By Lina Wolff
Translated by Frank Perry
357 pages. Other press. $17.99.
“Ah, a good old novel,” the reader thinks as he flips through the opening pages of “Carnality.” The author, Lina Wolff, starts in a casual third-person perspective and quickly asks questions W. Who are the main characters? A 45 year old Swedish writer. What is she doing? Traveling on a writer’s allowance. When? Today, more or less. Where? Madrid. Why? To ignore the tedium of her life.
Preparations set up, we were safe for the ride. The third person narration turns into a monologue from the supporting character, which turns into a memoir in the form of letters from the third character. When an author tries and fails to get rid of this official level of magic, it feels like a dead-end on the playing field. (Startled. Not fair.) When an author succeeds, as Wolff did, it reproduces the ultimate intoxication: Suddenly anything can happen! And you want it that way!
After landing in Madrid, the woman – who was unusually named Bennedith – went to a bar and met a man named Mercuro Cano. Mercuro displays the valuable flags of the parade, all in red. He was drenched in sweat and shaking, with a fleeting glance. He undressed Bennedith and told her the story of the time he was mistreated by an evil nun with a crippled hand. He begs Bennedith to hide him “for a few days.” When she tried to leave, twice he grabbed her arm and begged.
Many would end it there, writing that Mercuro was paranoid and scary, but Bennedith texted him the next day and invited him to stay at her apartment. Bennedith, it turns out, is a woman who follows the “Yes, and…” improvisational comedy rule “Yes, and…” Like the novel she appeared in, her experiences have predictable beginnings, confusing twists and startling endings. Why make a small exchange with a random guy when you can welcome the random guy into your home, download his full horror life story, go on vacation with him, fall in love and blaspheme sin? While you’re at it, why wouldn’t another tourist dare eat a live octopus? Or walk naked across a public beach? Or steal a boat?
Perhaps Bennedith’s attraction to Mercuro stems from a common existential illness. Each was in a state of mummification and yearning for a transformative event – a miracle or a cataclysm, or activity – to bring back the flow of life. Exactly halfway through the novel, such an event takes place.
Until then, Bennedith displayed a passive attitude and acted in extremes. Usually she is spawned in jellyfish mode. Sometimes, without warning, she attacks. The concept of “boundary” is as alien to her as an iPad was to Francisco Goya or General Franco, the only two historical Spaniards whose names appear in the book. It’s impossible to read “Carnality” without imagining the twists and turns in your own life that might arise if you applied her methodology.
The book’s title comes from a game show of the same name, where volunteers reveal humiliating secrets on a live broadcast that can only be viewed on the dark web. This is where the evil nun comes in. Lucia, 93, is the inventor of the program. She takes a break from monastic life to control sadistic mediated self-disclosures ranging from adultery to phone addiction. Mercuro was one of the contestants.
Wolff is Swedish, and has published two novels and a collection of short stories, all of which have been critically acclaimed. She has translated works by César Aira, Roberto Bolaño, Gabriel García Márquez and others into Swedish. “Carnality” was originally published in 2019 and has been translated into English by Frank Perry. I don’t read Swedish, so I’m not sure how to attribute the credit to the beautiful sentences, but they abound: Snide’s comments are “little marshy airs”. Misery feels like “one’s inside is a large wet glossy silk that won’t dry even in the sun.”
Wolff has long been interested in male aggression and female sexuality, and the decline in power that occurs when a man loses his ability to be violent or a woman loses his ability to seduce. Her novels are filled with references to other texts. A character from “Multi-Conspiracy Lovers” finds a trove of Michel Houellebecq’s novels hidden in the back of a man’s bookcase. In her debut novel, a dog at a brothel is named Bret Easton Ellis. In “Carnality,” Nietzsche runs rampant.
But this novel is primarily concerned with the social category of strangers. It wouldn’t spoil the plot to say that Bennedith and Mercuro became as deeply attached to each other as possible: sex, spirit, crime and all without doing the initial cyber manipulation that is now. a condition of human interaction. By scorning this conventional digital exploration, they raise their safety and boost their excitement to the same extent.
Slyly speaking, they are also strangers to the reader. We know almost nothing about their childhood. Wolff includes several signs of caste or preference. No brand name. Do not discuss employment, education or real estate. We know very little about what Bennedith consumed, whether it was food, literature, entertainment or clothing.
Withholding these clues – negating the abbreviated preference of modern readers – is a moral intervention: Wolff wants us to know these people by their actions, not their degrees or cuts. their hair. It’s also a clever way to force us to be imaginative.