Dorthe Nors is an acclaimed author of five novels in her native Denmark, but until now only a smattering of her stories have been published in the United States. Now, with the release of her first book in English, she is poised to garner a wider readership. “Karate Chop” is a collection of brittle, blackly comic and quietly explosive stories that provide snapshots of modern Danish life and home in at daring angles to highlight the quirks, agonies and vulnerabilities of the human condition.
A caveat: Nors’ short stories are short. Most amount to five or six pages. No sooner have we got a handle on a character and his aims or thoughts or dilemmas than the tale is over. However, wafer-thin need not mean insubstantial. “Short, fast, hard-hitting,” Nors has said on explaining her choice of title. The result reads like a master class in compression, precision and economy of language.
The longest story, “The Buddhist,” traces the arc of a bureaucrat’s professional life and the extent of his beliefs before blending in a murky fantasy that incorporates a jerrycan of gasoline, a lighter and a gagged and bound female board member. In “The Winter Garden,” a boy sees his divorced father in a new light — stripped of his previous perfection, now clad in ordinariness. And in “Female Killers,” a husband trawls the Internet while his wife sleeps and finds himself drawn to grim Web pages about a highway hooker who killed her customers and a child-murdering woman called the Angel Maker.
These three stories are representative of Nors’ approach. Rather than plumb depths of emotion, she skates across surfaces, allowing cracks to form and disquiet to seep in. Violence is never far away, either alluded to, as in “Do You Know Jussi?,” or openly displayed (“Karate Chop”). Dogs roam the pages, one of them sniffing out a suitcase of body parts (“The Heron”), another unable to bark due to its owner’s habit of feeding it her medication (“Hair Salon”), and others pumped with lead when too old or sick to hunt (“Mutual Destruction”).
Only a few stories fail to enthrall: A couple are so short they resemble mere character sketches, and “The Big Tomato,” set in the Big Apple, gives us a literal title and a new location but nothing more.
The weaker tales are overshadowed by the many stronger ones. Almost all are steered by quirky, predominantly female characters, the frail and the gutsy. There are women here who frequent graveyards, who wrestle with depression or mismatched lovers, or who possess vivid, at times dangerous, creative powers.
One character, we hear, “opens doors in the mind.” Nors does, too, throughout these stories, unsettling and entertaining in equal measure.
Malcolm Forbes has written for the Times Literary Supplement, the Economist and the Daily Beast. Born in Edinburgh, he lives in Berlin.