Mirror, Shoulder, Signal by Dorthe Nors

Mirror, Shoulder, Signal: A Novel BY Dorthe Nors. Graywolf Press. Paperback, 192 pages. $16.
The cover of Mirror, Shoulder, Signal: A Novel

The women in Dorthe Nors’s books are perpetually adrift. Approaching middle age, often coming off breakups, unhappy in their work, they fit in neither in the urban bustle of Copenhagen, where they’ve spent the majority of their adult lives, nor in the rural Jutland of their childhoods. They lack a center, don’t know how to regain their equilibrium. And so they wander around the city, attending to the minutiae of daily life, reminiscing about their past, and reflecting on a desire for a more fulfilling existence they don’t know how to achieve.

Such a setup can naturally lend itself to either the comic or to a more melancholy cast. In 2016, Graywolf Press brought out a collection of two of Nors’s novellas under the title So Much for That Winter, a volume that, following the imprint’s earlier publication of Nors’s story collection Karate Chop, established the fast-rising Danish writer in the US literary consciousness. The first novella in So Much, “Minna Needs Rehearsal Space,” unfolds as a long series of declarative statements that read like a list of status updates from a bygone version of Facebook. These statements track the wanderings of the eponymous heroine, a composer, as she searches for the eponymous rehearsal space, ducks friends and family members, and attempts to write a “paper sonata.” The accumulation and odd juxtapositions of sentences bring a comedic, absurdist note to her wanderings, a note sustained until the surprising darkly comic ending. The shorter “Days,” by contrast, takes on a searching, more downcast tone in exploring its heroine’s life, unfolding as a series of lists charting her activities and thoughts throughout a given day.

In Mirror, Shoulder, Signal, Nors’s first full-length novel to appear in English, she mixes both the comic and the melancholic mode found in her earlier work. Sonja Hansen, a translator of Swedish crime novels who is in her early forties and lives in Copenhagen, suffers from a bout of positional vertigo, which causes her to be overcome by dizziness at random moments. The affliction, which, meaningfully, is a family inheritance, crops up at the most inconvenient times, reminding her of her symbolic lack of bearing in the world. The book’s narrative, such as it is, involves Sonja’s efforts to get her driver’s license, a task she despairs of ever completing. As with Minna’s fruitless search for rehearsal space, the quest for her driver’s license comes to represent Sonja’s larger dissatisfactions and the possibility that she may never overcome them.

These dissatisfactions are multiple—professional, familial, romantic—but they all revolve around larger issues of identity and how a person should be in the world. Late in the book, Sonja, in one of her musings, concludes: “The spirit of the times demands one thing of us. . . . Other people demand a second thing, and we ourselves something entirely different. If you’re not careful, you stop getting it all to fit together, and then suddenly you’re a helpless piece of meat trying to catch up to your driving instructor.” Sonja has long ago stopped being able to fit the pieces of her life together—this is her acknowledgment of the ways in which she is constantly being pulled in different directions and unable to prevent it. Hers is a problem of too much consciousness and too little willpower.

Nors explores this scrambling through her close attention to Sonja’s process of mental association. Although the book is written in the third person, Nors lets us in on Sonja’s thoughts in a series of reflective passages that alternate with descriptions of the character’s direct interactions with the world. In one such passage, Nors writes:

I’ve got an unfortunate tendency to love men who can’t really see me, Sonja thinks. They can’t see me, but I’m such a fighter, Mom says. She says I can make anything happen. Yet “I can’t make you love me,” Sonja thinks, and then she can’t remember who it was who sang that song. She has to dig her phone out of her shorts pocket. She does a quick search for info. Bonnie Raitt, bingo, but now Sonja’s forgotten: what was she just thinking? She can’t find her way back, it’s sealed itself off, and the rainwater slides along the asphalt in waves. It won’t be long before the rats arrive, she thinks.

In passages like this, Nors skillfully enacts the way most of us think: choppily and with frequent interruptions. Sonja starts with a series of rather mundane worries about her romantic tendencies, which leads her to reflect on her relationship with her mother. Then, in a comic turn, she suddenly thinks of a line from a Bonnie Raitt song and, having to stop and look it up, loses her train of thought. From here, Sonja’s musings turn vaguely apocalyptic, her vision of a swarm of rats continuing until she eventually pictures the unwanted rodents drowning, and she can at last shut off her thoughts. From the reflective to the comic to the portentous in a matter of seconds, Sonja’s thoughts contain worlds.

As the novel progresses, these thoughts increasingly concern themselves with the rural Jutland town where she grew up, a place where she never exactly fit in, but which she continually yearns for. As she walks through Copenhagen, a glimpse of a specific person or of a bit of urban nature will remind her of a scene from her childhood and Nors will oblige us with an extended glimpse into Sonja’s past. These moments are, by turns, wistful or comic, and every bit as vivid for Sonja as her present day surroundings. But as Sonja realizes late in the book, “The place you come from is a place you can never return to. It no longer exists, Sonja thinks, trying to swallow the lump in her throat, and you yourself have become a stranger.

This sense of being a stranger, of not only failing to connect with people but with the dumb objects around her, finds its most pronounced expression in the several scenes that depict her driving lessons. “The car as mechanism is hard for her to fathom,” Nors tells us on the novel’s second page, setting the stage for the fraught interactions between woman and machine that follow. The driving scenes, in which Sonja goes out in the practice car first with a foul-mouthed fellow Jutlander, and then with a lightly lecherous middle-aged man, though, largely unfold as sustained comic set pieces, as Sonja’s lack of confidence contrasts sharply with the different kinds of brashness exhibited by her two instructors. The scenes with the first instructor, Jytte, in particular, are rich comic inventions, as that woman’s repeated outbursts startle the reader in their brazenness as much as they do Sonja, while also signaling Sonja’s disconnect from the larger world. In one scene, for example, Jytte’s husband calls her while Sonja is driving, demanding to know where the remote is. Balancing her phone conversation and her duties as an instructor, Jytte lets out the following word stream: “IT’S IN THE BASKET. YEAH, THE BASKET BESIDE THE—trite, signal, signal goddammit, turleff, slowly, slowly!— . . . PORK RIB ROAST, I THINK” with “trite” and “turleff” standing as slangily contracted versions of “turn right” and “turn left.”

Apart from their comic pleasures, the driving lessons serve a similar purpose to the eponymous quest in “Minna Needs Rehearsal Space” and the changing seasons in “Days.” They represent both an organizing principal for the work and a larger central symbol that flirts with reductiveness. By asking us to see, for example, Minna’s doomed search or Sonja’s seemingly hopeless lessons as representative of these characters’ larger existential quests as well as their sense of failure in the world, it is almost as if Nors is being too obvious, challenging the audience to take the bait. But if these metaphors are a tad simplistic, then the rest of the works are pleasingly complicated, offering up a sophisticated web of thoughts and meanings that belie the simplicity of the more obvious symbolism.

In the case of the driving scenes in Mirror, it is largely Nors’s light touch that ensures the symbolism goes down easy. In this way, the author distracts from the metaphorical implications of the lessons while still reaping the benefits of that metaphor. In the end, it’s Nors’s willingness to trade in the gently comedic, while still taking Sonja’s larger questing seriously, that makes Mirror, Shoulder, Signal such a complicated, and ultimately successful, balancing act.

Andrew Schenker is a New York–based writer and an MFA candidate at Bennington College.