The Fiction Shelf: ‘Karate Chop’ by Dorthe Nors and ‘Praying Drunk’ by Kyle Minor
In the story collection “Karate Chop,” Dorthe Nors illuminates an ominous world of disconnected people trying to make sense of their dislocation.
Among these micro-transmissions of self-preservation is the standout, “The Wadden Sea,” in which a young girl takes off to a remote seaside town with her depressed mother. When the young narrator’s grandmother comes to rescue them both, the young girl says, “I could tell she knew fear of life, and I could tell she knew it was a kind of fear that took in the whole of people’s lives and could make them forsaken wherever in the world.”
Nors’ affectless, matter-of-fact storytelling — crisply translated from the original Danish by Martin Aitken — is the perfect complement to the low-wattage desperation and inertia her characters feel, especially in the face of the opposite sex. The divide between men and women cannot be bridged in these stories. Instead, characters grasp for meaning in the frailest moments of life, say, while recounting watching an elder crush an ailing baby rabbit to their bosom.
If Nors was to write these moments with any emotion at all, they would feel over the top. Instead, they register as sinister drones rather than a wail. In the title story “Karate Chop,” a schoolteacher recounts the moments before her lover beat her and tries to make sense of the abuse thus: “She was perfectly willing to admit that she had lost confidence in her choices.” It could almost make you laugh if not for the bleak scene it is describing.
Perhaps a line from “The Buddhist” best describes the collection, the author’s first to be translated into English: “It’s a paradox, but the Buddhist loves them both while at the same time wanting to harm them.”
“Karate Chop” is just like that: It loves you and wants to teach you, but it also wants to harm you.
Dorthe Nors, translated by Martin Aitken
Graywolf: 112 pp., $14 paper
Kyle Minor’s “Praying Drunk” offers a grim, gripping view of men and women still searching for the miraculous. Evangelists embark on missions to Haiti hoping to save anyone, if not just themselves; grieving family members struggle with questions of faith in the face of mounting evidence that they have no business having any; and a young narrator is tortured over and over again in school.
To read “Praying Drunk” is to open yourself up to the type of rumination that some might be afraid of: namely, how can anyone have faith when humans do so much to distort godliness? The stories in Kyle Minor’s second collection are tender, searching and reflect onto one another. An ouroboros of sorts, tales are told over and over again from different perspectives, with facts erased, altered or added. Characters inhabiting one story pop into others, shifting our belief in who the characters are and who they wish to be. Minor quotes a teacher in the story “Q&A”: “Our job is to identify the distance between the story we’ve been telling ourselves about our lives — the received story, or the romantic story, or the wishful thinking — and replace it with the story that experience is revealing about our lives, the story that is more true.”
Living in Minor’s world requires the wherewithal to realize there is no truth to uncover, just different versions of the same narrative written to cope. Minor spans small towns and hidden alleyways in Kentucky, Tennessee, Florida, Ohio, Haiti, scooping up men and women who are hollowed out, tired of trying, begging to be forgiven, or still praying for a chance. In doing so, the collection acts as a crisis of faith in a part of America that is steeped in faith. How does it feel for a former preacher to wander a landscape of the devout? Melancholy, to be sure. The beauty of “Praying Drunk,” though, is that it transcends suffering to evoke the sublime.
Sarabande: 192 pp., $15.95 paper
Waclawiak is the author of “How to Get into the Twin Palms.”
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