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from the July 2018 issue

Gunnhild Øyehaug Flirts with Hollywood While Considering the Essence of Life in “Wait, Blink”

Reviewed by Ane Farsethås

In her novel "Wait, Blink", Norwegian writer Gunnhild Øyehaug devises a whimsical, yet earnest probe into the human condition, filled with a dizzy range of topics. From golf books to “the essence of life”, from Tarantino to Dante, passing though fictions about the dream life of president George W. Bush and the childhood of literary theorist Paul de Man, it’s all equally worth a moment of curious observation.

“You have the perfect golf swing in you, you just have to find it.” That’s the set-up line of choice for writer Kåre, one of the protagonists of Gunnhild Øyehaug’s novel Wait, Blink, to pick up girls and make audiences laugh. Golf can’t be this simple is the title of the self-help book he likes to quote derisively during dates or lectures, before remarking that “life is not always as simple as golf” and turning to a preferred subject: his own work. 

There is a certain coyness about Kåre’s seduction methods, but don’t worry—this is not a book about writers and their neuroses. In the lecture described right at the beginning of Wait, Blink, Kåre quickly moves past his comedy routine and gets closer to something at the core of this novel and its underlying aesthetic. He quotes PJ Harvey’s “This is Love” and praises the lyrics for their “simple straightforwardness,” their “simplicity and directness.” “Kåre believes that every sentence should be like that, be it pop or literature,” we read. And while Kåre is no simple mouthpiece for the author, the quote still echoes an aesthetic relevant to the novel. No line of separation is drawn between pop and literature, film and philosophy, in a book that treats all man-made expressions with the same kind of earnest curiosity. 

 

From the beginning of the novel, each short chapter presents us with new figures in what initially seems a dizzyingly large cast of characters. After a while, however, a plot as tightly woven as a Hollywood romantic comedy reveals itself. Øyehaug is a prolific writer, with seven books published in Norwegian. Wait, Blink is only her second book to be translated into English. Readers who became acquainted with her work through the short-story collection Knots, published last year by FSG, might be surprised to find this novel compared to a commercial, decidely non-avant-garde genre of film. The comparison is not unwarranted, however, even if it does call for some qualification. 

There is some distance separating Wait, Blink from the short minimalist stories found in Knots, the kind that made Øyehaug’s writing resonate with a writer like Lydia Davis. She is quoted on the cover praising Øyehaug’s “wit, imagination, ironic social commentary, and fearless embrace of any and every form of storytelling.” The exploration of a seemingly more traditional structure in Wait, Blink can be understood as one such embrace. It can be described, perhaps, as a peculiar use of convention, one that still contains deeper philosophical concerns and an earnest attempt at understanding even the smallest building blocks of the social fabric and the way we create meaning. In this regard, although it is constructed in a more conventional manner, the novel will still seem familiar to readers acquainted with the kind of thinking about the large through the small that Davis has made her trademark.

 

The title of the novel, Wait, Blink, comes from a story in the book about a woman who was lost in the wilderness and survived by using the light on her cell phone to signal for help: “Wait, blink, survive.” Her use of a cell phone as a semaphoring system of the simplest kind can be read as a stand-in for the more complex communications and signaling systems being set into motion by the characters in the novel. 

For it’s all about interpretation, in a novel where the romantic misunderstandings, and thus the fate of the many characters, hinge on interpretations of Sofia Coppola’s Lost in Translation, Quentin Tarantino’s Kill Bill 2, and other similar references. 

One of the main characters in the book is Sigrid, a student who’s writing an essay on a ubiquitous phenomenon exemplarily expressed in Sofia Coppola’s film: “she’s started to notice that whenever women are supposed to come across as fragile and vulnerable in films or literature, they’re always wearing oversized men’s shirts, with bare legs. And they often also have tousled hair.” Trying to understand the aesthetic underlying this trope, and why it makes her so uncomfortable, leads Sigrid to some pretty complex situations with male friends and potential lovers. Just as a seemingly innocent discussion about the role of Uma Thurman’s character, The Bride, in Quentin Tarantino’s Kill Bill 2 turns explosive enough to cause a couple’s break-up.

 

The main love triangle in the book is that between the writer Kåre, his ex-girlfriend Wanda, and his new love interest, the younger (by two decades) Sigrid, who decorates her room with posters of literary theorists and struggles to escape the seemingly endless labyrinth of her own thoughts. Still, a deep “will to connect” is Sigrid’s ideal, one she struggles to live by. Whereas the man of her dreams, Kåre, lives by the maxim “Just be yourself!” Kåre is upset when Sigrid (as Wanda before her) does not conform to his ideas of what that self should be like: assertive, self-assured, stating opinions loudly and clearly. Turns out the universality of that ideal is not as obvious as Kåre thinks: 

But, Sigrid had said on the phone, what if being careful is part of being natural? If shouting and screaming is not the way one does things? Her mouth had been a little dry. Then you have to change that, Kåre said.”

An investigation into the paradoxical imperative “Just act natural!” follows, as each of the romantic storylines take unexpected turns, and the questions of interpretation, meaning, connection and communication become dazzlingly complex, making two people discussing a Tarantino movie read like a crash course in language philosophy. 

Wait, Blink was itself made into a movie, Women in Oversized Men’s Shirts, in 2015, and film is a leitmotif throughout the book: the narrator speaks in terms of zooming in and out of different character’s perspectives. When trying to describe the novel, comparisons with movies easily come to mind. Just as the wager presented by Queen Elizabeth in Tom Stoppard’s Shakespeare in Love centers on whether a play can adequately represent “the very truth and nature of love,” so Øyehaug’s romantic comedy is a philosophical inquiry into the question of whether it is possible, in writing, in thinking—and more acutely, in everyday communication with the people we care about—to convey “a perfect picture of inner life,” as the subtitle boldly asserts in the tongue-in-cheek style characteristic of a novel using a hyperbolically omniscient narrator to full effect. 

At one point, for example, we follow a salmon swimming from the seabed off Greenland to the coast of Norway and with this journey transporting the reader from one plot line to another. As the narrator follows the salmon further and further, the story takes a deep dive into the origins of photosynthesis in the ocean depths 3.7 billion years ago, thus coming close to the beginning of “what we simply have to call ‘life’” before breaking things off with a light shrug: 

But now we have well and truly digressed, even though it’s a beautiful thought: that we’re extremely close to the essence of lifehere, the answer to a couple of humongous mysteries, but unfortunately we’ve only brought along a limited amount of oxygen to sustain us for our stay on the seabed and must concentrate on our real reason for being here: to see the salmon swim, with its inbuilt navigation system, all the way to its small river in northwestern Norway, where the fishmonger’s daughter’s father is standing one Sunday, his only day off, in 2002, fishing for salmon.

The passage is representative of the whimsical, digressive yet serious style of the novel, and the range of topics covered by it: from golf books to “the essence of life,” from Tarantino to Dante, it’s all equally worth a moment of curious observation for our omniscient narrator’s gentle probing into the world of human beings, of salmon, of rocks on the seabed, and of romantic daydreams. Fictions about the dream life of President George W. Bush or the childhood of literary theorist Paul de Man also dot the main narrative, ensuring a constant infusion of unexpected perspectives.

A footnote near the end tells us the narrator’s voice is really a small choir: the dual voices of Dante’s Beatrice and Cervantes’ Dulcinea, classic literary counterparts to the modern-day mirages of vulnerable women in oversized men’s shirts. In Øyehaug’s novel, women created as male fantasies take on a life of their own—and an agency infused with humor and a playful attitude towards most things in life, including storytelling, feminism, and literary history. 

In one chapter we even see Dante himself asking Virgil whether he has lost his way when he trips on something in the snow, digging away at it until he finds the heads of sinners frozen in time. They appear to be Sigrid, Kåre, Wanda, the fishmonger’s daughter, etcetera, people we know intimately but whom Dante has never seen, concluding: “This isn’t where we’re meant to be!” before hurrying off with Virgil.

Even though “a perfect picture of inner life” might be an unattainable ideal, the stories of the meetings between these characters become proof that it is possible at least to partially convey what is on one’s mind and once in a while experience “one of those moments so rarely shared between two people: when both have naked eyes.” Whether or not communication is perfect is not the question, the novel seems to tell us: less-than-perfect communication is communication nonetheless. At its core Wait, Blink can be read as a gentle warning against the dangers of skepticism gone rogue, embracing a will to communicate, while being fully aware of all the obstacles inherent in language and in the inevitable separateness of minds. 

A brief note on the translation: As I had read the novel in Norwegian when it originally came out in 2008, I was initially slightly thrown off by the translation. After a few hiccups in the early chapters—overly direct translations of everyday Norwegian phrases that seemed forced or too offbeat in English to fit the down-to-earth style of the original—the translation found its pace and tone, and a few chapters in it felt as easy to read as the original.

Overall Wait, Blink is a thoroughly enjoyable novel, one that delves into eternal questions regarding human communication, love, and the mysteries of infatuation, with a distinct philosophical attitude, in a form of storytelling so seemingly mild and pleasant it could almost be considered beach reading. 


© Ane Farsethås. All rights reserved.

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