"Wild Swims," a new collection by the Danish writer, showcases her ability to use narrative blank spots and unresolved situations as devices to lure readers into her work.
One of the great joys of oral storytelling is the intimacy often forged between a talented speaker and an audience, which can transform any room into a two-person confessional, a late-night phone call, or a conversation with the stranger at the nearest barstool. I’ve been thinking about this kind of intimacy while reading and rereading Wild Swims, the latest story collection by Danish author Dorthe Nors, translated confidently by Misha Hoekstra. Shortlisted for the International Man Booker Prize in 2017, as well as being the first Danish writer to have a story published in The New Yorker, Nors has steadily gained international recognition over the past decade, and with Wild Swims, the author continues her streak of powerful flash and short fictions first introduced to English speaking readers in 2014’s Karate Chop. Across fourteen compact stories, most no longer than five pages, Nors mixes first and third person perspectives, luring the reader with an intimate tone and a masterful handling of pace and plot construction. The result is a collection reminiscent of a magnetic speaker standing at a microphone, enthralling her audience while sharing a secret.
Part of the appeal of reading a story like “In a Deer Stand,” which opens the collection, is Nors’ ability to produce engrossing narratives from bare-bones situations. Here, an injured, unnamed man—most of Nors’ characters are nameless—sits alone in a hunting stand, waiting for someone to pass by and offer help. He never leaves the stand over the course of the story, and not a soul enters the woods he lies in, yet Nors builds dynamism through the comings and goings of her protagonist’s memory. The story creeps back and forth in time, filling in the gaps of just how this man ended up in such a predicament and replicating the flitting nature of thought patterns. Take this short passage:
He’s seen it in the newspaper, but wolves can’t climb, and it’s just a question of time before she sits down next to the washing machine. Her hands cupped over her knees, and he hasn’t seen her cry in years. She didn’t cry when her mother died. Her face can clap shut over a feeling like the lid of a freezer over stick insects. He had some in eighth grade, in a terrarium, stick insects.
Nors slyly moves the reader through roughly concurrent scenes—the man considering the possibility of nearby wolves, which he read about in the paper, and his wife collapsing over his disappearance—before reversing decades in time to when the man was a teenager. Purely from a grammatical standpoint, the writing is brilliant in its control, beginning with the past perfect “He’s seen;” jumping to the present with “can’t,” “it’s,” and “sits”; moving back to past tense with “cupped;” and so on. Over five brief sentences, Nors—plus Hoekstra—marvelously compresses time, and thanks to this, a man can stay completely still for a full story while nevertheless keeping the reader entranced with glimpses of depression, teenage science projects, and a third wheel complicating his marriage.
Frequently, Nors uses this skillful approach to nonlinear plotting to dip into a character’s history. “Manitoba” follows a divorced man frustrated by the noisy kids camping in a nearby field. Like “In a Deer Stand,” the man scarcely acts in the story. He scowls and thinks of escaping to a hunting cabin for some peace and quiet, yet in bursts his past as a teacher seeps to the foreground, including allusions to a pedophilic relationship with a student. In the collection’s title story, a woman’s long-ago connection to her sister slowly materializes as the character works up the wherewithal to visit the local pool during a heat wave. Though the story contains more immediate action than “In a Deer Stand” and “Manitoba,” these segues into the woman’s bygone years make the story memorable, for they fuse her actions to past relationships, creating echoes that would otherwise fail to exist. They also introduce a mystery: Is Emilie, the sister, still alive?
Questions like this pepper Wild Swims. Nors avoids over-explanation and purposefully includes narrative blank spots. Emilie’s status, much like the potential student relationship of “Manitoba” (“Up close, the skin of her face was thin and alive”), is left for the reader to draw his or her own conclusion. This, in turn, can lead to multiple interpretations. A similar unknown lingers in “By Sydvest Station,” which sees two women, Kirsten and Lina, spend a day knocking on apartment building doors to seemingly collect money for a cancer society. They chat, play games, and joke about the residents they encounter, but threaded within these visits sits an opaque conflict haunting Lina: “…her head is full of him and what he said. It hurt her…” Nors writes in the story’s opening paragraph. Soon thereafter, Lina recalls that “…nobody knows that he told her…that her love couldn’t be genuine. That no one really loved that way.” Nors refuses to fully explain the conflict, and while all signs point to a romantic breakup, the reader is nevertheless tasked with filling in the gaps as Lina considers shouting, “All I’m doing is trying to move on after my emotional life went to the dogs, so shove it, motherfucker, you goddamn loser” at one of the residents.
These small mysteries help to forge a unique bond between author and reader. They create a sense of trust, of Nors putting faith in the reader to find his or her own way to the finish line. Nothing is spoon-fed, and this challenge becomes a key to the author-reader relationship. These mysteries also suggest a level of intimacy, of shared references, the way a friend may namedrop an acquaintance while recalling a recent escapade, assuming you’re still able to follow along. Yet is this a true intimacy, or are Nors’ deceptions merely crafted to mimic such connections? After all, a shared frame of reference may be impossible to establish when discussing fiction, itself a form based on the creativity of the lone storyteller. And I’d be lying if I said I never once had to stop mid-story to try to figure out if a character had been introduced earlier in the narrative. Still, perhaps it’s because of Nors’ big swings that the collection separates itself from so many of its contemporaries. Her commitment to leaving space for the reader to become part of the story creates its own sense of pleasure. There is never a point where her technique begins to show its seams, or where the author doesn’t craft with a sense of closeness, true or fabricated, toward her audience. These stories may be short in length, yet they all possess an abundance of depth.