Karate Chop By Dorthe Nors, Translated from the Danish by Martin Aitken, Graywolf Press, 2014, paperback, 89 pages, $14.00.
Karate Chop (known as Kantslag in the original Danish), is acclaimed writer Dorthe Nors’ first English publication. It was the winner of the presitigious P.O. Enquist Literary Prize in 2014. Nors was awarded the Danish Arts Agency’s Three Year Grant in 2011 for “her unusual and extraordinary talent.” Her work has been published in numerous places, including Harper’s Magazine, Boston Review, AGNI, and Guernica. She is the first Danish writer to have a story published in The New Yorker.
True to its name, Dorthe Nors’ Karate Chop delivers a sharp, sudden blow to its reader in the compact span of fifteen stories. Yet the lingering sting of Nors’ prose is due to just how subtle and how unexpected that blow is. Instead of focusing on moments of great upheaval, Nors focuses instead on the fractures that slowly crawl their way through the thoroughline of our lives. Nors’ writing questions our relationships with ourselves and with others, and how genuine those connections are. How well can we know another person’s existence? How do we see them, and how accurate are the things we see? As the first story asks us in its pointed title, “Do You Know Jussi?”
Nors brings a critical, razor-sharp eye to the everyday moments of life. Most of these stories are a mere five or six pages long. Her prose is sparse, each word bearing the full brunt of the story’s meaning. It’s that intricate attention to detail that gives each moment its blunt impact. The entirety of “The Heron” is set while the speaker walks through Frederiksberg Gardens, ruminating on loss while observing the “great flocks of mothers” and herons circling Damhus Pond. “There are many out-of-place objects there,” the speaker muses. Neither flock makes an effort to fly. The protagonist imagines the mothers imploding, swelling to the point that their bodies can’t hold them here anymore. They finally burst, splattering the white birds with their blood.
The characters of Karate Chop seem to all be circling Damhus Pond, in their own way, and each seems on the brink of bursting. This is made most obvious in the title story, “Karate Chop,” where a woman named Annelise retraces the steps of her abusive relationship with a man named Carl Erik Juhl. She marvels that the bruises on her body, and the red marks on Carl’s knuckles, could have been avoided if she’d listened to his warnings (“It wasn’t like you didn’t know or anything. I told you how I was”). Annelise toys with the idea of blame, rotating the scenario over and over in her mind as if she can’t determine who it is that has wronged her body. In the end, Annelise bursts. There is blood. Something is colored outside the lines.
These instances, where clearly drawn lines of ‘being’ are challenged, underscore Nors’ prose with brutal understatement. In “Female Killers,” a husband plumbs the dark depths of the internet while his wife sleeps upstairs, seeking stories of women who’ve slaked a thirst to kill. “All they needed was to cross over a line,” he recalls. It’s this female transgression that thrills him, propelling him to plunge darker and deeper into the spectacle of the macabre.
Not all lines are so clear and so intentionally transgressed. In “The Winter Garden,” a father quietly transforms from a beloved parent to someone unremarkable in his child’s eyes. In “The Big Tomato,” two people glimpse a world they’ll never quite understand nor belong to, carrying its rejection with them. In “The Buddhist,” a man tries to become the sort of person he believes he should be, while remaining the person he’s always been. These are ordinary moments laced with ruthless desperation, strung together to form a sense of helpless “unbelonging.”
That unbelonging is best encapsulated in “Flight,” where a woman recalls how a man she loved viewed her as a house: a secure place out of his childhood he could return to and be content to stay. When that man leaves her, the void of him can still be felt in her own home, and she imagines devouring those surroundings until the only thing left to be swallowed is herself. Though she promises herself to leave this emptiness behind, she never starts the ignition of her car. She doesn’t belong here, but can’t answer where else she might go.
At times darkly comic, yet always unsettling, Karate Chop gives its reader a world that both seems familiar and challenges what ‘familiar’ is. Human vulnerabilities are exposed and displayed with a dispassionate otherness. We watch her characters feel, but it is us, the readers, who experience the full extent of the emotion that Nors’ writing only lightly skims upon. What she offers is a mirror, a brief sentence or two that illustrates an anguish: a complex dissonance of wanting to feel what you can’t, of wanting to belong where you have never belonged. Like the mother in the final story, “The Wadden Sea,” Nors seems to be pointing into a fog, showing us “an image in the mind’s eye.” Karate Chop allows the reader a chance to glimpse, if only for a moment, what might lurk within.