Karate Chop: Storiesby Dorthe Nors
The first book in English by an acclaimed Danish writer: "beautiful, faceted, haunting stories . . . [from] a rising star" (Junot Díaz)
Karate Chop, Dorthe Nors's acclaimed story collection, is the debut book in the collaboration between Graywolf Press and A Public Space. These fifteen compact stories are/i>/i>/b>/b>/b>
The first book in English by an acclaimed Danish writer: "beautiful, faceted, haunting stories . . . [from] a rising star" (Junot Díaz)
Karate Chop, Dorthe Nors's acclaimed story collection, is the debut book in the collaboration between Graywolf Press and A Public Space. These fifteen compact stories are meticulously observed glimpses of everyday life that expose the ominous lurking under the ordinary. While his wife sleeps, a husband prowls the Internet, obsessed with female serial killers; a bureaucrat tries to reinvent himself, exposing goodness as artifice when he converts to Buddhism in search of power; a woman sits on the edge of the bed where her lover lies, attempting to locate a motive for his violence within her own self-doubt. Shifting between moments of violence (real and imagined) and mundane contemporary life, these stories encompass the complexity of human emotions, our capacity for cruelty as well as compassion. Not so much minimalist as stealthy, Karate Chop delivers its blows with an understatement that shows a master at work.
These very short works (most are no more than three pages, the longest is roughly eight) are as sharp-edged, destructive, and intentionally made as the title suggests. Nowhere here is a word out of place. Imagine Grace Paley with more than a little of Mary Gaitskill’s keen eye for the despair and violence of sex, mixed with an otherness that’s unsettlingly odd and vivid. The sentences are brightly visual and attuned to the weird details of each character’s inner world. In “Janus,” protagonist Louise lies in bed after losing her virginity. She follows her thoughts to an afternoon spent licking envelopes at her father’s office, where she had an intimate daydream about one addressee. “There he had lain under his white linen, smelling of duvet, and Louise had wanted to cry.” Nors’s stories (most like Paley in this way) have multiple stories within them, holding hands with each other. In “Female Killers,” Nors writes, “Maybe that’s why she opens doors in the mind. Doors, stairwells, pantries.” Each of these pages contains a trapdoor, a side entrance, and, at times, they feel like dispatches from an alien world (or maybe the basement). Nors’s writing doesn’t just observe the details of life—online searches, laundry, fantasies, conversations with semi-strangers, compulsions—it offers a marvelous, truthful take on how these details illustrate our souls. (Feb.)
“Unsettling and poetic. . . . Some pieces, like one about a four-pound tomato, are oddly beautiful; others are brilliantly disturbing.” The New York Times Book Review
“The short-stories in Danish sensation Dorthe Nors's slim, potent collection, Karate Chop . . . evoke the weirdness and wonder of relating in the digital age.” Vogue
“The intricately crafted stories in Karate Chop, from popular Danish writer Dorthe Nors, focus on ordinary occurrences . . . and then twist them into brilliantly slanted cautionary tales about desire, romance, deception, and dread.” ELLE
“In this slim collection of stories, the Danish Nors examines everyday issues with intensity and force.” Marie Claire
“Spare and sublime. Author Dorthe Nors knows how to capture the smallest moments and sculpt them into the unforgettable.” Oprah.com
“Dorthe Nors illuminates an ominous world of disconnected people trying to make sense of their dislocation. . . . Nors' affectless, matter-of-fact storytelling--crisply translated from the original Danish by Martin Aitken--is the perfect complement to the low-wattage desperation and inertia her characters feel.” Los Angeles Times
“Nors's prose is direct . . . a series of uncluttered and voice-driven sentences that achieve their rhythm through careful juxtaposition and build. . . . One hopes Nors's novels are translated into English soon, and that they show as much promise as her short stories.” Chicago Tribune
“Not dissimilar to the melancholic interior scenes painted by Vilhelm Hammershi, numerous films by Thomas Vinterberg, and even the churning sounds of composer Niels Gade, these stories look underneath deceptively quiet surfaces, finding undercurrents that may never fully express themselves but repetitively hint at their constant presence. . . . Peppered with themes of memory, violence, loss, and separation, these pages quietly announce a confident and valuable new voice in translated fiction.” The Daily Beast
“Karate Chop is a collection of brittle, blackly comic, and quietly explosive stories that provide snapshots of modern Danish life and home at daring angles to highlight the quirks, agonies, and vulnerabilities of the human condition.” Star Tribune
“The stories in Karate Chop are as tremendous as they are brief. . . . With each story weighing in at a mere four or five pages, Nors doesn't waste any time delivering a knockout.” Shelf Awareness for Readers, starred review
“Exceptional. . . . Nors is adroit at offering powerful summation at the precise moment with a single cutting phrase or an unexpected observation. These brief stories provide universal insight into an everyday, modern existence.” The Rumpus
“Precisely crafted and melancholy stories. . . . Karate Chop displays admirable willingness to take on difficult stories, and Dorthe Nors tells these difficult stories very well.” New York Journal of Books
“These very short works . . . are as sharp-edged, destructive, and intentionally made as the title suggests. Nowhere here is a word out of place. Imagine Grace Paley with more than a little of Mary Gaitskill's keen eye for the despair and violence of sex, mixed with an otherness that's unsettlingly odd and vivid.” Publishers Weekly, starred review
“These stores are swift and unexpected and bruising. . . . In the span of two pages, [Nors] is able to both build and unmake a character, achieving the same complexity that other writers require entire novels to establish. . . . [Everyone should] indulge in the subversive delight of [Karate Chop].” Booklist
“Arresting. . . . These amuse-bouches are a fine introduction to [Nors's] work.” Kirkus Reviews
“Dorthe Nors is a writer of moments--quiet, raw portraits of existential mediation, at times dyspeptic, but never unsympathetic.” Justin Alvarez, Paris Review Daily
“Beautiful, faceted, haunting stories. . . . Dorthe Nors is fantastic. . . . a rising star of Danish letters.” Junot Diaz, author of This Is How You Lose Her
“Readers of Nors's stories are reminded of the thrills and dangers of living: never are we far from the dark undercurrent--nor exempt from the demands--of routine existence. Memories, laughter, a gesture: everything casts a shadow, meaningful or mysterious. These stories prove that no loss is too small, and each moment counts.” Yiyun Li, author of Gold Boy, Emerald Girl
“This collection is a marvel--droll, compassionate, and just really smart. It takes only one story--and really just a paragraph--to note the excellence of this work in its unsentimental and forthright account of people slogging through their lives.” Fiona Maazel, author of Woke Up Lonely
The first English publication of this Danish author of five novels consists of 15 oblique, very short stories, many of them about isolated people struggling to connect. A depressed actress abandons the artifice of Copenhagen, searching for authenticity in a remote part of the country to dissipate her psychological fog, but she ends up in a literal one ("The Wadden Sea"). The 35-year-old in "She Frequented Cemeteries" may have met the man of her dreams, or she may be living in a fantasy world; Nors artfully leaves both possibilities open. Annelise, in the title story, makes bad choices with men, ignoring red flags, but her revenge on the sexual sadist Carl Erik is a last-sentence shocker. The disturbed female narrator of "The Heron" has given up on human contact; she would settle for proximity to a tame bird. These stories are, in varying degrees, arresting. "Flight," which contrasts actual and metaphorical space as it sketches a woman after a breakup, is more banal, as is "The Winter Garden": Here, after his parents' divorce, their self-possessed son realizes his dad is the truly needy one. Not all the stories adhere to this isolation/connection model. "The Big Tomato," set in Manhattan, pokes fun at excess. A wealthy Danish couple, expats, receives a 4-pound tomato from their online grocer, to the bemusement of their Mexican cleaner and Albanian laundryman on the other side of the class divide. Another New York story, "Nat Newsom," is much darker. The eponymous Nat, a panhandler, retains his optimism despite physical handicaps and hard knocks. A Columbia professor, researching naïveté, eyes him as a subject, then contemptuously dismisses him as "too odd." It's a chilling look at the academic hustle. Nors is just as mordant in her treatment of a self-aggrandizing charlatan who reinvents himself as a Buddhist to become head of an aid organization, which he then rips off ("The Buddhist"). These amuse-bouches are a fine introduction to the author's work.
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By Dorthe Nors, Martin Aitken
Graywolf PressCopyright © 2008 Dorthe Nors and Rosinante&Co., Copenhagen
All rights reserved.
DO YOU KNOW JUSSI?
SHE CAN HEAR THE OTHERS DOWNSTAIRS. JANUS IS STILL THERE too. He has just said good-bye to her up in her room and now he's saying good-bye to her mother in the doorway. Then everything is quiet again, apart from her older brother turning on the shower across the hall. The smell of meatballs has drifted all the way inside her room and she is lying on the bed with a pillow between her knees. She can still feel the wetness of his saliva just beneath her nose, and his fingers. He made an effort to be nice, that was it, and she turns on the TV. She watches what's left of the local news, then finds a show where some person looks for someone they knew who has disappeared.
Tonight it's about a son unable to find his father. The son is thirty, rather chubby, and nearly cries when he says he is not angry with his father. But he can't understand why his father has not written to him. When the girl whose show it is asks if he's sad about that, the son can only nod.
A blond journalist Louise remembers once interviewed the prime minister on the television news is seen going through archives and asking people in public offices for information about the son's missing father. The father's name is uncommon, Jussi Nielsen, and now the blond journalist is standing outside a redbrick apartment block in a suburb of Copenhagen. He is going to ring the doorbell of an address where someone at the local authority believes Jussi Nielsen may once have lived. I wonder if anyone's going to be home, the journalist says as he rings the doorbell. An elderly woman with a short perm opens the door. She doesn't look at the camera when she appears, and she doesn't seem surprised enough when the journalist says he is from national television. We're looking for a man called Jussi Nielsen, says the journalist. The woman opens the door a little bit more and says: Yes, Jussi used to live here. The journalist nods. Do you know Jussi? he asks. Yes, says the woman.
It turns out that the woman, whose face Louise finds plain, was once married to Jussi Nielsen, but they got divorced. The way the apartment is done up, Louise can see they most likely never had much in common. But the journalist doesn't care about things like that. He wants to know if the woman knows where Jussi Nielsen is now. The woman smiles, and looks straight into the camera. She looks proud: Yes, I know where Jussi is, she says.
Louise knows this is not the time to turn off the TV, but she turns it off anyway. Her brother is tramping about in the hall, but otherwise the place is still quiet. Janus hasn't texted her, but he thought it was a shame it hurt. She looks at the photograph of him by the mirror. He has brown hair and prefers not to smile when his picture is taken. There's one of Mom and Dad on vacation, too. It seems like a long time ago, and she thinks about Jussi Nielsen and about Janus, who is tall. His fingers are slender and attractive, but he always uses his tongue when he kisses. She finds it odd that he doesn't use his lips once in a while. Tongue is okay, but it reminds her of the time she and her brother went to work with their dad. They licked envelopes for five kroner an hour at either side of a big, oval desk. Being there was all right, apart from the envelopes. She remembers it because she didn't care to look at her brother, who wanted to see whose stack of licked envelopes grew the quickest, so she looked down at her work instead. That way she found herself looking too long at the addresses printed on the envelopes.
The letters were all for men and the addresses made her think about people to whom she didn't belong. She had been able to see them in her mind, going about in strange rooms. She had been able to see them cutting through sports halls, sitting in cars at traffic lights, and walking their bikes and mopeds along the curb. Not just strangers, more like empty sheets of paper waiting to be written on. Or like pausing in front of a butcher's shop window with your mother and seeing the reflection of a man standing next to you. He looks at the pork sausage. He considers buying the pork sausage, the strange man at the window. Then he decides not to. He turns away, and just before he disappears around the corner he stops and gives you and your mother a strange look.
She had imagined it like that, and she had imagined how she followed the man through the streets all the way to his door, into his stairway and up to the second floor. She went with him inside his apartment and into the kitchen. Here the man made coffee and adjusted the photograph on the counter. Then he went into the living room and turned on the television and watched the news.
She had watched the man as he sat rubbing the armrests with his thumbs. She watched him during the television news, watched him as he ate his pork chops. Later, she was there when he went to the bathroom, and in the ambience of the bedroom when the man put down his magazine on the bedside table and reached out to turn off the light.
There he had lain under his white linen, smelling of duvet, and Louise had wanted to cry. She wanted to shake the man and ask if he had a car. Because if he had a car she wanted him to take her home. She didn't want to be there anymore. She wanted to go home to her mother, but she couldn't, because this man, who was nothing but a name on an envelope, had stuck to her, and when later she rang all the doorbells on the stairway to ask if they knew anything about the man who lived on the second floor, they all said they didn't. His name could have been Olsen, Madsen, Hansen, or Nielsen. No one knew.
"Are you okay? Do you want me to fetch Dad?" her brother had asked that day at their father's office when they had licked envelopes, and at that moment Louise remembers saying she didn't care for the adhesive.
"My stomach feels odd," she said, and then her brother fetched their dad.
But that was then, she thinks to herself, and slides her fingers under her panties to where the skin is thin. It still feels tender, but she thinks it will pass. Her mother is filling the dishwasher, and Dad turns up the volume on the late night news. She mutes the phone and closes her eyes. No word from Janus. That's a strange name too.CHAPTER 2
HE WHISTLES HIS DOG TO HIM, PUTS A COLLAR ON IT, AND PULLS IT a short way back from the edge of the wood so they're not stuck out like a sore thumb. It's late in the day and there's a big fallow field between him and Morten, so he can remain standing here. Morten is going about the farmyard with the red bitch at his heels. It's lean and rough haired, and he's always only ever had dachshunds. Small, aggressive animals that chew the lead and the floor mats in the car, and Henrik doesn't like small dogs. But when they go hunting foxes, Morten takes his dachshund, and when they go shooting by the fjord, Henrik takes his small munsterlander and the decoys. They've sat many times in the caravan on the Gardeners' land down in the bog, drinking weak coffee from plastic cups, the air dense with the smell of wet dog, talking about how practically things divided up, Henrik having a big dog for the one thing and Morten having dachshunds for the other. But now Morten's down there in the farmyard alone. A single light is shining from the kitchen window. He must have forgotten to switch it off, and the dog reaches only to his bootlegs. It looks like he's trying to fix some part of the door in the gable wall. There's a lot needs fixing now. There's a lot needs to sink in. Henrik, for instance, always thought it was the wife's fault, because she gave you the feeling that one of the things she liked best about Morten was that he wasn't good enough. It can't have been easy for Morten, being married to someone who was always looking for the horizons in everything. She talked big, and Morten must have felt awkward about the students at school calling her Skylark, and you can see it in the house down there as well. The windows are the sort with narrow wooden bars and they're painted red like in Sweden. There's some wickerwork by the main door, and when you come in it's all long tables in the living room and hand-sewn cushions, and on the walls what they called expressive art.
You always ended up feeling a bit wrong when you visited Morten and his wife. Tina, in particular, came across as the kind of person who had nothing against sticking her hand into a duck and pulling out the gizzard. It was because she was brought up in the country. She knew how most things looked on the inside. And she wasn't bothered if it smelled, as long as it was useful for something. She didn't mind taking her turn and getting her hands dirty, but Morten's wife was one who hoarded from her surroundings. Things had to have diplomas, titles, and certificates. Even Morten's dogs had to have pedigrees and long names, but Morten liked that about Tina. And he thought she looked fantastic with her school-bag, her blond hair, and her little smocks. He liked that his dogs, which he called Muggi and Molly and Sif so as not to be laughed at, underneath had sophisticated names. One of them was called Ariadne Pil-NeksØ. The last part after a kennel in Northern Jutland, and Morten liked to say how much Ariadne Pil-NeksØ had cost, but Ariadne Pil-NeksØ had never been able to flush a fox out of its hole, and Henrik shot it on the little patch of land behind the house while it was digging in a molehill.
Like it should be, he thinks to himself and puts his hand down to his big dog. It's twilight, and its wet tongue licks the palm of his hand. He watches his hunting pal going about the yard, back and forth, with what looks like an electric drill. Morten has his dog with him, too. A lively little thing, all instinct, but basically slight and always in danger of coming out worst. This strange bond between dog and hunter, he feels unable to put it into words, but maybe it's something like crossing piss streams, and it's why a hunter should always be able to shoot his own dog. That's the way it is: shoot your best friend, but know your limits, too. That was how Morten had put it back then, almost ten years ago when they'd been sitting in the kitchen and he'd said that the dog he had then had cancer.
"You've to know when you've not got it in you," Morten had said. "If you shoot this one, I'll take yours when its turn comes."
He'd gestured with a finger at Henrik's first hunting dog. Such a lovely big dog, lying there in front of the radiator looking up at him.
They'd agreed to keep it to themselves, and he shot Morten's dog, the one with cancer, as promised, and three years later Morten shot the first of his. They were quits then, for the next of Henrik's died all by itself. But it had been different with Morten's, and nothing wrong with that. From the dog's point of view, and the hunter's, a clean shot was the best thing. It wouldn't be right for an animal to be crammed inside a car and driven to the vet. A clean shot when the dog's doing something it likes is a good death for a dog. He wouldn't mind going that way himself one day when he was as far up in Tina as he could get. That'd suit him fine, but still he's standing here at the edge of the wood with an unpleasant feeling inside him while Morten goes about the yard in a way that makes it plain his wife and children are gone. It can't have come as much of a surprise, though. Everyone had known for years she was the leaving kind. Everyone had thought for years that Morten looked so small alongside her. It had always been good company in the Gardeners' caravan, even though Morten had become such a bigmouth. They'd always been friends, but there was a lack of balance in it. He had never let him down. He shot the first of Morten's dogs as it came up out of a foxhole. The next one he shot in the plantation with the Christmas trees. The third had been in such pain for some reason; Morten said it had been run over, but it could just as well have been something else entirely. It was so bad Henrik had to lay it in place for the shot, and the dog with the stupid name he took care of on the little patch behind the house. The fifth he shot in the back garden one day when the wife wasn't home, but now it was the last of them, the last dachshund, going about the yard at Morten's heels down there. A man and his dog in the twilight, but something more. He had to take it in. Take a good look, because that's how it was: there was something inside Morten that shunned the light. Something Tina said was a kind of complex. He didn't know what it was. He didn't know what to say about it, other than that it smelled like offal, and that the smell was spreading.CHAPTER 3
BEFORE THE BUDDHIST BECAME PRESIDENT OF THE AID ORGANIZATION People to People, he was an ordinary Christian and a government official in the Ministry of Foreign Affairs. He was the one who wrote the foreign minister's speeches and thereby put words into the foreign minister's mouth. It was a way of lying and at first it didn't bother him any. Then it started bugging him because he realized he was a Buddhist. It didn't come to him all of a sudden that he was a Buddhist. It was more like the Buddhist, as an idea, crept up and settled in him shortly after his wife said she wanted a divorce. The Buddhist came in and sat down at the opposite side of his desk at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs. He contemplated the Buddhist and thought it was a good format to step into. Buddhists are good people. They're deeper than most. Buddhists can see connections no one else can. These were all qualities he recognized in himself, but which all could be improved upon, and so he became a Buddhist. If he hadn't become a Buddhist, the divorce would have hurt that much more, but a Buddhist gains insight through pain. The more it hurts, the wiser the Buddhist becomes, the government official thought, and stopped being a Lutheran.
Shortly after the Buddhist has divorced and become a Buddhist, he stands in front of the mirror looking at his face beneath his thin, mousy hair. His skin is pale, but the exterior isn't what matters. The Dalai Lama would never lie on behalf of a government minister, and he would never tell international lies. More importantly, the Dalai Lama would never shy from pain. The Dalai Lama smiles when things hurt, and the more burdened the Dalai Lama, the more the world senses the Dalai Lama's presence. Aim high, the Buddhist thinks to himself, and decides to write an article in a national newspaper. The article is about his place of work, the Ministry of Foreign Affairs. More than that, it is about the lies that issue from the mouth of the foreign minister. The prime minister is a thief, and the foreign minister is a liar. I should know, because I'm the one who writes the speeches, the Buddhist writes in the newspaper, and the next day he is not afraid to go to work. Resistance builds character, and because the Buddhist is a government official employed by the state, the foreign minister cannot dismiss the Buddhist from his position. However, the permanent undersecretary can ride the elevator and have serious words with him, which is what he does. Up and down, up and down. Up and down with the Buddhist at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs.
Shortly after the article and the elevator ride with the permanent undersecretary, the Buddhist's situation looks like this: he is divorced. At his request he has been granted leave of absence from his position in the Ministry of Foreign Affairs.
And now there are three things hurting. The foreign minister hurts. His wife wanting to sell the big house in Charlottenlund hurts. And last but not least, it hurts that his aptitude for implementing lasting change in the world, both as a Buddhist and as a former government official in the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, is not being put to use. His desire to do good is overwhelming. His need to implement positive change in the world around him keeps him awake at nights. He drives around Copenhagen, anxious to get to work and ready to adapt. He drives around in his red Citroën Berlingo and keeps an eye on his wife. He drives around in his red Citroën Berlingo and keeps an eye on the foreign minister. He wishes both of them well. Yet he also wants to do them harm. It's a paradox, but the Buddhist loves them both while at the same time wanting to harm them. I want to harm them, he says out loud to himself, and just at the very moment he hears the word harm rush between his teeth, he sees himself in the rearview mirror. What he sees there is a Buddhist. A good thing I'm a Buddhist, he thinks to himself. God knows what I might have done if I hadn't been a Buddhist.
Excerpted from Karate Chop by Dorthe Nors, Martin Aitken. Copyright © 2008 Dorthe Nors and Rosinante&Co., Copenhagen. Excerpted by permission of Graywolf Press.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Meet the Author
Dorthe Nors is the author of five novels and the recipient of the Danish Arts Agency's Three Year Grant for "her unusual and extraordinary talent." Her stories have appeared in Agni, A Public Space, Boston Review, Ecotone, and Fence.
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