The first, obvious thing to note about Danish writer Dorthe Nors’s stories in Karate Chop is their brevity—the fifteen pieces here are on average only a few paragraphs longer than this review. The majority of them are dark and good, and a few stories are exceptional. In the better ones the reader is inserted into the middle of the story and the tone is casual, as if we already know the broader details. The circumscribed lives of these mostly Danish characters become familiar to us, and as their restrictions narrow further, the stories themselves, strangely, engorge into fullness. Nors is adroit at offering powerful summation at the precise moment with a single cutting phrase or an unexpected observation.
“Mutual Destruction” is about two hunters, each of whom puts down dogs either by shooting his own animals or by having his partner do it. It is also about a troubled marriage (between Morten and his wife Tina) and male friendship (between the hunters, Henrik and Morten). At first Nors tells us that one of the things Tina liked best about Morten was that he “wasn’t good enough.” She notes that Tina needs diplomas, titles, and certificates around the house, and that Morten’s dachshunds must have pedigrees and long names. When Tina leaves Morten, the reader is informed, suddenly, that everyone always considered her to be “the leaving kind” and that everyone had thought for a long time that Morten looked “small” alongside her. In a brief story declarations like these can often have a tacked-on feel, but in “Mutual Destruction” the effect is the opposite: they are surprising, subtle, and potent.
In “The Winter Garden” the titular garden is not a grand thing but a patio enclosure made “special” with desert plants by a divorcing father. The narrator, recalling a sad period from childhood, couples the news of his parents’ divorce with the shocking death of the Danish actor and comedian Dirch Passer. Not surprised at all by his mother and father’s separation announcement, the narrator tells us that his complete reaction to it was to put down his fork at dinner. Passer died that same September night, and the boy’s psychology is explored in the alloted paragraphs. Mother soon has a new boyfriend, and he (Henning) has two children of his own. The boy decides therefore that it would be fairer and easier for all if he went to live with his father. The parents consent. Soon his father also starts to date. And one day the boy sees Dad’s girlfriend Margrit in the winter garden “going back and forth with a glass of white wine in her hand” and sizing up the wall paper in the living room. He never sees Margrit again, but thereafter realizes that he is the only one who viewed his dad as “special.” In a few sentences at the end of the story Nors dissects the power of the all-important Father, and how pain is buried in a child’s futile attempt to keep a family strong and intact.
Another harrowing story that covers parental weakness and childhood remembrance is “The Wadden Sea.” Mother and child move from Copenhagen to a remote island so that mother can escape her fragile state of mind, or what she calls “fear of life.” But there is no escape. Fear of life boards a train in Copenhagen and travels to a seaside town. There it takes a ferry. Then a bus. And fear of life soon arrives at Sønderho—where mother and child have moved—and barges right back into mother’s life and into her bed, because someone must have given it their new address. This is Nors’s personification of the situation, anyway, and it works remarkably well. Easy solutions cannot be found by child for mother, of course, and living, natural things become not what they were intended to be or what they were supposed to represent. The Wadden Sea, for example, is not a life-giving “lung” after all; proximity to it is not a salve but another move toward brokenness.
Not every story in Karate Chop is as strong as “Mutual Destruction,” “The Winter Garden,” or “The Wadden Sea.” A few seem incomplete or have a style and tone that is in discord with the rest of the collection. But overall these brief realistic stories, as translated by Martin Aitken, provide universal insight into an everyday, modern existence. Readers might view a few as being very close to slice-of-a-life sketches, and that might be a fair criticism, although I wouldn’t necessarily judge it as a negative. “Hair Salon” is a good example of a story in which almost nothing happens. It’s about a down-in-the-dumps woman and her acquaintance with a “fat lady” she met at a laundromat. After a brief encounter over dirty underwear, the “fat lady” presumes that she knows the narrator well, though in actuality these women don’t know one another at all. They don’t even know each other’s names—nor does the reader learn who they are. The narrator makes wild conjectures about the facts of the fat woman’s life, to the hairdresser and in her own mind, based on scant evidence and superficial observations. “At some point [the fat lady] decided it was better to love everyone than just someone, and after that she just got bigger,” the narrator tells the reader. Her judgment is baseless, but it’s at this point in the story that Nors’s incisive commentary on common experiences enables an otherwise mundane story to succeed. “Hair Salon”—in contrast with the rest of Karate Chop—is also funny, which always helps. The exchanges between the narrator and her hairdresser are amusing and authentic. They laugh together. But in a styling chair the narrator doesn’t care to watch herself in the mirror. She knows that the shape of her mouth gives the appearance of having no teeth.