:: Article

The Destruction Myth: Jenny Hval’s ‘Paradise Rot’

By Mollie Pyne.

Paradise Rot review

Jenny Hval, Paradise Rot, translated by Marjam Idriss (Verso Books, 2018)

Norwegian musician and artist Jenny Hval’s debut novel, Paradise Rot, published by Verso Books, is a trip. It’s acid(ic), unsettling and luminescent—teetering the fine line that separates psychedelia and paranoia, often slipping into the latter (for me anyway).

There, not there, there, not there

I read the book very quickly but it consumed me more than I it. Very often it left me breathless. The writing rips apart reality—what we think we see, feel, smell, know—and places it under a microscope. Words come alive, they mingle and spark off one another, bubbling bubbling bubbling in my brain:

slippery silk slides with slime 
gets clogged—soggy
is sucked in, then sucked out
back in, becoming something else:
something moist, skinless and quiet.

My eyes widen. So grotesque yet I want more. The textured writing plays on the abject in a Kristeva-ean way, but also not quite—it’s more psychosis than psychoanalysis. Reading aloud, words stick to the roof of my mouth. sweet sap, Mycology, bulged, mushroom. My skin crawls with goosebumps. drops, seeds, beads, spores, burst. The air is claggy, My heart beats faster. porous, holes, burrowing, filling, flesh… Am I sweating? There’s an involuntary shiver. (Trigger warning for trypo and mysophobes: Paradise Rot is both a sensory/synesthetic dream and nightmare.)

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Jenny Hval is a pro at knowing how to get to you. She’s a good witch practising dark magic: performative, visual, aural and literary bewitchment. Her music is a spooky and surreal soundscape diving deep into female impulses, women’s bodies, sex and queer desire, belonging, nature, myth and monsters. It is intellectual and haunting. It leaves what Hval’s calls sense impressions.

The rhythmic breathing of her song In the Red sends my heart reeling into a pumping frenzy. The soft screeches of Mephisto In The Water and woeful moans of The Plague tap into something buried and seething under the surface: a swirl of longing, trauma, hysteria and psychic pain. How Gentle is still; Holy Land is slow, scary; This Is a Thirst is serene—and my body trembles, my eyes welling with tears. But it’s the breathy whispers:

bananas, 
thin,
skin,
subculturally lonely,
soft dick rock,
capitalist clit,
flaccid fingers

And the echoing bangs and clangs of Kingsize that remind me the most of Paradise Rot and its creepy power of getting under the skin and staying there.

As a piece of writing, Paradise Rot is, possibly, brilliant. But that’s not what I’m interested in. To read this book, one must embrace the vastness and messiness of their thoughts and perceptions—they must experience with their whole body. Hval takes simple moments, like looking at a decaying apple, taking a piss, sipping tea or holding another human form, and magnifies them, opens them up, making the reader pay attention to what is easily left at the wayside. A peripheral reject.

An apple is never just an apple,

it is a body or bodies: the core, skin (peel), (forbidden) flesh, leaking black (blood) juice. An apple is the beginning and end of this (fairy)tale. And through the senses and skin, nerves and organs of narrator Djåoanna/Johanna/little Jo—a 20 year old from Norway who has moved to the English coastal town, or maybe city, of Aybourne to study biology at university—this tale is told. It is a story of isolation, identity and navigating a sense of belonging within a new landscape. To make a home in a strange place and ask is this normal? Or better yet, is this real? Jo likes the real, that’s why she chose the study of the living.

The biologist creates the world; 
The world of biology

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W.HOUSE,

Paradise Rot is Jo’s living and decaying world. One she can’t escape. On lone walks around the winter stricken seaside town Jo follows an orbital circuit (Aybourne was beneath me, closed off in all directions, like a chest with no lid.) The hostel—her first “home”— the train, the university, the warehouse: all these new locations feel paradoxically full and empty, like, there’s a sense of solidarity and synchronicity yet total loneliness. It is a familiar heartbreak. A story I can search for, make fit in some places, but cannot fully feel the weight of:

I suddenly knew nothing about myself, nothing seemed right in English, nothing was true
(I could not align with the landscape. It reminded me, my body, of being newborn.
—Holy Land)

The warehouse—the story’s nucleus—is the vast and uncertain home Jo ends up in after numerous viewings, interviews, rejections. This is how it begins. She sees it advertised:

“ROOM AVAILABLE IN LARGE W.HOUSE. 
SHARE WITH 1 F.
.QUIET.”

There is a curiosity to find out the warehouse’s history: why construct a plasterboard apartment here? It was an old brewery that becomes a sinking ship. It’s also haunted, filled with ghosts of inhabitants new and old. Invisible life grows, moves and speaks of its own accord. I know this uneasy sense of space well. Visiting friend’s warehouses or attending a random party: the milky synthetic walls, a make-shift bathroom, old rugs thrown over walls for warmth, tripping over unexpected steps, a new treasure around every corner—lots of corners. So much space yet everyone is on top of one another. A place where even isolation is intimate.

The book shifts between inside/outside the warehouse and its occupant “1 F.” Carral Johnston. The warehouse, or factory, as it is often called, is raw and porous; the outside gets in but the inside can’t get out. Unable to purge, the warehouse becomes sick and everything turns yellow: apples, moss, Carral’s hair, sweater and skin—the yellow Carral Johnston. The book, in general, is very yellow: urine, wallpaper, yolk, a pie, a rejection note, dying grass, alcohol, a lamp, a beam of light. Supernatural yellow, toxic waste yellow, pallid yellow; fading and fading and rotting. Bitten apples turn yellow, infected with Carral’s spit; apple slits, punctured by nails, go brown like a small dark nipple in the golden skin.

 I stared at her yellow sweater, trying to see a hint of nipple under the tight-knit wool fabric. There was nothing.

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Jenny Havl

1 F. 

Yellow surrounds Carral but not like an aura, more like a lingering disease. Everything she touches stinks of yellow. She’s a slippery goldilocks with no sense of boundaries. Sticking her fingers in everything. Reading about Jo and Carral makes me itchy. Uh, it is nearly a love story. But more carnal than considerate. More affect than affection. Their intimacy makes my stomach dance and my toes curl: Jo strokes Carral, Carral pees on Jo’s leg; their shared silences that say so much; two siamese twins entangled as one four breasted creature. It is toxic yet delicious. Their bodies melting into one another. It is intense and cruel.

(I feel sick)

Carral tries to devour young and innocent Jo. She plays with her like a yo-yo: back and forth. Breathe! … Anxiety brews in my chest because I know Jo and I know Carral. I know what it is like to live off the sickness of another person, to be fascinated and repulsed by them, all the while allowing the infection to spread. They promise to make you better. But in the end, please, you gotta purge. Jo and Carral’s relationship embodies the ethical dilemmas of consumption. Consume so much that you become it (another person? thing?) and it erupts out of you leaving scattered remnants—a trail of trash. A tangled history of trauma and triggers—slowly, slowly decomposing.

But! Love or not, it is a lust story that seeks to devour heteronormative convention.

Everything she sees she understands;
Everything can be made from her hands.
His body so tight, his arms so strong,
His hair as red as fire…

…To grow together is their pursuit,
And his red flesh their forbidden fruit,
He stumbles and gasps and finally dies;
From his ashes will a four-breasted creature arise.

These are extracts from a novel written (in verse) presumably about Jo and Carral in a yellow notebook. The beginning, on the left, was written by a man (the neighbour, Pym) and the ending, on the right, was written by a woman (Carral). It transforms from a man’s paradise fantasy into a tale about the destruction of Eden and the demise of Adam—a feast of flesh. It gives Genesis’ Garden of Eden the kiss of death, although in this version the snake—what a trickster—is suspiciously missing. Storytelling is important in Paradise Rot and there are others, like Moon Lips, the fantasy fiction porno book that rarely leaves Carral’s hands, which begins “this isn’t just any romance in your hands, dear reader…”. And there’s the story of Emma, a girl from a memory Jo tells Carral who, when Jo was seven, asked her to get into her bed naked.

 

Emma said that we could get pregnant 
On the sofa cushions, a fidgety Carral in my arms,
I wondered why I’d been so scared in Emma’s bed back in year one

(a queer epiphany)

A four-breasted creature, Moon Lips, Emma, Paradise Rot. The stories leak into one another. By the end I feel as though they’ve climbed inside me—as one.

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QUIET

Paradise Rot is loud. It continues to echo through me long after I’ve put it down. Jenny Hval’s sensory sensitivity is magnificent. She writes tunnels of sound, honing in on the subtle songs of everyday life. There are outside sounds: cars, trams, raindrops, a bee. And there are sounds that settle inside a person: skin against clothes or a toilet seat, apple juice between teeth, the distant swooshing inside someone’s ear, breath. The warehouse acts as an echo chamber, everything vibrates and everything has a rhythm.

I’m programing a new heartbeat for a new home.

Confession: I re-enact several sound scenes. By going deeper into Jo’s head—her body—I hope to fall into my own. In the shower I listen to water droplets bouncing off my body, noting their change or softer quality as I lather my skin with soap. Pausing, I push my ears to hear farther—what is there to be heard beyond the traffic, or wind, or tv? Vague sonic contours. I pay closer attention to the people around me and, after some time, learn the uniquely tuned rhythms of their breathing, chewing or fidgeting. But it always puts mine out of whack. One room of people becomes a fucked up symphony of fluids and skin. I wonder if that’s why I spend so much time alone.

I have to read some pages twice—slow down—as words seem to tumble and tumble and. Mania: I see and feel so much. This was on purpose, I think… Writing in rhythm, as rhythm, through rhythm. Sentence after sentence so well crafted that I sing them in my head as words bounce against one another.

warm white glob 
Pym…Pym…Pym…
thick blood clots
drips and drips
Jo…Jo…Jo…Jo…

Jo sings too, but only in her head. And people sing to her: in dreams, at a party and at bars, through earphones. When Jo listens to music she wants to overpower and pause; volume high to push out unsettling thoughts, which, uh, doesn’t always work. Some music can only take you closer to the source of pain, like Bjork’s Vespertine album, so intimate. Music, sound and verse—poetry—form parts of this book’s soft skeleton. Paradise Rot is a re/mix of and for senses. Listen…

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The Snake

It’s Carral.

In the story the apple poisons the snake, and Eve packs her books and moves out of paradise.

Tears fall. It’s so simple: an apple.

A symbol of sin and desire to keep us in line, to keep the doctor away—(the in)sanity! Fruit of temptation, a lesson in shame and sex. Written as Golden in Greek mythology, the fruit of Discord, an embodiment of beauty, vanity, desire and dispute in the name of. The Norse Goddess Iðunn, the keeper of apples, a deity of youth and immortality with long golden hair and a promise of eternal beauty. And then there’s dear Snow White, an innocent soul and a foolish child. It’s a fairytale laced with envy and vanity, one bite of the poisoned apple and sleep beckons Snow into a glass casket: an eternal performance of Woman, Supine. Oh, of course, Alan Turing: gay, a genius. The myth of his poisonous apple is the saddest yet. Remember:

An apple is never just an apple

Paradise Rot has an abundance of abandoned apples, half-eaten and rotting. Yellow Honeygolds: Carral is the snake, the apple is the warehouse inside Carral. Pink Ladies: flesh. Bloody Ploughmans: forbidden. Each apple is a story of transformation and becoming, of desire and sex/uality. (A four-breasted creature, Moon Lips, Emma.) Hval weaves and re-forms stories, mutilating them with a deep commitment to the senses and subjectivity. Her stories grow around me and reach inside one tendril at a time, sometimes I feel her words behind my eyes or in my stomach: they wake something up; stirring something that has long laid stagnant. Paradise Rot is situated storytelling as a queer methodology for writing and rewriting (or breaking?) myth—the tales that seep throughout history—and for mapping lived experiences. It is writing against (hetero)sexed normative narrative and literary structures. Words run free, they feel from the inside. Paradise Rot is revolution through revulsion.

Jenny Hval has truly written something beautiful.

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Here, not here, here, not here

I still feel like I’m dreaming: expecting dirt between the tiles in my bathroom to start moving or waiting for an apple I’ve just bitten into to instantly rot, turn black and crumble. As I write I watch people move—in my house or at a cafe—and I see it: the sharing, touching and mingling of their bacteria and flesh and fluids. They take form in bright colours and grotesque textures, growing larger and larger and… stop! I have to look away. But it doesn’t leave me, I still feel it,

The apple has no end, just like this fairytale

growing under my skin, letters forming flesh bubbles. Spores, sex, stain, a snake, a mushroom, an apple. They want to be known.

 

 

Mollie Elizabeth Pyne

ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Mollie Elizabeth Pyne is a freelance writer and Masters student at Goldsmiths, University of London, specialising in feminist and queer theory, body studies, and literature. They are currently based in Devon. Sporadically tweets @bittter0cean.

First published in 3:AM Magazine: Tuesday, December 18th, 2018.