Jenny Hval is best known as an avant-garde musician who blends the political and the personal in her music. Paradise Rot is her first book translated into English (it was originally published in Norway in 2009). Icelandic musician Bjork gets a passing reference in the novel, and all through reading it, the lyrics to ‘Birthday’ by the Sugarcubes kept coming to mind. After a while, I gave in and listened to the song—the spiders and flies, the creepy sexuality—it makes the perfect accompanying soundtrack to reading Hval. Of course, you could skip the Sugarcubes and listen to Hval instead. She challenges gender conventions and plays with humour and ambiguity to create songs that are more dream-like than Earth-bound. Hval’s lyrics centre on feminism, women’s bodies and queer desire. She skewers capitalism and social decay in her songs. In The New Yorker, Anwen Crawford describes her music as “a kind of experimental folk music, which resists the rhythmic and melodic efficiencies…of chart pop in favour of something slower and more irregular, with few hooks or choruses”. Her live shows are known for slipping into performance art, flaunting elaborate costumes and fake blood. She carries this same self-conscious flamboyance across into her writing.
Hval’s slim novel, coming in at just under 150 pages, follows Djaoanna (Jo)—a somewhat naïve Norwegian student—in her overseas move to the fictional town of Aybourne. Jo is in the drab English town to attend university. Her field is biology which she likes to think of as “the study of the living”. Her special interest is myocology—the study of fungi—a specialty that proves resonant as the novel unfolds.
Jo’s story starts out conventionally enough; she arrives at a hostel full of international students, begins to orient herself to the town, and makes a laboured shift to speaking in English over Norwegian. After a tedious search for share accommodation, Jo moves in with local girl, Carral. Terminally-sleepy Carral reads trashy romance novels and watches the television show ‘Charmed’.
Their share house is an old factory—a former brewery—and is barely habitable. It has been converted for living in, but has little natural light, blank walls and is covered in dust and damp. The ‘rooms’ are divided by thin particle board walls that do not reach the ceiling. Sound travels through the factory, leaving no privacy between Jo and her flatmate. This forces shared intimacy between the two women.
I lay awake in my new bed and listened to Carral leaf through the pages of a book. I heard her fingers scrape the rough paper, the spine creak and the binding tighten…in almost imperceptible noises at night I imagined hearing the hint of her curls falling over her cheek as she turned.
Carral describes their makeshift home as a ‘theatre set’, and as their life together descends into the surreal, it becomes a stage for dramatic acts.
Hval’s musical fascination with bodies and desire are further fetishised in Paradise Rot. She is intrigued by permeable boundaries; literal and figurative. Hval dissolves the border between humans and other organic matter, stripping bodies clean of pristine otherness and returning them to the earth. Jo says: “…my dreams are full of apples, and in the dark my body slowly transforms into fruit: tonsils shrinking to seeds and lungs to cores. I dream of white flowers blossoming under my nails, as if under ice.”
Hval dissects women’s bodies and re-forms them into grotesque blossoming meat. Jo dreams of Adam and Eve, “the apple rolled in between Eve’s legs, scratched open her flesh and burrowed into her crotch…bite marks facing out”. This feminist reclamation of ‘vagina dentata’ subverts the view of women’s sexuality as being dangerous to men.
The novel leans hard on the biblical story of original sin, hence the title. When the women bring home a large bag of apples—more than they can possibly consume—the apple juice drips and sticks, and the discarded cores start to decay. This imagery is reminiscent of the rotting fruit in Sarah Schmidt’s See What I Have Done. Just swap the apples for pears. Schmidt’s execution is more stylish and controlled than Hval’s. In fact, Hval’s allegory of Eve’s ejection from paradise is as delicate as a sledge-hammer.
Jo describes their factory home as a “rotten, reeking Garden of Eden”. As the weather in the town of Aybourne cools down, the factory generates its own micro-climate. It becomes humid and moist, a petri dish of sprouting mould and fungi. Hval creates a stinking, claustrophobic environment: their bodies are “clammy”, rooms are covered with “a thin white layer of moss”, the stairs are “damp and slippery”, and their home is full of “the stench of rotten fruit”, “white spiders” and “crawling maggots”. Both the outside climate and reality are kept at bay by the thin walls of the former brewery.
Jo and Carral are suspended in this fecund microcosm and their relationship morphs into a sexual one. The factory becomes host to a fugue state of erotic discovery. It is a psychosexual awakening for Jo as she is pulled towards queer desire. Hval plucks the taut line between desire and repulsion. To be queer is to be marked as perverse and unnatural. For many, it is laden with shame and denial. Jo is torn between lust and resistance. She is caught in a hard crush, but retains enough rationality to be wary of her strange, somnambulant flatmate.
As the boundaries between the women disintegrate, even their corporeal selves begin to merge. Hval relishes in describing bodily viscera; she steeps her characters in blood and piss. Jo describes Carral “twisting and tangling around my spine…there’s a rush through me, her stalks and fingers and veins spread through my entire body like a new soft skeleton”. When the women’s male neighbour, Pym, interrupts their dream world, a ménage a trois develops between the three. This heady brew of jealousy and fluid sexuality cannot end well. Like the female black widow spider eating its mate after sex, Pym’s fate is to be consumed in this tryst. Jo describes “Carral’s body opening and devouring him, slipping over his body and covering it like a thick, soft dress”. Hval doesn’t bother to make Pym anything more than a light sketch as a character. The women discard him like just another apple core.
It is tempting to call this a coming-of-age story, but it isn’t really. Typically, you might expect a protagonist to experience a rite of passage that delivers her into a state of certainty, of resolution. While Jo’s experience is transformational, she is spat out at the conclusion of the novel changed but confused about her sojourn in Carral’s world. Was it all a dream? Where rites of passage are marked by ceremony, Jo’s departure from paradise is unceremonious and ethereal. In this, Hval has struck perhaps a truer depiction of life’s trajectory; one that is looping and smudged, not neat and linear. Jo’s is the anti-hero’s journey.
The strength in Hval’s writing is in her lush imagery. Her lurid descriptions of bodies and decomposing organic matter are both gorgeous and revolting, and she convincingly blurs the boundaries of reality and fantasy. There are nods to fairy tales and horror in the novel but it doesn’t fit neatly into either category. While there are some delicious passages of prose, the reader has to swallow so many layers of metaphor that indigestion belches the emotional guts out of the novel.
In Paradise Rot, Hval has conjured a provocative and decomposing world, one that is dripping wet and swollen. Think of Jo as a hallucinatory sexed-up Alice in a queer, queer Wonderland, lightly snacking on the psychedelic mushrooms described in her myocology textbooks, with one hand down her pants. While not completely satisfying as a work of literature, it’s a mostly pleasurable trip down the rabbit hole.
Justine Hyde is a library director, writer and critic living in Melbourne.