Girls Against God, the latest novel from Norwegian writer and musician Jenny Hval, came out earlier this month with Verso Books. Translated by Marjam Idriss, the novel blends experimental horror, feminist theory, and reflections on magic, music, and art. In the excerpt below, the protagonist describes her first meeting with the women who will become her band members.
The word BAND is quite similar to the word BOND. Have you thought about that? A band is a bond between people. A band can emerge unexpectedly, when you talk or suddenly say the same things, or mention the same references. You harmonize in conversation, create rhythm. That’s the beginning. We can dive into that beat; the beat is more alive than we are. Our hearts might stop beating in the end, but the pulse of that heartbeat will continue to symbolize time, breath, life, even after we’re gone. It’s that simple. All we can do to feel alive is to dive into the beat, take part in it. Some might call it dancing, but the beat doesn’t necessarily build up to something regular; it’s changeable, and we let go and follow it, it’s there, a shadow cast both by ourselves and by eternity, continuing to spread.
In this bond (in Norwegian the word includes the impossible letter Å, which I can now only write with an illogical character combination on my American keyboard), I can be part of something, I can be less myself and feel less trapped and dying and tucked away in my own body. My body can expand, search for others, be a part of them, become something else together, something that can live on after all the I’s are dead. When I die, I want to be part of a bond, get rolled into the bond, as though dying were stage-diving off the ledge and sensing someone there to catch you.
The magic of community, of the defeat of death and loneliness. Å, I’ve missed you.
Venke, Terese, and I are a band from the moment we meet at the exhibition opening at the Munch museum and get talking. The tone of the conversation changes abruptly from polite and introductory to witty and dynamic. We realize we can talk about the same stuff, totally relaxed and therefore at terrifying speed, without breaks; we’ve jumped into a jet stream that’s so powerful, we don’t notice that the event is over until the museum is empty and we are pushed out into the darkness through the doors.
In the days that follow the opening we continue the conversation on all the applications of the internet. We leave a chain of invisible but glittering email threads, Instagram group messages, and iMessage bubbles behind us. Even when we don’t get back to each other for a while, I can feel the stream, the energy; imagine the speech bubbles being produced. Venke calls it the phantom conversation. I call it songs.
I call it songs because we can speak openly and without fear. Our conversations always flow continuously, safe and at the same time elastic, steady like the beat of a bass drum and fleeting like cymbals and gentle percussion. Most of all, there’s a harmony, a flow of compassion that opens our currents to each other, bringing us closer together. We write and talk ourselves into each other. We become songs, together.
The first thing we talk about, right away when we meet at the exhibition, is Munch. After a while the conversation touches on one of his paintings not featured in the show, Puberty (1894–95). In this painting, a very young girl sits naked on a bed, with her arms loosely crossed over her crotch. Her body casts a big, dark shadow that hits the wall behind her. The shadow looks unnatural, as if it’s not coming from her but from something separate from her, something hanging over her.
It’s summer and peak season when I visit the National Gallery and look at this painting. There’s such a crush of people between me and the girl as I move toward her that I can only see her head, and she looks as if she were dressed. When I finally reach her, it hurts to see her naked body surrounded by the tourists’ incessant clicking and yapping—tourists with their waterproof trainers, windbreakers, and sensible backpacks crowding her bed, her shadow, and her skin. It turns the painting into pornography, an illustration of the commercial exploitation and determined conservation of paintings with naked young women as motifs, or what we call “art.”
“The band is a desire to blaspheme the beloved icons of the art institutions.”
But maybe the girl from Puberty, and all naked young women in all paintings, are actually sitting there hating. Hating the painter, hating their boring gloomy life, hating the king and the president and the bishop and the prime minister and the authors and society and their own place in it. Maybe it’s not a shadow climbing the wall behind her, but smoke from the spontaneously ignited occult fire of hatred.
I’m struck by the naive notion of taking the girl home, painting clothes on her, black clothes maybe, painting her into a new framework, as the Canadian writer Aritha van Herk does to Anna Karenina in Places Far from Ellesmere. In this book, van Herk wants to save Anna from being another woman character in literary history who’s crushed by a train, and she plucks Anna from Tolstoy’s novel and gives her a new frame, a new text. She demonstrates how literature and art can tamper with their own past, create new bonds. As far as I know, no one has tried this witchcraft on Munch and his Puberty (she doesn’t even have a name), but now I want to paint or rewrite the girl in the painting, save her, save us. Because it’s definitely just as much about me, about saving myself from the position of a contemporary subject passively accepting the narratives offered it by past art, past stories about gender, expression, hierarchy. I want to save myself from nodding in acknowledgement to Munch, to 1890, from the outside, with insight, and accepting that Puberty is the mirror art has installed for me.
Aritha van Herk refused to accept the idea that artworks are static and complete and that stories can’t be edited. She brought Anna with her, out of Anna Karenina, when she left her home in Alberta for Ellesmere, an island up north in Canada. Up there, far away from Tolstoy’s hands, in the white icescape, the geographically blank map, she could write a new story. Facing Puberty and her flickering shadow, I think about my studies in New England, about how I, too, wanted to re-create myself, to save myself from the South. But I was alone, without an Anna or Puberty; I had no art, no more ingredients. I couldn’t form any bonds, had no ability to resist new authorities or the traditions in the American university system. Here at the National Gallery in Oslo, with Venke and Terese and our electric conversation at the back of my mind, it isn’t just about getting away from our homes. It’s about finding bonds strong enough to tamper with both art history and our own history. It’s about no longer being the match girl, the one standing outside looking in at society, with insight, in the light from the little flickering flame. I’d rather use that match to ignite the occult fire of hatred.
I’ve been taught to think far too much about the autobiographical, about what could be called private or even weak in the art that rewrites other art. As if how close the “I” is to reality overshadows all other questions. Shouldn’t we rather think about the bonds that are formed, that connect us? I imagine the shadow of Puberty, the bond, stretching out toward me and embracing me, enveloping me in its flame. In this connection, art is a magical place where reality and fiction finally are just the end points, not the underlying substance, they are full stop and capital letter, comma and line break, while the place that actually emerges, that’s what’s magical.
This is what fascinates me: not writing as art, I’ve spent my whole adult life trying to understand that, never figuring out what it is, for that I’m too primitive or inadequate to understand. But writing as magic, that appeals to me, and writing as the creation of bonds and bands, that I can understand. Connect-the-dots drawings and the invisible links between them. The band is a desire to blaspheme the beloved icons of the art institutions; a desire to save and be saved, and to rewrite: the desire not to be a passive recipient.
I haven’t considered my work blasphemous since my early student days. Many years have passed since I told myself I hated God. I’ve never thought about magic. But in the days following my visit to the National Gallery, all this is woven together in my head, and on my old American keyboard I create a new document and begin to write something, a film, without a commission or a project in mind. The first thing I do is type Æ, Ø, and Å, again and again, internalizing the keyboard shortcuts as if I were playing a theme on the piano, again and again. Suddenly I’m sitting studying the old black metal clips on the bonus DVD in the Darkthrone records. Now I feel all that black returning, as if it never really left me, as if everything I’ve done to reinvent myself as mature and subtle and a natural creamy blond has been completely eradicated with a tiny click. The black metal clips make me want to start a new band, not to play music but to start to creating something here, in community, in bonds, in hatred, in the simplified complexity of swirling tree tops in black and white, in the pixelated fractals. The creation has to begin with blasphemy, the hope in hatred. I have to get back there.
In blasphemy there’s a secret pact, a desire for a community that isn’t rooted in the Christian, Southern spirit. Blasphemy protects us against the moral fables we grew up with; blasphemy renounces anything that requires our submission. It shows us a crack in this reality, through which we can pass into another, more open meeting place. Blasphemy has not forgotten where it came from; it maintains that defiance and energy. Blasphemy looks for new ways of saying we. And the band is a we, a community that happens without anyone asking. It’s an unknown communal place, an impossible place. In a place like that, we can make art magic.
From Girls Against God: A Novel by Jenny Hval and translated from the Norwegian by Marjam Idriss. Used with the permission of the publisher, Verso Books. Copyright © 2020 by Jenny Hval.