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The short story collection Knots is lit-fiction hackwork

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Image: Jane Harrison
Image: Jane Harrison
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Knots: Stories

Author: Gunnhild Øyehaug
Publisher: Farrar, Straus and Giroux

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Knots is an excellent title for a collection of short stories. Otherwise, the most that can be said for Gunnhild Øyehaug’s slim book, which was first published in Norwegian in 2004, is that it must lose some charm in translation. Her stories are corny and high-minded, written in a repetitive and runny prose, full of dinkuses and exclamation marks and clumsy name-checks of Charles Baudelaire, Arvo Pärt, Andrei Tarkovsky, Roland Barthes, and Ted Hughes. But they can be conceptually interesting. Take, for example, “Small Knot,” whose protagonist, Kåre, remains connected to his mother by an umbilical cord into adulthood; the opening story, “Nice And Mild,” in which thoughts race through the narrator’s head as he enters an Ikea to buy some blinds for his son’s bedroom; “Overtures,” about a young pianist who really needs to pee (one of the better stories, actually); or “Transcend” and “An Entire Family Disappears,” both of which are written as stage directions. Øyehaug’s stories are short (there are 26 in Knots’ 164 pages), most of them chopped up into elliptical sections a paragraph or so long, and her willful banality, brevity, and experimentation-for-experimentation’s-sake sometimes brings to mind Lydia Davis—who it, turns out, likes Øyehaug’s prose enough to be blurbed on the back cover. (So is Stuart Dybek.)

But she lacks Davis’ obsessiveness, and beyond a few small exceptions—say, the page-long “The Deer At The Edge Of The Forest,” which ends in a pithy punchline—can’t seem to fulfill an idea. Read together, the stories in Knots retreat into repeated motifs: racket sports; characters (often men) frozen by personal crises; allusions to the life of the poet Arthur Rimbaud; college-curriculum references that illuminate nothing except the writer’s own limited tastes; and touches of surrealism and slapstick mixed with attempts at depicting middle-class family life that come across as hokey and bogus, as though written by someone who had only seen wedding receptions or parent-child relationships on TV. As rendered by Kari Dickson, who is best known for her translations of Norwegian crime writers, Øyehaug’s prose style reads like lit-fiction hackwork. The template holds from story to story: She writes in short, flat sentences in an attempt to mimic either the mundane or the fabulistic, but whenever she has to simulate some kind of feeling, adopts a waterfall-of-commas approach of the “rain dribbles on the windshield, and Jørn imagines himself crashing into the next car, and death, and remembers what Rimbaud wrote, or maybe it wasn’t Rimbaud” variety. (Note: This is not an actual quote, but you get the picture.)

Occasionally, Øyehaug’s writing tosses out such memorable groaners as “her starting point was Nick Cave’s song ‘(Are You) The One That I’ve Been Waiting For’”; “he knew nothing about Arvo Pärt, he had just decided on impulse to go into the music shop that was open late, and suddenly found himself staring at the light green CD cover with a name on it that appealed to him, without him being able to explain why, ARVO PÄRT,” which one presumes is meant to be read to the tune of Isaac Hayes’ “Theme From Shaft”; and “it was I, Julio Cortázar, who was floating toward him.” (The last two are from the same story, “Blanchot Slips Under A Bridge,” whose protagonist is, yes, the French literary theorist Maurice Blanchot.) All of this is, of course, meant to be postmodern and funny, which it is sometimes. But any reader who looks beyond the conceptual gimmickry and obfuscation will find a writer who can’t connect one paragraph to the next and who closes stories abruptly on notes that are surprising mostly because they’re facile or unexpectedly sappy. Endings matter a lot in short fiction, but all Øyehaug—who has found some success as a poet and prose writer in Norway—has to offer are beginnings. At least it makes for some interesting titles. “The Object Assumes An Exalted Place In The Discourse” is a good one.