Breaking up is hard, even for the avant-garde: Dorthe Nors' 'So Much for That Winter'

“Minna is a tad avant-garde,” Danish author Dorthe Nors writes of her protagonist in “Minna Needs a Rehearsal Space,” although Nors could just as easily be writing about herself.

“So Much for That Winter,” Nors’ second book to be translated into English, consists of two novellas that track women sifting through the fallout of their respective breakups: “Minna Needs a Rehearsal Space” is written as a hypnotic series of sparse headlines, “Days” as a series of numbered lists. Each novella nods to a distinctly contemporary cultural shorthand — status updates, listicles — while exploding the potential for narrative within formal limits. Thematically tied, they are equally inventive but disparate in structure and effect.

On the heels of the Karl Ove Knausgaard and Elena Ferrante series-novel fever, it comes as a relief to read a slim volume divided into two even slimmer ones. This isn’t to say that “So Much for That Winter,” is insubstantial. Nors’ writing is by turns witty, gut wrenching, stark and lyrical. Her characters seesaw between longing for human connection and the space in which to lick their wounds. That she achieves all this while experimenting with form is something of an impossible feat.

“Minna Needs Rehearsal Space” unspools in an ongoing thread of minimalist sentences; like poetry, it presents as a long column on the page. Minna gets dumped via text message (talk about the banality of evil) and spends much of the book being so poorly comforted by friends and her hilariously type-A sister that she makes it her mission to escape them. Isolation, rejection, cutting ties — Nors has a talent for rendering disconnection without sentimentality. Her observations are brutal, funny or both.

Minna purges Facebook contacts, but “the unfriendings” — which sound vaguely like the title of a horror-film — “provide no relief.” Her sister “Elizabeth’s name throbs like an irate artery” on the screen of Minna’s cellphone. Nors is sensitive to the way we belie our digital dependency through language: When her phone goes out of range, “the connection gets so bad that Minna disappears.” Fans of Nors’ previous collection, “Karate Chop,” may detect an echo of that book’s eye for subtle violence, although it is even subtler, practically muted here.

I devoured “Minna Needs a Rehearsal Space,” and admired the effect of its stark, single-sentence paragraphs — by the time I’d finished it, I was feeling a bit dislocated myself, and parched for lyricism and description. “Days” satisfied that craving without sacrificing Nors’ experimental narrative. “Days” has less plot, maybe, but more lushness. If we’re picking favorites, “Days” is mine.

A daily record of how a writer fills her time post break-up, the lists in “Days” run the gamut from the quotidian — “3. Walked home slowly, 4. lay on the bed” — to the sublime — “other times I catch a glimpse within as of a whale rising up from the sea with its tiny good clear eye peering at me, infinitely mild and inquiring.” An honest record of any day, of course, includes all sorts of fleeting thoughts and minutiae, but Nors saves the more obscure details from feeling redundant — or worse, self-indulgent — by having a sense of humor about them. (“3. Scribbled down the line: From her heart sprang the periphery of everything. 4. Scribbled down the line: Grow up!”)

In “Days,” Nors seems to question what in life is even worth recording, a relevant subject as any in an age of endless status updates, Instagrams and tweets. (The novella is reminiscent of Kevin Killian’s Facebook book “2500 Random Things About Me Too,” although Nors deals in fiction, not memoir.) And yet one of the most surprising pleasures of “Days” is that it isn’t an admonishment against reflecting on our most prosaic moments; Nors takes an egalitarian view. Incisive observations, private memories and even heartbreak are presented on par with the detritus of life  — “the frying pan, the dishrag, the joy, together with the insecurity and the French press…” While reading “Days,” I became acutely aware of the weight and reality of objects, the sound of my own voice in my head. A dish left in the sink, a text from my sister, the rabbit hole of a daydream — even the most pedestrian moments whispered their secret significance.

“So Much for That Winter” may be avant-garde, but it also deals in the fundamentals of being human. Who hasn’t been dumped or felt bewildered by the passage of time? Two riffs on a shared theme, these novellas do invite comparison to one another, but they bolster one another too. Paired as a single volume, Nors has created an exciting and artful literary diptych.

French is a writer in Los Angeles.

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So Much for That Winter

Dorthe Nors

Graywolf: 160 pp., $15 paper

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