Stylistic knottiness (and human naughtiness) abound in the intricacies of Norwegian writer Gunnhild Øyehaug’s debut English-language collection of stories, Knots. Øyehaug has written a collection of fabulous fable-like missives from our current age of human anxieties. The style mirrors, in many ways, the behavior of human beings: as Øyehaug remarks, “I’m interested in the intertwining of language at the sentence level and with the mess humans create. It’s impossible, at times, to disentangle the knots of man and woman, mother and child, and so forth.”
In “Transcend,” the female protagonist, merely identified as “she,” finds herself being seduced, her body responding to the situation even as her mind is insisting on limits to how her body will respond. “Oh, Life” makes of sexual partnerings—Eve with Frank, who was three days earlier having sex with Gerd, who three days before that was having sex with Adam (and so on)—a kind of game of (sexual) “musical chairs”—the life of the title a game of human rutting.
In writing this collection, Øyehaug had in mind ways of connecting them with certain influences in mind: Joyce’s Dubliners, with their sense, Øyehaug observes, of “desperation and claustrophobia,” Bach’s Goldberg Variations and Well-Tempered Clavier for the “themes that are repeated and varied,” and even Polish director’s Krzysztof Kieslowski’s “Three Colors” trilogy (Blue, White, and Red), as evidenced, for example, when Øyehaug allows the symbolic green fabric of a sofa in “Vitalie Meets an Officer” to bleed into the subsequent story titled “The Object Takes an Exalted Place in the Discourse.” These permeable boundaries suggest the fictional structural equivalent of Borderline Personality.
Additional influences on her writing have included Beckett’s plays and the works of Flaubert and Kafka. These influences account at times for the tone, which Øyehaug aptly describes as “sovereign, removed, like God looking down on my characters.” An Øyehaug story often juxtaposes short, declarative sentences with sentences that string together clauses. In addition, there are frequent repetitions of phrases that advance a thought or image a bit at a time, in a kind of stylistic stutter.
Øyehaug affirms that the “sentence is extremely important. It’s where I have fun as a writer. I like to read writers concerned with the sentence”—and she mentions contemporary writers such as Lydia Davis (“I’m a huge fan of hers,” Øyehaug gushes. “She’s one of the most precise writers I can think of in terms of how she creates a sentence”) and Joy Williams, especially 99 Stories of God.
These quirky, even knotty, sentences, are at the service, finally, of human relationships. “I’m interested,” Øyehaug asserts, “in what being human means. Humans are both comic and tragic. Beckett was brilliant at depicting the tragicomedy of human beings.” Øyehaug ’s sardonic wit, depicting the absurdities of her characters, is on full display in stories such as “Gold Pattern” and the lovely “It’s Raining in Love.” “Human beings are involuntarily comical, especially when wanting to be loved,” she explains. “The humor in Knots is a different way of relieving the pain of living, of love, of life.”
Øyehaug references knotty thinkers and writers in her stories: French semiotician Roland Barthes, Maurice Blanchot. Øyehaug , however, sees them as a resource of the world from which she may draw as she writes the way her characters think. “The Blanchot story,” she explains, “is not about theory but rather the imagination and connections. I want these references to work on the immediate level for a reader, even for one who has not read their works.” (The Blanchot story also amuses in an absurdist way. Think of the plays of Ionesco or early Stoppard. And, yes, Beckett.)
Øyehaug has also written a novel that is being translated into English for release in 2018. In contrasting the two forms, this mother of two children notes that “stories are more convenient to write with children. When writing a novel, I become more disconnected because I’m writing something that will be in process for at least two years. Stories are closer to poems for me, with the added density of symbols and metaphors.”
Her first novel was adapted for a movie that Øyehaug scripted (and she has just completed the screenplay for a short film). This process of adaptation guided her as she wrote her second novel, which focuses on a single character. “Plot,” Øyehaug observes, “is important to film, but not my strength or interest. Nonetheless, this newer novel (published in Norway in 2014) is certainly influenced by the sustained attention of writing a film script. Whether a film script, a story, or a novel, my work’s innermost desire is to try to depict human beings through writing in a way that makes the reader (and me!) able to catch a glimpse of what being human in this world is all about. And feel, I hope, that in spite of everything, it’s all right.”
J. W. Bonner teaches writing and the Humanities at Asheville School in Asheville N.C.