The Room: An Extract From The New Novel By Jenny Hval

Norwegian singer-songwriter Jenny Hval follows her acclaimed debut novel Paradise Rot with Girls Against God, a "fugue-like feminist manifesto" wrapped up in a story about Norway in the 90s

Author portrait by Baard Henriksen

Let’s zoom out now.

We’re in a long hallway with grey and green walls. Fluorescent lights flicker on and off in the ceiling, the paint is peeling off the walls and the floor is covered with a fine layer of dust that shimmers in the flickering light. You can hear the sound of footsteps, but only a faint echo, as if we’ve got lost on the abandoned set of an old social-realist film. Not just the paint, but the realism, too, peels off in large flakes.

We’re in a world where only impressions are real, and the original sounds belonging to the film left the premises a long time ago. Here and now have been rubbed out, or don’t exist for us.

This is where I want to write, in an impossible place, a place that no longer exists. In the void left after films made as early as 1969 (Daisies), and 1974 (Penda’s Fen), and 1976 (Jubilee) . . . The empty studios still exist. Let’s go there. Maybe there’ll be other traces here, too, that no one cares about, that no one sees, that are impossible, in the margins of the film, in the perforated edges of the frames, in cut scenes, bonus material.

I want to start my own film here, in these remnants. I want to feel the moments where realism was dissolved, be part of the scenes in which unbreakable rules for narratives were broken as if it were the most natural thing in the world. I want to be where they unearthed the subtle and the sublime from the primitive.

The films I’m talking about reveal the gaps in our own consciousness, the restrictive framework of our daily lives. They also show me the holes in art’s paradigms of good and bad, which are just as mysterious and hierarchical as the southern evangelist norms. These films remind me of hatred, and make me value hatred, this feeling I’ve been told to put away by the South, God and the University, which also told me to ‘open my heart,’ or ‘show, don’t tell,’ or be more subtle. They don’t screen Daisies, Penda’s Fen or Jubilee in the film classes I take at university, first in Oslo and then in New England. In the film classes, we’re taught that Citizen Kane is the best film in the world, followed by everything that Tarkovsky and Bergman made. We’re not taught about the underground. We’re taught that it isn’t good to be primitive and paint with too thick a brush. We’re not even taught what a thick brush is. During my film studies, when I hear a teacher praise the visual motif ‘plastic bag floating in the wind’ in the ‘masterpiece’ American Beauty for the third time, I feel that brush, that hatred, stir in my throat and I daydream that my mouth opens and all that’s thick and black comes out, not to empty me, but to paint the entire canvas black, paint over the whole plastic bag scene in American Beauty, paint over every movie poster and every DVD copy of the film, every Orson Welles film and why not Tarkovsky and Bergman too while we’re at it, all of it, totally black, Stalker and Wild Strawberries and all that crap, get rid of the canon, bring in monochrome, a room full of formless black components. Hatred isn’t subtle, but it’s beautiful. Hatred is my pleasure dome.

Maybe Nicolas Roeg managed something that’s simultaneously subtle and challenging when he made Insignificance. In that film, made in the mid-eighties but set in the fifties, a series of characters meet in a hotel and act out philosophical and political issues of the postwar era. The characters are fictional, but the spitting image of fifties icons: a movie star looks like Marilyn Monroe but isn’t her, a professor looks like but isn’t Albert Einstein, a senator resembles but isn’t Joseph McCarthy, and a baseball player isn’t, but looks like, Joe DiMaggio. That they are fictional copies of real people seems at first disruptive and artificial, since they look like representations of Marilyn Monroe and so on, as seen in other films. Then that impression fades, and the gap between film and reality grows increasingly complex. The characters mimic the icons but act out completely fictional scenes in which Almost-Einstein and Almost-Monroe test out each other’s roles, and she retells the relativity theory with children’s toys, a flashlight and balloons. When it all ends with the hotel room exploding, all resemblance to reality crumbles. This wasn’t an event that really happened. It doesn’t necessarily have anything to do with the plot of the film, either, aside from the time of the explosion, 08.15, the same time that the atom bomb was dropped over Hiroshima. It turns into an aesthetic feast, as toys, balloons, a flashlight and Almost-Marilyn’s body are dismembered, scorched, and liquefied. The film’s structure has managed to accommodate another disjointed footnote, another almost-character, Almost–Little Boy.

What explodes is primarily fictional. The film’s plot has unfolded in a hotel room built in a film studio. A hotel room is a sort of illusory, temporary home, perhaps in the same way that the film and the film studio are a temporary home to the production of an illusory reality. When the illusion-space is blown up and the room pulverised and drizzled in front of the camera in slow motion, it’s as if the film has blown the roof off the entire history of film. The illusory construction, the one that tells us we should foster real feelings for something that looks like reality but isn’t, is pulled apart. Little bits of wood and metal, pillow feathers, clothing fibres, flesh, drops of blood and bits of intestines float around the room in slow motion and find new places there, like food morsels about to congeal in aspic.

Maybe the film, with this blast, also expresses a primitive desire to transform reality into fiction. Not like the blockbuster films that transform death and violence into something beautiful in the service of a Crusader politics that romanticises war, but the opposite. Here the blast is something fictional and insignificant. Perhaps Nicolas Roeg is asking, could we have blown up something fictional instead of Hiroshima and Nagasaki? If what we blew up had been fictional and the bomb also fictional, no lives would have been lost. The explosion would have had exactly the same significance to the world as the snow globe that tumbles from of the hand of the dying man in Citizen Kane. It would have been historically insignificant.

Could we turn back time and blast fictional Japanese cities instead of real ones? asks Insignificance. Could we live out our fantasies without needing to cross the line to where real people have to die? Is the problem actually our perception of reality and the cap it puts on imaginative expression? Can art’s insignificant explosions blast our illusions to bits?

This is the space I want to write in, the blasted hotel room, in the long echo that follows the moment the illusion is shattered, as everything that mimics what we’ve been taught to call reality is ripped to shreds and drizzles down around us.

Girls Against God by Jenny Hval (translated by Marjam Idriss) is published by Verso Books

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