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What We’re Reading: Karate Chop

2014 May 8

What We're Reading

Karate Chop Cover

Karate Chop by Dorthe Nors (Graywolf Press, 2014)

There must be something in that Scandinavian coffee. Perhaps it’s a special dark roast. Because those Scandinavian authors can write some dark stories. The reading masses have already devoured the twisted tales of Stieg Larsson (Sweden), Jo Nesbø (Norway), and Jussi Adler-Olsen (Denmark). Now, thanks to Graywolf Press, readers can get a satisfying taste of another Danish author. Dorthe Nors’ newly translated short story collection, Karate Chop, offers just as much darkness as her fellow Scandinavians but with a bit more subtlety.

Nors does an amazing amount of writing in such a short space. Only eighty-eight pages long, Karate Chop is full of short stories, each lasting only a few pages each. But what she manages to pack into those pages delivers quite a jolt. It may seem that stories would need more space to develop properly, but Nors quickly and sharply probes her characters and their humanity, leaving the readers to judge their actions or inaction.

Not all stories in Karate Chop are dark. In the four short pages of “The Winter Garden,” Nors perfectly crystallizes a moment everyone faces in their lives—the moment a parent goes from extraordinary to ordinary. A boy goes to live with his father after his mother’s boyfriend and his two daughters move into their house. His father claims the divorce was good for him, and he’s started a hobby of gardening succulents. When his father brings home a woman and starts explaining his garden, the boy notices the woman “looking at the wallpaper in the living room.” When the boy and his father visit the woman’s home, they meet her son, and the boy also meets a stark realization.

He stuck his tongue out at my father when he wasn’t looking. That may seem like a petty thing, but it was only then that I realized that I was the only person who thought my father was someone special. It was only my way of looking at him that stopped him from being just some ordinary guy of no importance. If I didn’t like him he would basically be insignificant, and if he were insignificant, things would look pretty bad for me.

Some stories of Karate Chop also float between reality and the surreal. In stories such as “She Frequented Cemeteries,” readers are left on their own to decide how reliable the narrator is. The woman in this story seems to have finally found love.

What happened wasn’t exactly spectacular. She had met a man. That was all. . . . Her feelings were strong and reciprocated. She sensed it, yet she knew also it would take time before they could be together. He was in mourning for things he’d lost, and his mourning was unhurried.. . .

But there was no way she could explain this to her girlfriends. They demanded evidence. They wanted to know who had died, why he kept crying, and if it really wasn’t just his own fault.

To avoid her friends and the conversations she doesn’t want to have, she walks around cemeteries dreaming of her future.

In the early evening she would pass through the iron gates into Park Cemetery, stroll past the dead painters, the poets, and head for the place where the pink roses were. When she got there she would walk between the graves, and as she went she closed her eyes to the parts of reality the others were keeping a watch on and imagined the man, who could only be with her in spirit, lacing his fingers in hers. They would walk there in various scenarios, sometimes silently, but together. They would be walking there when he said he loved her. Things like that would be said as they walked side by side through the cemeteries in the various stages of their as-yet-uninitiated time together.

Unlike her Scandinavian counterparts, Dorthe Nors offers short, incisive stories that plumb the depths of humanity while offering only glimpses of the darkness that can be found there. Stories such as “The Buddhist,” “Karate Chop,” and “Female Killers” are more in line with the tradition of dark Scandinavian tales. The stories seem to be about ordinary people on the surface, but Nors weaves an undercurrent throughout the stories that leaves readers knowing something is not exactly right with these characters.

Although Karate Chop is Nors’ first English translation, she has five other novels just waiting to be translated for eager audiences. Since you can’t read her novels yet, whet your appetite with Karate Chop. You won’t even need a cup of coffee to keep you awake.

How short can short stories be and still be effective? Can a short story be too short, becoming more of a character study instead of a fully realized story?


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