Dorthe Nors Invents the Fiction of Listicles

1. Can you make compelling fiction out of a listicle? 2. Yes.

Dorthe Nors’ fiction mixes a dark-humored wisdom with gleams of pain. Along these lines, Karate Chop, her collection of stories from 2014, was one of wisest, funniest, and most painful books of that year. When I read it, I had never heard of Nors, but because of its emotional capaciousness and speed — her stories come quick and leave a mark (as the title of book describes) — I’ve been waiting to hear from her ever since.

Many late arrivals will come to Nors’ new collection, So Much for That Winter — a two-pack of internet-damaged novellas — to espy the uses and abuses of their digital forms. Nors is plainly taking on the tight emotional space of the digital and attempting to do what she always does: zap it with lightning to make it grow bigger. The first novella, titled “Minna Needs Rehearsal Space,” is written in “headlines.” I’ll confess now that I don’t entirely understand what that means, but the single line units that form the story resemble something like blog titles or status updates. In their declarative nature, too, they resist description (in a way not unlike the sentences and stories of Diane Williams), but it helps that the protagonist, Minna, has a coherent inner life, and that minor characters emerge. The story — I don’t want to summarize it to death — begins with her search for rehearsal space (“Minna is a composer.”), continues through her breakup with Lars (“Lars writes, I think we should stop seeing each other.”). Later she meets new friends and lovers, wonders about her family life, reads the books of Ingmar Bergman — in short, a Norsian world unfolds in a flash, and Minna deals with the fallout.

So Much for That Winter is pressurized by online life and its formatting. Still, on the subject of digital technology and books, Nors is characteristically unsparing and hilarious. In a 2014 interview with The Paris Review, she made it clear that complaining about the effects of digital change on readers and writers is for crybabies:

They’re all scared of digitalization. They think it’s going to kill everything, but of course it won’t. That’s bullshit. People have always told stories. Writers just need to find a way to express their stories in the new language. That’s why I tried to write a whole book only in headlines, because that’s how we communicate now. You’ve got to get with the times and find a way to be creative with this, instead of crying in a corner.

It’s the second, succinctly-titled novella, “Days,” that opened my eyes to the radicality of what Nors is doing. And though it also resists summary, I can just tell you that the novella’s protagonist is organizing her life in listicle form — or, rather, format. Nors modulates it to weird (and, again, humorous) effect:

    1. Pondered what it means to be happy.
    2. Decided to test what would happen if I were happy.
    3. really happy
    4. Was afraid to be disappointed.
    5. Cleaned the fridge,
    6. Thought about what he’d written
    7. and kept returning to the word self-confidence, wrote that down too,
    8. wrote it down again
    9. and went to the supermarket.
    10. Took in the bottle of wine the neighbor had placed on my mat:
    11. Excuse the noise, Love, Majbritt, it said: so that’s her name, I thought,
    12. and set the bottle atop the fridge
    13. moved it under the sink,
    14. I’ll drink it for Pentecost,
    15. for Pentecost when I’m happy,
    16. really happy

This isn’t really a full-on critique of the emotional limitations of BuzzFeed listicles, even if there is some of that here. (Just imagine an image of a “really happy” person between 2. and 3.) It’s more about how meaning can emerge from a new, compressed form of expression, or how self-confidence can, by the end of a listicle, become its opposite. “That’s how we communicate now,” Nors says. I’m not going to cry about it.