Gunnhild Øyehaug - Cleverly balancing the sensuous, the surreal, and the comical, Øyehaug achieves a playful familiarity with the absurd that never overreaches the needs of her stories. Full of characters who can’t help tying knots in themselves and each other, these tales make the world just a little more strange,
Gunnhild Øyehaug, Knots, Trans. by Kari Dickson, Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2017.
First published in Norway in 2004, Knots is Gunnhild Øyehaug’s radical collection of short stories that range from the surreal to the oddly mundane, and prod the discomforts of mental, sexual, and familial bonds.
In both precise short-shorts and ruminative longer tales, Øyehaug meanders through the tangled, jinxed, and unavoidable conflicts of love and desire. From young Rimbaud’s thwarted passions to the scandalous disappearance of an entire family, these stories do the chilling work of tracing the outlines of what could have been in both the quietly morbid and the delightfully comical. A young man is born with an uncuttable umbilical cord and spends his life physically tethered to his mother; a tipsy uncle makes an uncomfortable toast with unforeseeable repercussions; and a dissatisfied deer yearns to be seen. As one character reflects, “You never know how things might turn out, you never know how anything will turn out, tomorrow the walls might fall down, the room disappear.”
Cleverly balancing the sensuous, the surreal, and the comical, Øyehaug achieves a playful familiarity with the absurd that never overreaches the needs of her stories. Full of characters who can’t help tying knots in themselves and each other, these tales make the world just a little more strange, and introduce a major international voice of searing vision, grace, and humor.
Formally playful, poignant, understated, and often acutely funny, Øyehaug's English-language debut teems with humanity.
In this collection of short—and short-short—stories, fluidly translated from the Norwegian by Dickson, Øyehaug swipes a deft finger through messy layers of human experience and inspects with a keen and generous eye the everyday tragedies, tender absurdities, and quiet joys of life. In the book's spectacular opener, "Nice and Mild," a man paralyzed by anxiety and indecision heads to IKEA for blinds for his son's room. As he talks himself out of the car, across the parking lot, and into the store, he thinks "this could be the start of a virtuous circle," the first step toward a new proactive self, the blinds "a lifeline that's been thrown to me from dry land as I flail and flounder in the waves." In "Small Knot," a son is tethered to his mother for life, and beyond, by an uncuttable umbilical cord in a delightfully morbid and literal rendering of familial bonds and their reverberations through the future. In "Deal," a girl's bicycle breaks shortly after she sets out to run away, and she misses the last ferry out of town. Stranded, she strikes a curious deal with a neighbor who has rescued her and is in need of a little rescuing himself. "Gold Pattern" is a melancholy in-coitus account of a vaguely coupled pair with intermittent and unequal passions, a heart-pricking tale of progressive loss and longing. And in “An Entire Family Disappears,” a grand-uncle rattles his family at a funeral by telling a tale of how easily they might not have come to exist, told in dramatic form with the story unfolding entirely in stage directions.
A near-perfect collection about the knots we tie ourselves into and the countless ways we intertwine in the pursuit of sex, love, compassion, and family. - Kirkus Reviews
Norwegian writer Øyehaug’s newly translated collection charts entanglements of all kinds, from difficult families and first loves to more metaphysical experiments that combine a crisp minimalism with endearingly offbeat conceits. “Small Knot,” for instance, literalizes a fraught mother-son relationship with an umbilical cord that remains intact well into the son’s adult life—and even after the mother’s death—while a lonely woman longing for more encounters a UFO in “Vitalie Meets an Officer.” The best of Øyehaug’s miniatures deal with elusive emotional states, like the confession of love for a terminally ill man in “It’s Raining In Love,” the jealousy experienced by the friends of a highly successful encyclopedia salesman in “Echo,” or the contemplative ecstasy of a woman named Edel whom, in “Two by Two,” thinks that “nature has been abandoned and we are to blame, we have focused on language and become complicated.” Øyehaug transfigures a trip to IKEA, a late-night bathroom break, the lonely vigil of an egg and prawn vendor. Other stories read like surreal drawing room plays, offering a glimpse at the private lives of Arthur Rimbaud and Maurice Blanchot. “Meanwhile, on Another Planet” concludes “What can we learn from this? That impossible situations can arise on other planets too.” This kind of dry, odd, understated humor comes to seem a hallmark of Øyehaug, whose stories are as original as they are joyously delicate and tranquil. - Publishers Weekly
An umbilical cord that cannot be cut –– even after death –– turns out to be less of an impediment than one might think in Knots (176 pages; FSG), Gunnhild Øyehaug’s eccentric collection of short stories. Emotional and mental knots are as binding and problematic as physical ones in these surreal and memorable stories, translated from the Norwegian by Kari Dickson.
Øyehaug’s stories run brief as they oscillate between the bizarre and the everyday. In the opening story “Nice and Mild,” a man suffering from anxiety ventures to IKEA to buy curtains for his son, while in “Grandma is Sleeping,” a woman refuses to let in her family inside her home. And the story “The Object Takes and Exalted Place in the Discourse” reads about as theoretical as it sounds.
These vignettes are windows not only into the tangled lives of Øyehaug’s characters, but the possibilities of the short story form: some feel like scenes from a play, others contain footnotes that introduce a new character’s perspective. No matter how experimental, the stories benefit from Øyehaug’s skill at creating fully realized characters. She treats these individuals with compassion, humor, and occasional severity—and they in turn ensure the stories in Knots are consistently surprising and memorable.
While most of the stories in Knots are not overtly connected, repeated elements—allusions to Rimbaud, themes of longing and compulsion, and the motif of knots— give the collection a sense of cohesion. At times, plotlines from one story will resume later: “Take Off, Landing” follows protagonist Geir until he watches his acquaintance Asle, stone in hands, jump off a dock—a hundred pages later, the story “Air” picks up from that very moment. “Deal” follows a young runaway as she receives a ride home from a local source of scandal, a man whose story continues in “Two by Two.”
In this way, Øyehaug utilizes the short story form to reveal how some things in life will always remain out of frame and out of focus. Later, Geir’s perspective of Asle cuts away, via footnote, to a “brilliant explanation” for why Asle is carrying a stone—yet we never explicitly learn just why Geir spends his days watching others from a van.Knots begins with a quote from poet Christophe Tarkos: “One of two things: either the spiral/Or to be sent out into the air,” and Øyehaug fittingly embraces a lack of resolution, oftentimes leaving things unsaid. At the end of several pieces, an authorial voice enters to offer glib asides or lessons. After a conflict unfolds between two aliens in “Meanwhile, on Another Planet,” a clinical voice sums up the story’s moral: “What can we learn from this? That impossible situations can arise on other planets too. We don’t need to think that we’re the only ones who struggle and fight. Another striking feature is that they communicate through pictures.” These rare moments of authorial intrusion are unsettling precisely because the rest of the stories, no matter how surreal they may become, feel genuine and earnest. Even with the presence of floralh-patterned UFOs, the most unexpected surprise in Knots is how moving the stories prove. - Libbie Katsev
review by Ignatiy Vishnevetsky: The short story collection Knots is lit-fiction hackwork
Sometimes you read something that changes the way you write. My short stories exist, as texts, somewhere between what you call stories and short prose. Dubliners by James Joyce changed my short stories, and after that they were changed by Kafka’s stories, and after that it was Daniil Kharms’ short prose (or prose poetry), combined with a strong love for anything written by Virginia Woolf.
I’d been writing short stories since I was a teenager, heavily influenced by the Norwegian short story master Tarjei Vesaas, and perhaps also the Norwegian short story master Johan Borgen, and the Norwegian pulp fiction queen Margit Sandemo. I suppose I took the drama from the pulp fiction and combined it with Vesaas’ heavy symbolism and Borgen’s dynamic, entertaining narration in a way that many times has made me think that I’m glad my short stories from my teenage-writer’s period have never been found again. Still, I think there might be traces from that heavy combination in my writing, but when I read Joyce, at the age of 22, it was a revelation.
I loved the way he turns the stories around just before the ending, how they are all centered round and built up to this moment of revelation, the so-called epiphany, and I loved in particular the story of Eveline, who wants nothing more on this earth than to be able to leave her oppressed life as daughter and housekeeper for her violent father and as a mother for her brothers, but who, given the chance to leave, stays.
The story takes place a couple of hours before she’s going to escape together with her secret fiancé, a sailor, to Buenos Aires, she’s at home waiting nervously. She reflects upon her life, seeing all the familiar things in a different light now that she’s going to leave, and towards the end, when she’s at the harbour, she lets go of her fiancé in the chaos of people boarding the ship: “No! No! No! It was impossible. Her hands clutched the iron in frenzy.” Her fiancé cries out for her, they are separated by the movement of the crowd, and this is the terrifying, last sentence: “Her eyes gave him no sign of love or farewell or recognition.”
And this was my reaction: I felt I knew who Eveline was, why she clung to the iron railing. Even though her life was so different from mine in every way, I knew that feeling. And that feeling was what I wanted to write about in Knots, to try to see it from as many angles I could, and in as many different life-tanglements as possible, be it a man tied to his mother by an umbilical cord for the rest of his life, a woman not able to erase her desire for a man who doesn’t love her, a young girl who tries to hide from the rest of her family so she won’t have to play the piano for her grandfather who’s visiting, or aliens struggling with their personal relationships.
Joyce’s stories’ impact on my own stories were at the same time contrasted by a radically different influence: that of Kafka’s shortest short stories. Kafka’s shortest short stories provided the confidence that anything is possible, in terms of form, in terms of theme. For instance “The Trees,” which consists of only four sentences, comparing us to trunks in snow, how it looks as if the trunks could be tipped over by just pushing them lightly, “but no, you can’t.” Because the trunks are connected to the ground, beneath the snow.
And Daniil Kharms proved how free and subversive a piece of short prose can be, he discards narrative structure, he discards symbolic meaning, he discards just about anything, for instance in the text Blue notebook no. 10 which begins: “Once, there was a red-haired man who had neither eyes nor ears. He had no hair either so he was called ‘red-haired’ only theoretically.” As it turns out, this man hasn’t got anything at all, so the text concludes: “In fact, we would rather not talk about him any more.”—there is, literally, nothing to say. He doesn’t exist.
The Norwegian writer Dag Solstad writes about short prose as genre in an essay called “Spilleren” (“The Player”) where he suggests that short prose is not a genre per se, but a method. He locates the need for this method in the writer’s attitude towards his or her role as a writer. “Short prose is a demonstration,” he writes. “It demonstrates role awareness,” he explains, also characterizing it as “an attempt to demonstrate freedom.”
To me this is true. The truth about writing short stories to me is that is gives you freedom. I don’t have to think about the novel’s need for some kind of plot, or development, I can concentrate on the situation, the moment, the thought, the feeling, or even the nature of language, or on the nature of narration itself. The narrator can swoop in, and swoop out again, and even make the heavy, iron-like lumps of human experience float like a feather in just an instant. And that’s why I think we need short stories so desperately.