The short stories of the contemporary Danish author Dorthe Nors are a masterclass in minimalism — and an opportunity to ponder what remains in texts so stripped bare. Never longer than a few pages, her works are sleek and compressed, and in them characters play hide and seek with fragments of their personhood, like shadowy figures in a darkened place, illuminated now and then by the flash of a lightning bolt.
She established her reputation for tight precision with the short story collection Kantslag (2008), published in English as Karate Chop in 2014. Since then she has experimented with novels and novellas that take her practice of reduction into experimental territory. Romantic breakups and mental breakdowns were narrated with bullet points in So Much for That Winter (a collection of two novellas), anxieties laid out like newspaper headlines, as if the only way to expand a narrative’s length is to stretch it out to the breaking point. Now she returns to short form with Wild Swims, translated by Misha Hoekstra and published by Graywolf Press. The collection has the feeling of homecoming: Nors is at her strongest working within the clean lines of short paragraphs and simple sentences, minimalism as we know it best.
That mantle, for most Americans, rests squarely on the shoulders of Raymond Carver, who used the techniques of compression and elision to (not) talk about alcoholism, depression, and suburban ennui. Those are red-blooded American subjects, and his treatment of them was distinctly masculine; the best way intuit his characters’ well-being was to see which glass of whiskey they were on. Wild Swims provides readers with greater access to interiority than anything by Carver, and to a wider variety of lives and experiences. But minimalism can be a fascinating way to parse an author’s priorities, or even speculate on the collective moods and identities that undergird them.
Like Carver’s, Nors’s style is, in a manner of speaking, dirty realism about her homeland. Early in the collection, a story titled “Hygge” consists of coercive sex between an elderly professor and a woman he meets at a senior care facility, on the floor of her apartment, which, Nors makes a point to tell us early on, has “that sweetish smell of urine.” This seems a pretty deliberate repudiation of the warm, marketable coziness — the Danish concept of “hygge,” loosely translated as such — that has taken hold in our lexicon as an ostensive tenet of their culture.
The characters in Wild Swims are certainly Danish, but they are rarely, if ever, comfortable. Nors prefers to situate them in the foggy marshland outside major cities, a periphery where lone vacationers rent out wood huts and farmers look distrustfully upon them. A recurring motif in the collection is characters, standing on their porch or walking in the woods, imagining they hear someone else nearby — and the stories are so thematically taut and geographically similar that the characters may in fact be haunting each other. In the opening tale, an unnamed man lies with a broken ankle in someone else’s deer stand after suffering a serious accident, awaiting help that may be hostile.
In “Manitoba,” another man, frustrated by his neighbors, considers leaving his home in the middle of the night to walk to a cabin he believes will be abandoned, now that hunting season is winding down. “He’s got a deer stand out there,” we are told, and the idea that this man might run into the other story’s protagonist, or that either could be mistaken for prey by a late-season hunter, animates both works with a kind of kinetic fervor. There is always a late-season hunter, in one form or another, who is out wandering the woods of Nors’s characters’ minds.
This ambiguous threat is more complicated when her characters are women. A trope of Nors relies on, perhaps a little too heavily, is that of women who have gone through recent breakups and are now preoccupied by the anonymous men who have left them behind. “In Sydvest Station” follows a woman as she goes door to door collecting money for the Cancer Society, “and at the same time her head is full of him and what he said.” What exactly he said is left for the reader to imagine.
Later in the collection, a different woman wanders through an abandoned fairground, “think[ing] a lot about what she did to deserve his silence, which tempted her to assume things that weren’t true.” The woman “cocks an ear to the evening sky, listening. No boys in the bushes. No boys at the fairground, they’re gone, and she tries to make herself taller to see it more clearly.” Her sense of loss and longing mixes uncomfortably with genuine paranoia. In Wild Swims other people are always both an opportunity and a threat. Nors’s sparse lines and fleeting images masterfully contain this ambiguity, placing the reader’s intuitions first.
All these elements of Nors’s effective minimalism are on display in the title story, which concludes the collection. In “Wild Swims,” an unnamed narrator goes to her local pool, thinking all the while of the night she waded out into a channel with her childhood best friend, getting dangerously close to a current that almost carried them off. This murkiness haunts her as she ventures through the sunlit waters of the local rec center, making for a delightful contrast — although the pool has its own threats, including a “hairy man standing in the shallow end of lane one” with a snorkel, who “dived underwater every time a woman swam past.”
Memories and perturbations strengthen a story that would otherwise be uneventful, simply the act of taking a few laps. But the threat of death, of drowning, of late-season hunters, animates the mundane in Nors’s fiction, even pushing it to the point of combustion at the moment the curtains fall. The woman in the fairground does little but walk around and think of men; it’s only in the last line that we learn she is holding a gas can. The final words for the man stuck helpless in the deer stand are “a wolf has been sighted.” And even from the safety of a public pool, Nors can trouble us with possibilities, the flashback to the night wading into the channel’s depths: “A step, the suction, then off to other realms.”
Wild Swims by Dorthe Nors, translated by Misha Hoekstra, is published by Graywolf Press.