This Is Not a Coming Out Story: On Jenny Hval’s "Paradise Rot"
Jenny Hval | Paradise Rot | Verso Books | October 2, 2018 | 160 Pages | Translated by Marjam Idriss
On her 2013 album Innocence is Kinky Norwegian artist Jenny Hval asks, “Is there anything on me that doesn’t speak?” The eponymous track, written while Hval toured the world with her 2011 release Viscera, features drum machines and soft guitar, forming a scant, panicky terrain where Hval details the lines and limits of her body in unfamiliar lands—Australia, Brisbane, even home base Oslo. The musician gained broad notoriety from arbiters of taste like Pitchfork’s Jenn Pelly, who contextualized Hval’s 2016 release Blood Bitch within a canon of leading female intellectuals including Judy Chicago, Julia Kristeva, and Chris Kraus. Indeed, Hval’s heady craftsmanship pulls from a vast array of capital-T theory—her master’s thesis was on Kate Bush’s The Sensual World, an album inspired by James Joyce’s Ulysses—but it ultimately centers a deeply visceral feminine experience. Under Hval’s steady guidance, the body becomes “a thousand little mouths” and “a thousand baby birds,” both lines from the 2013 track. The words could have just as easily emerged from Jo, the main character in Hval’s English language debut novel Paradise Rot, out this month from Verso.
In Paradise Rot, the musician-novelist proves once again the breadth and depth of her intellectual and artistic range, articulating a young girl’s queer emergence into adult desire. Jo’s story is firmly situated in a reality just south of our own—fruit rots and expands, walls talk, and bodies taste as sound overlaps with smell and touch. We are led deep within the consciousness of Jo: a somewhat uncomfortable, awkward occupation that beckons the reader into a sensory exploration of the character’s emerging sexuality. Sensations permeate Hval’s writing as they do her music, where slippages from genre to genre and voice to voice create a polyphonic world for listener (and reader) to occupy for a minute, an hour, a day—if you have it in you. Hval’s writing, like her music, does not make for seamless reading. On her 2013 album’s title track, Hval says, “I watched people fucking on my computer… My skin starts breaking like LCD.” Hval (and Jo) lift the reader into a fantastical reality that is as contemporary—as millennial—as it is piercingly bizarre. The novel offers a unique window into girlhood from an experimental voice, marking new territory for both musician and reader.
Hval deftly avoids overwrought political arenas by focusing on Jo’s persistent, almost confessional narration. Sexuality is never explicitly discussed, and when it is referenced, the elliptical question roots itself deep within Jo’s body. One insistent fact swims through the sensorial topography of her prose: This is not a coming-out story; it is a coming-of-age story. The arc of Jo’s maturation, though, does not find itself lingering in Holden Caulfield’s duck pond. Jo March’s proposal rejection at the climax of Little Women may be more analogous—but Hval’s Jo resides in a different domain, deep within the gutters of girlhood. Jo does not “come of age” in one fell bat mitzvah swoop; instead, she journeys to and from disgust and pleasure, eventually finding, more or less, the love, passion, and understanding that hides in other people. In this way, Jo’s story does not follow a typical romantic queer plotline, which would move linearly from coming out, to marriage, and then maybe adoption. Instead, Jo’s vault into adulthood is composed of experiences, sexual and not, that center on the learning of an individual body to like what it likes—nothing more and nothing less.
Jo’s growth rests in her relationship to sex that, unsurprisingly for Hval, is also the narrator’s relationship to her own senses. In an interview with The Arts Desk in 2009, Hval said, “I want to see the body differently—as a space, a pioneer territory, something surprising and eye-opening.” For no one is this statement truer than for the teenage girl. With keen focus, Hval transmutes the facts and figures of late adolescence into a beautifully alien vista. The effect is both intimate and estranging. In an early episode, Jo gets cat-called on the street by a man who makes a lewd gesture, mistaking her for a prostitute. Jo’s description of the scene levitates away from the streets of Aybourne. As she says, “[Nothing] helps: Inside me the boy continues to put his index finger through his hand… as if he is poking it inside my body.” Trauma is not earth-shattering; in fact, it is worse—trauma is quotidian. The banality of Jo’s experience is dwarfed by her emotions about the event, manifesting in her imagination long after the “cat-call.” It is isolating—mostly. In one instance, a man exposing himself on a bus to every passenger allows Jo to feel a rare appreciation of acceptance and fellowship, a communal repulsion from sex that, for a moment, makes her less alone. Moments like these demonstrate Hval’s unique ability to gaze upon late adolescence with an unusual complexity, evoking the discomfort of growing up while allowing an intricate sense of belonging to begin to form.
Like Hval’s music, the novel defies genre, negotiating a space in between fantasy and reality, driven principally by the highly specific internal life of a young female narrator. As Jo settles into her life, her home in Aybourne quickly develops supernatural qualities. Jo’s roommate-crush, Carral, lets apples rot and insects invade the apartment, inciting unique permutations of objects and emotions. As Jo bites into a fried egg, she says, “The yolk burst under my tongue, and I imagined it was her skin I was tasting.” This rich description of highly specific sensorial overlap persists throughout the novel. Soon, the environment gives way to Jo’s blooming awareness of her own body, as she starts to grow more attuned to her own desire. The outside world originally invaded Jo’s thoughts, prodding her perceptions and dominating her daily life. However, in an apartment with a female love interest, emergent desire seems to create different, unfamiliar sensations. After discovering a newfound intimacy with Carral, Jo describes, “There’s a rush through me, her stalks and fingers and veins spread through my entire body like a new soft skeleton.” Her voice gives way to description of sweet fruit and long trees, things she can touch and smell. This may be the greatest gift from Hval in Paradise Rot: the idea that sex and love restructure the way our senses work. In a short 140-odd pages, Hval manages to suggest that queer, honest, desire births strange and wonderful relationships not only to other people, but also to all the tastes and textures of our landscape.
Over sparse drumming, Hval’s voice echoes through her 2016 track, “Period Piece”: “I must find some kind of art form that calls my tongue from underground.” In her novel, Hval articulates on paper the aural and bodily entanglement she sets forth in her music. What Hval loses in books—the silent medium—she makes up for in a wildly imaginative portrait of a young woman colliding with the world for the first time. Intimacy and alienation create the very substance of Jo’s experience, where, under her eye, ordinary objects like apples (or urine) take on beautiful, dreamlike, and even horrific attributes. Sexuality is refreshingly subservient to Jo’s individual preferences and relationships, untethered from now-tired articulations of social pressure to be cis-het-whatever.
Is writing fiction Hval’s way of calling her tongue from the underground? Maybe, but somehow it seems that Hval’s answer is more complicated than any single medium. In her world—and, for a novel or two, ours as well—bodies sing and shudder before a universe of desire, of the possibilities of desire. Hval’s search for the art form is one we should be more than happy to accompany, waiting patiently while she leads us through the magnificent caverns between sight, smell, and sound.