely there’s time and room for a woman writer writing like James Joyce. Sure, we answer. Of course. There’s room for all sorts of karaoke. But karaoke isn’t our thing.

It may be that we are wrong. It’s happened before and I’m sure it will happen again. There are a bunch of Nors’ novels waiting in the wings to be translated. Perhaps they will prove us wrong, knock our socks off etc. We may also be straining our eyes and overscrutinising what are without doubt two very slim books. Perhaps it’s best to play a little game of wait and see what Dorthe Nors comes our way next.

Any Cop?: There’s not quite enough here for us to proclaim Dorthe Nors the best thing since Lorrie Moore decided to slice bread but we are tentatively interested in what Pushkin decide to publish next.


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