July 27, 2020: “Karate Chop” by Dorthe Nors, Translated by Martin Aitken

Hey, there, Story366!

Today, the Miami Marlins have fourteen of their people testing positive for COVID-19, meaning they canceled their game for today. Three days into the season, the league’s fears have all come true, as most of a team is out and will be for two weeks. Everyone is scrambling to figure out what comes next, and I spent a great deal of time discussing this with my baseball folks this morning, guessing as to what we think will happen next. These fourteen Marlins people are out, but can be replaced by players from the “taxi squad,” guys put aside for this very purpose; no one thought they’d need so many players (twelve, as two positives were coaches) this soon. Do the Marlins just play for two weeks with the second string? Apparently. Do they ever make up today’s game? Don’t know. The Phillies, who just played the Marlins, also called their game today, just as a precaution. The situation changes and develops as the minutes pass, so it’s likely that by the time I post this, there might be drastic changes. There’s a lot of talk of the season being canceled because of this, but I hope not. We’ll have to wait and see

Otherwise, as of me writing this sentence, other games are being played. The Cubs are supposed to be playing now, but are in a rain delay. I’m sure a lot of those players are sitting in the clubhouse—doing whatever they do in a rain delay while social distancing—and wondering if they’ll ever get another at-bat this year, ever throw another pitch. I’m wondering the same thing, if this past weekend—which I enjoyed immensely—will turn out to be an anomaly, a tease. At best, it might serve entertaining reminder of what’s really going on in the world, what we’re up against, and what we still have in store.

For today’s entry, I read from Danish writer Dorthe Nors‘ collection, Karate Chop, out from Graywolf in 2008 and translated to English by Martin Aitken. Nors has a bunch of novels to her credit, and many of these stories having appeared in American lit mags. Yet, I can’t recall ever reading anything by her before today. So, without further ado, here’s what I discovered about Nors’ short stories today.

The first story is “Do You Know Jussi?” and is about a woman watching a program about missing persons. In this episode, there’s a man whose son is looking for him. The reporter for the program tracks down one of his old residences, knocks on the door, camera over her shoulder, and speaks to the woman who lives there now. The reporter asks if the woman knows Jussi, the missing man, and the woman replies that she does, and knows where he’s at right then. Our protagonist turns off the TV, though, and starts thinking about her man who just left her house, and then about another man, in a dreamworld, a horrific vision that propels her through her evening.

“Nat Newsom” is about an existential philosophy professor at Columbia, Jack Soya, who declarss that the person who’s had the biggest impact on his work, and perhaps his life, is Nat Newsom. Nat Newsom was a panhandler who opened the door for people entering a McDonald’s on Soya’s commute. Soya is intrigued by Nat’s acumen, and asks if he’d like to join him for a beer. There’s Nat tells him a story about a con man who approached him and a friend of his at the public library, a man who claimed to be collecting money for homeless drug addicts. The man was white and said his name was one thing, but wore an ID badge that showed he was black and named another. Something about Nat Newsom’s reaction to this man intrigues Soya, leading to his declaration about Nat’s importance in his life.

The title story, “Karate Chop,” seems like it’s going to be another deeply introspective and philosophical piece, and for a good length of the story, it is. This one’s about Annelise, who’s sitting on the edge of a bed, looking at her sleeping boyfriend, Carl Erik, and considering him, as well as men in general. The story, for quite a while, features Annelise traveling down the rabbit hole of stream of consciousness.

She begins with a generality she’s noticed about men, that every time a woman starts to talk seriously about herself, men tend to cut them off with something direct and self-deprecating about themselves, something like, “I’ve always been an asshole.” or “I’m a terrible person.” For whatever reason, Annelise realizes she’s never taken men at their word for this, was their way of either making her stop talking, or setting themselves up to be better than they claim, to be an automatic improvement. It’s an ominous revelation, but we’ll get to that.

Annelise eventually revels her sexual history, especially how she learned about sex, mainly through her brother’s dirty magazines. She talks about her relationship with her family, insular people who didn’t exactly open up about feelings, let alone life lessons.

This leads Annelise to her relationship with Carl Erik, which is questionable at best. In some ways, he seems like a regular chap, but he also has the tendency to “lend” Annelise out to people he thinks need some cheering up. Once, at a bar, he tells her to make a stranger, an alternately abled man, happy. Annelise, aiming to please, dances with the man, laughs at his jokes, and lets him buy her a beer. It’s unclear how far these arrangements go, but by the end of the story, I have to wonder if Carl Erik’s game doesn’t play itself out to the end.

Near the end of the story, Nors makes her way back to that bed, to Annelise sitting on the edge, watching the sleeping Carl Erik. Annelise studies his hand, deconstructs its fuction, and eventually, we see where all this flashbacking has led us: This all takes place soon after Carl Erik struck Annelise (with the titular chop, we guess, though the word karate is never use) and then forced himself on her in a violent, bloody haze.

I don’t want to say anything else about this story, at least not where it goes, but did want to note this revelation, what we find out about Annelise on this fateful night. It’s perhaps what makes this the title story, the stakes so much higher than in the previous stories I read, the action more defined (and ugly). It’s a powerful story about abuse, mixed inside Nors’ interiority, making for an interesting and stark combination.

Today was my first run-in with Dorthe Nors and her work, and it was a good experience. The pieces in Karate Chop feels particularly European, somehow. Maybe it’s their lack of traditional plotting—Freytag took this one off—and deeply philosophical treatments. That’s okay, though, as I dig that kind of thing, my own college forays into Sarte and Camus at least allowing me to recognize when someone’s smarter than I am and still make me enjoy what they have to say. All this and the Cubs are now playing, up 8-2. Not a bad day.

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