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mirror, shoulder, signal

28 april 2021

As you can tell from the indexes here, I don't read much general fiction, and still less of the contemporary-realist general fiction that still constitutes a big part of publishers' lists. I'm not even sure where I learned about Dorthe Nors' Mirror, Shoulder, Signal: it wasn't in Denmark, it wasn't in The New Yorker, it wasn't the Pushkin Press catalogue or word of mouth or word of Facebook. It was probably along one of those wave fronts of Amazon recommendations that are so easy to surf you end up a long way from where you started with no idea of the intermediate steps.

I did get Mirror, Shoulder, Signal, though, and read all of it fairly quickly; and given the rate at which I discard books this is some sort of testimonial to its quality. Nors' novel offers several of the features that keep me reading a book. It has a single perspective. It unfolds in a single time sequence. When Nors introduces a character, she names that character and gives some slight hook so that you can access them in your memory when they reappear. And the characters are rather ordinary people, not celebrities or folks who have undergone extraordinary trauma or magnificent adventures.

Protagonist Sonja does know one celebrity, the Swedish crime novelist Gösta Svensson. He is fictional but there are a lot of him in real life, and getting the gig (as Sonja has) to translate his novels into Danish isn't all that remarkable a job. One imagines that most of the riders on any given Copenhagen bus have jobs writing or translating crime novels.

And Sonja's job is getting to her. The famous incongruity between peaceful, community-minded Scandinavia and its hellish-noir fiction seems to have eroded her sensibilities. She no longer finds the "ordered universe of evil" (29) that she recreates in Danish to be comforting; its body dumps and ritual tortures are starting to pall.

The title Mirror, Shoulder, Signal comes from Sonja's repeated attempts and failures to learn how to drive. She's about 40, and is originally from a farming community in Jutland, so it may seem surprising she's never learned; but even in the 2010s, less surprising for a European, especially one who's lived her whole adult life in a metro area like Copenhagen, than for an American. Sonja can't learn from the barky, impulsive Jytte, who will never let her shift gears for herself, and can't learn either from Jytte's laid-back, distracted, and handsy supervisor Folke.

Partly, Sonja's driving troubles stem from a congenital type of vertigo that disorients her at the most awkward moments. But partly they stem from her growing alienation from nearly everybody. She cannot communicate with her mother or her sister back home; they are matter-of-fact people, and Sonja leads a quirky, allusive inner verbal life that unfortunately doesn't translate well to letters or phone calls. Her only friends are a psychologist and a massage therapist whose interest in her, though genuine, is semi-clinical. There is "no one to ride to the rescue" (132) in Sonja's life; as a late-introduced but salient character puts it, "I think you're just a little lonely" (185).

Since we don't get outside Sonja's perspective (the narrative is in the third person but limited to her), we can't be quite sure whether the problem is the world or her. The all-encompassing sadism of Scandinavian crime fiction is objectively disturbing. So is car culture; so is the depopulation of farmland. Much of Mirror, Shoulder, Signal is concerned with the difficulties of making the transition from being a country kid to being a big-city intellectual, and those are real too – but surely Copenhagen must be one a kinder, gentler metro area than New York or Berlin or Tokyo to assimilate into, and Sonja has been drawn there by choice, by her love of writing and languages.

So: a novel of a kind that I don't generally like, but I liked this one well enough to want to see what happened, and to finish it. If that seems a quirky and qualified recommendation (remember too that I am a 60ish guy and the book is a younger woman's novel), it is nevertheless perhaps better than a dismissal.

Nors, Dorthe. Mirror, Shoulder, Signal. [Spejl, skulder, blink. 2016.] Translated by Misha Hoekstra. Originally published London: Pushkin, 2017. Minneapolis: Graywolf, 2017.