Slow decay: Letters on Jenny Hval’s ‘Paradise Rot’
It came up in conversation a short while ago that Verity and I were reading the same book — “Paradise Rot,” the debut novel of the Norwegian musician Jenny Hval. I asked Verity if she was interested in co-writing about Hval’s work, which is equally split between her writing and her musical projects, and would thus match our respective backgrounds in literature and music.
“Paradise Rot” is an enigmatic novel: It seems to sprawl beyond its 148 pages, extending its tendrils into all sorts of aesthetic and conceptual quandaries. Hval’s music is no less complex, both sonically and lyrically. It resists immediate comparison in no small part because of its variety. She’s capable of everything from drone metal to twangy folk, and frequently inhabits an in-between space all her own.
Additionally, Hval’s creative energies strain at the very boundaries of the media she uses: Her songs have a capital-P poetic dimension as well as a narrative and thematic thrust, and her prose writing can have the amorphous nature of her music, flitting and shifting between tropes, forms and references and sometimes just dissolving into a network of sensuality and instinct.
I think we settled on publishing a kind of longform conversation (rather than a standard essay) in part because of Hval’s insistence of working on several levels at once. It’s difficult to draw only one conclusion from her work — really, it pulls in all directions, slipping out of the critical grasp right where it seems most solidified. I think the format of correspondence allows us to explore her artistic output from many angles at once, unbounded by definite conclusions or single threads to follow. We were also inspired by the “Slow Burn” series at Yale’s Post45 collective, which takes the form of correspondence between critics grappling with complex works of art.
I’ve always loved talking to people about what I’m reading or listening to, and I almost always find that it teaches me to think of the work in a new way. For an artist like Hval, fresh perspectives and unsettledness seem uniquely suited for providing insight in a way a more linear argument wouldn’t.
Espresso Royale State Street, by the windows
I tend to salivate over structure, which has never felt like a particularly popular or pleasant obsession (albeit useful). Jack Brandon will say “Capricorn,” but I massage my individuality by calling it a sort of personal interest in world building (Jack Brandon will repeat “Capricorn”). The person I am in the School of Information is not the one wandering the English Department, and walking on the street felt different when I got my haircut. You know? The delta in those experiences is so curious. Same person, different person. There, not there.
Structure is a pretty hot take in the literary world, especially right now. We hate it. Poetry challenges prose, which is in turn challenged by prose poetry. Creative nonfiction is a thing, arguably the thing of the moment. Genre-bending is a movement. MFA programs are branding as “experimental” and “non-tracking.” Literati arranges such texts on a round table between fiction, poetry and pens. They don’t label it.
Daily Arts Desk, next to a mason jar of cranberry Red Bull
I picked up “Paradise Rot” because of its millennial bait cover design and bought it for the Chris Kraus endorsement on the back. Millennials bend genres, Chris Kraus bends genres, bending genres turn me on (so sinuous). Marketing did a precise job.
Except for the fact that “Paradise Rot” is not a genre-bender. It presents as a novel, identifying as “fiction” on the flyleaf. And it checks the boxes: written in prose, organized into chapters and arranged around a classic storyline: Girl studies abroad, is awakened sexually. Formally, Hval isn’t all that bendy. I felt like I went into “Paradise Rot” all jazzed up for a circle and got a square.
This initially effected my reading. I actively despise feeling duped, even if I’m not actually being duped (spoiler). So the first impression I got from “Paradise Rot” was that of its structural failure. The plot is honestly weak, which leaves room for the characters to shine, but their development seems both half-baked and disproportionate. (Why does the unremarkable, third-string Pym take up so much space?) For a square, it’s a pretty bad one.
Once my geometry metaphor angst wore off, though, I realized this “novel” was hitting me like a poem. While its structure fails to deliver, Hval’s language slowly and consistently designs a certain atmosphere. Her highly sensual descriptions (“my nails break, opening up like clams and in the finger flesh there are sticky little fruit pearls”) and consistent references to plant decay, moisture and general stickiness subtly adjusted my emotional thermostat. At the end of “Paradise Rot,” the environment in my brain, like the apartment that Jo and Carral share, had transformed. I was too distracted by lines and corners to notice it happening.
If Jenny Hval wanted to write a poem, she would have written a poem. If she wanted to write a piece that resisted the distinctions of prose and poetry, she would have marketed “Paradise Rot” as a genre-bender. She carefully incorporated all the necessary infrastructure to categorize “Paradise Rot” as Very Much Fiction, which is no casual effort. You don’t just “do it as a novel” for fun.
My lame brain wants the impossible — an answer — and I’m tempted to frame this novel as a structural coup d’état. Jenny Hval has written something that glaringly meets all the qualifications of a novel yet operates like a poem. It’s like a genre bending-genre bender … rather than creating something outside the system, she hijacks the system’s own machinery to unveil its categorization as construct.
My brain hurts. Write me back. Xo.
12/3/18, a bedroom in Kerrytown
I have to admit that I’m much less attuned to narrative structure than you are. While I totally agree with your assessment of the novel’s plot, most of what I got out of “Paradise Rot” was the exhilarating rush of Hval’s language, her poetics and fixations. I think every good book changes, if temporarily, the reader’s relationship with the world. Accordingly, I found myself paying closer attention to the muddy patch of leaves in the front doorway to my house, to the tangle of plants in my backyard, to the echoes of dreams as I get ready in the morning. Jo’s porousness, her inability to keep the world from her mind, translated into a sticky awareness of the world around me as I read. I became attuned to the forces of growth and decay happening around me, all the time; I felt the wind go through me like a paper bag.
That having been said, my largest complaint about the novel is that the structure didn’t let the content be as windy, as continuous, as it seemed like it wanted to be. Its pacing and especially its organization into short chapters was at odds with the subject matter and the style of the prose. Jo’s narration felt so interior and reliant on sensation that I found myself wanting the formal boundaries to dissolve, for everything to mix together like paint in a sink. Chapters truncate, and there’s no truncating decay, which is an inexorable downward (and outward) flow. Hval seems to be emulating that organic structure without committing to making her novel resemble it on the macro scale.
I might give Hval more credit for bending genre than you do, though, or at least I think she plays with genre expectations in interesting ways. Even though the novel often works like a poem, it makes sense to me why it was “done” as a novel. The promise of a plot set me up to interact with her writing differently than I might if “Paradise Rot” had been done as a long poem or a film. The novelistic “infrastructure” is a signal for the reader to experience the text a certain way: We are to assume that all of this is happening, not as a metaphor or a stand-in for something else, but literally. Poems are slippery as to their literal meaning, prose is concrete, or at least seems so. I think Hval wants her hallucinatory writing to be as concrete as she can get it, and she found that the novel was the structure for concreteness. It’s possible that this made her unwilling to experiment with the novel’s form in fear that everything would become too unbelievable, but it might have gained something from a more free-form structure and narrative logic.
The novel also seems concerned with tropes, or at least scenes that feel like tropes. I didn’t necessarily notice this the first time I read, but the novel is full of recognizable scenes and narratives. The lesbian love triangle, the overbearing, caricatured man who acts as a foil for queer womanhood, the awkward attempts to find friends at a new school. It seemed like Hval was introducing these culturally legible ideas and then not really developing or circumventing them, maybe channeling the energies of their structures for a little bit and then breaking it off. Most emblematic of this is the end of the apartment search chapter — ending the chapter with a final, deadpan rejection is so … I don’t know, “Mean Girls”? I was confused as to why this structure of feeling was placed in a novel that’s positioned somewhere between horror and erotica. It’s perhaps a testament to how strange Hval’s prose is that these scenes feel so conventional — the rest of the novel is so, so weird that anything even really resembling the plots of other novels feels like a foreign agent.
This sense of juxtaposition goes right up to what you would “call” the novel. Is this really a book that resembles another at all? I had a hard time explaining what the novel even is to people who would ask me what I was reading: it’s not really horror or erotica, only really a “queer” novel by default. I mentioned wind, but Hval’s style is more like water, and her uses of genre convention dovetail into each other hydroelectrically, propelling the plot like a series of obscure waterwheels. Coming-of-age turns into erotica turns into horror and back again, dreams turn into fables, and at the very end prose turns to poetry. It doesn’t integrate these well enough to really call it anything but a sort of bricolage, and I found myself describing it in such terms — “It’s kind of an …” “It’s sort of like …”
I just wish the novel was clear on what it’s doing. Hval seems to summon all of these genre conventions and is unsure what to do with them, preferring to let juxtapositions stand rather than developing the grand syntheses that seem just out of reach of her materials. Another artist who works with juxtaposition of tropes is David Lynch: “Twin Peaks” is similar to “Paradise Rot” in that it balances horror with another decidedly non-supernatural genre, in this case that of the soap opera. That these conventions break down entirely in the third season feels like a synthesis, or a simultaneity, of genres. It’s possible that Hval is reaching for the same kind of balanced-synthetic construction somewhere between a horror novel and lesbian erotica but isn’t always able to tap into the uncanniness that is latent in juxtaposition. Instead, everything gets stuck. The novel appropriates and twists the trope of the lesbian love triangle and then doesn’t really do anything with it, the house is alive and not alive, never a threat but always present. The forces of nature and sexuality impose on linearity and sanity but there’s no rupture point, no clean break. There, not there.
A kitchen table in suburban Connecticut
Sorry it took me nearly a month to reply ... Sorry.
This generous email of yours de-escalated my banshee-woman structure fixation about this novel, and I thank you for that. Your plastic bag feels and paint in the sink were distracting in the best way, allowing me to relax my spooky grip on the laws of form, permitting the sort of psychedelic slipping-between-words I feel Hval was going for. Fiction, not fiction. Genre, not genre. Whatever, whatever, (not in a flippant way, in an in-the-moment way), THERE, NOT THERE. I’m thawing! Look at me, groundwater permeating into the soil. What’s next? Decay?
I forayed into Hval’s music after “Paradise Rot,” looking for some foothold in understanding this slippery artist and figuring her home medium would be a logical place to start. And damn, I sort of wished I had actually started there, before the novel. Per your recommendation, I began with Viscera and very quickly realized how much easier to slip into the feeling of the thing when you don’t study it, when you don’t have this buzzing (distracting) omnipresent awareness of the technical this and that of the art. I have very little clue how to talk about music, so I tend to feel it more sensually than the things I read. Colors and images instead of nuts and bolts. Bah, the irony! I digress.
Viscera is a knife made of earth or something. Hval’s voice is so precise, in a manner that can swing from sultry-authoritative drawl (“traaaaain runnnnnning”) to the ice-serious high notes that seem to literally slice through the shoegaze-y slowcore in the middle third of “Portrait of the Young Girl as an Artist,” a track that, might I add, begins with eerie-minimalist drums and ends with flatline fuzz. Like “Paradise Rot,” it seems to take a little bit of everything, but the manner of taking is less of a grab and more like an excision. Jenny Hval is a motherfucking surgeon, and this song carries the clarity that comes from really clean edges lined up so that there’s practically no gap in between. There, not there. I wish there was a way to say “damn, that’s cold,” except “cold” is a flavor of “sexy” the way “hot” is. Maybe we should just start that little language project.
Under the chilling, sexy influence of Viscera, “Paradise Rot” reads like a sort of surgical collage. The genre conventions you mentioned — the lesbian triangle, the apartment hunting, the Pym, the ecohorror — are small in size (148 pages!), but freakishly flush in arrangement. One byte runs to other in transitions so clear they create an overall illusion of natural, despite the fact that the literal content is a series of thematic and generic juxtapositions.
I’m waiting for the day I’m excommunicated for casually pulling Rene Girard and mimetic theory into this or that conversation. Until then, Girard has a crazy fascinating theory on the trope of the monster — that monsters as we know them are cinematic sublimations of constantly vacillating tropes. In some texts, characters seem to switch roles between each other (the object of desire, the person chasing the object, etc), especially when engaged in competition or conflict. Think about those relationships where you feel like you have the power one week and are utterly powerless the next. There, not there. When these roles swap fast enough, the distinctions between the switches start to blur, and the characters in question begin to mimic and/or display characteristics of one another. Girard considers the “monster” a symbolic visualization of this phenomena, since monsters historically present all sorts of discordant elements on a single, “grotesque” body.
In more fanciful/abstract language, when one keeps switching from X to Y to Z to whatever, especially at increasing rates, you begin to lose sight of the distinctions between switches … eventually, they just look like a whole new letter altogether. The new letter, however, exhibits trace characteristics of its parent sources, and although it’s its own entity, you can’t help but slow down for a second at the recognition of these elements, remixed so unexpectedly.
Rene Girard, Jenny Hval and I are all standing around an operating table. They’re handing me scalpels and forceps as I piece together this idea that “Paradise Rot” is a sort of surgical, cinematic monster … that its constant, puzzlingly brief flip flops of theme and genre blur into a whole new animal. And, if one can stay their resistance to the unexpected consolidation of such diverse traits, the cold-sexy awe of this emerging thing. It’s like stacking the words of “there, not there” on top of each other, pictured below for fun.
Write back, thank you for your digestif words.
1/4/19, a bedroom on the west side of Ann Arbor
If I’m at all able to distract you from structure and form, you are likewise able to draw my attention away from little details and toward the bigger picture, so … thank you for redirecting my gaze from the sky to the ground. I’m unused to thinking about art in this way! I want to get to what you said about collage and monsters in a minute, but I first want to go over some details on the relationship between her writing and her music.
Speaking of form, I think when I last saw you I mentioned that music is all “content” and no “form,” and novels are somewhere in the direction of the other way around. I want to amend that statement a little bit: Form is crucial in music, but music’s structures are generally pretty plug-and-play — despite what Brahms said about the content generating the form of music, pieces are generally in two to five parts and either end up where they started or don’t. Not terribly interesting by itself. It might be more accurate to say that the form is not as constitutive of the experience of music as it is in prose, and it makes structure less interesting in music. In my view, the most important part of music is the moment-to-moment motion, the dance of it, what one might, hesitantly, call its content. In music, expectation — which gesture follows which — is (depending on who you ask) more important than the overall structure or arc of the piece.
The kind of formal play in “Paradise Rot” manifests itself first in her song lyrics, mostly through a subversion of expectation. She sings frequently, and unabashedly, about sex, and at times her lyrics seem like course-correction for euphemism-laden pop and rock music. I don’t think I can remember another time I heard a vocalist just say the word “erection” or “clitoris” the way she does, with this kind of glamourless specificity — even Kanye at his most gross is more subtle than this.
Literalness is, in this case, a pathway to raw materiality. She cleanses sex of metaphorical weight before taking it in her own, unique directions. There’s an uncomfortable closeness to her music, and it feels like what she’s singing is specific to her experience and worldview. The language isn’t vague enough for the listener to relate it to their own experience. The listener doesn’t get to identify with Hval’s music. It resists misinterpretation, halting the listener’s identification after a literal, material description of masturbation, or ugliness, or whatever.
This, in turn, leaves the listener captive in the face of Hval’s next move, which is to spin these visceral assemblages into bizarre, elliptical metaphors. “Engines In The City” opens with a no-frills description of masturbating with an electric toothbrush, and before the listener is done processing that, she unsettles the terrain further with the line “I am the engine now / I learned how to make that humming sound.” There are few inroads to understanding Hval’s writing in the conventional way: Instead, we are asked to accept it, live inside it. The following song on the album, “Blood Flight,” opens with the line “I carefully rearranged my senses / so they could have a conversation.” In my reading, this what Hval is mostly interested in: she does not narrate, she rearranges.
1/8/19, A table covered with marker drawings
I also discovered Hval’s music via “Paradise Rot,” and the book makes a lot more sense in light of it. Viscera is absolutely what the novel’s sensual and emotional world feels like to me, translated into sound: fiercely interior, porous, feminine, living-twisting.
The novel is also filled with sounds of its own — indeed, I don’t think anyone but someone with a musician’s sensitivity to sound could have convincingly written a novel like “Paradise Rot.” Sound is Jo’s medium of experience, so to speak — the strange greenhouse-like apartment is a sonic space as much as a physical one. She hears the ripples on the surface of a carton of milk, experiences a dream as “a long, dark stairway of resonance I fell down,” hears Carral shifting under the covers from across the warehouse. The novel often makes more sense musically than it does narratively — music both classical and popular is familiar by now with collage.
Hval’s music frequently situates her voice and recognizable instruments in a world of echoing bells, sul ponticello strings, echoing rumbles. She included “Engines In The City” on a playlist of her music that she compiled in reference to “Paradise Rot,” and I can’t think of a better song to capture Hval’s approach. “Engines In The City” opens with a wide-open landscape of bells and gongs. The almost naturalistic “echoing resonance” surrounds Hval’s scalpel voice — Jo stands in the middle of the terrarium.
I think the greatest insight that I can get from Viscera about “Paradise Rot” is how Hval essentially lives in two worlds — one of the real, conventional world, and one of the bottomless recesses of the mind and the supernatural. The former is where songs like “A Silver Fox” live, the land of acoustic guitars and biology classes. The latter is where songs like “Portrait Of The Young Girl As An Artist” live, the land covered by water at the end of “Paradise Rot.” I said before that her novel partially fails to be as weird as it could be, but it’s also possible that this sense of duality, the strangeness bubbling underneath the surface of a rather straightforward and even trope-y narrative, is actually what Hval was looking for all along.
This leads me to your point about the novel operating as one large Girardian monster. For Girard, it’s the indistinguishability of the roles that creates the trope of the “monster,” but I think for Hval her sources and references are as discrete as samples. I think the Girardian monster of the novel appears at the very end: Hval’s dissolution of boundaries creates a textual being as multiple as it is continuous, pulling the many layers of the story into an oceanic, echoey whirlwind.
Yours in decay,