The metaphor hidden in the Garden of Eden fable is that ignorance is a blissful paradise, while eating from the tree of knowledge exposes us to the miserable rot of existence. Adam and Eve’s journey of self-discovery occupies Jo, the narrator of Paradise Rot, the debut novel by Norwegian musician Jenny Hval. A first-year student, Jo arrives in a foreign, English-speaking university town, bemused and wide-eyed, eager but vulnerable. By the time she departs, her experiences have hardened her.
The novel is set in Aybourne, a city on the sea, but otherwise isolated by a highway and a golf course. The city is criss-crossed by tram lines, and like in many former industrial communities, the historic industrial district has begun gentrifying. It is here that Jo, a student studying mycology, finds a place to live, a room in an apartment carved out of the industrial space of a former brewery. The paper-thin walls allow Jo to hear the intimate details of her roommate, Carral, a woman just slightly older than Jo, with penchants for leaving half-eaten apples around the apartment and reading pulp werewolf romance novels. During their time living together, they develop an intimate connection. Neither identifies as gay, but their intimacy takes on qualities of queer desire. That said, Carral encourages Jo, a virgin, to pursue their neighbor, Pym, though Carral eventually sleeps with him.
The appeal of Jo as narrator is her youthful eagerness. She is curious, wandering to the edge of the city on foot, and excited by adventure. We want to explore the world with her. But also she’s pleasant for the reader to spend time with, and easy to cheer for. In the opening scenes of the book, her search for an apartment endears us to her in part because she has been rejected by several landlords, because they choose to offer housing to the Canadian students over Jo. She’s the underdog, and we want to root for her.
This empathy we feel carries through the novel as Jo bumbles through her first college semester. We want her to find happiness and affection. She doesn’t know herself at all, and being placed in a foreign city adds to the feeling. At a university orientation, Jo confesses: “I suddenly knew nothing about myself, nothing seemed right in English, nothing was true.” Her admission only endears us to her even more. She’s a fish out of water. And who does know themselves? Certainly nobody during their first year at university. The sentiment of confusion stemming from identity is echoed throughout the novel as Carral pushes Jo outside of her comfort zone, as the women grow closer even while Jo questions that intimacy.
Carral and Jo grow physically close to each other. Through the paper-thin walls of their apartment, Jo listens to Carral brushing her teeth, urinating. They sleep beside each other, sometimes naked. Despite their intimacy, Jo realizes the impossibility of ever truly knowing another person, of trusting them: “Our bodies watch each other, keeping their distance. We’re like two strangers, in different rooms, at different times.” (65) There is constant conflict between this desire to understand and the impossibility of it. Jo experiments, explores, discovers, but constantly is reminded of the limits of what she can know. Even when she believes she knows Pym likes her, she finds contrary evidence.
The rot of ignorance is everywhere. As Jo searches for truth, an organic rot intrudes into the apartment. Leaks lead to mold. Spiders and insects take up residence. A mushroom sprouts. A windy storm forces the women to store their compost indoors, bins filled with Carral’s half-eaten, rotting apples, causing the flat to stink. The rot takes hold of Carral who comes down with a fever and an unexplained illness. Along these lines, the novel straddles the bounds of fantasy, muddles the distinction between naturalistic and fable. There are moments of the surreal, and the blending sometimes leaves it difficult to know if we’re seeing Jo’s imagination or are expected to acknowledge these more dreamlike elements as real.
These dreamlike landscapes are presented with lush detail. The rotten apples, covered in mold, end up with “grey-white fur like dead animals.” These kinds of scenes capture the rot, and make them stand out. But it isn’t just scenic detail driving these moments. The novel benefits from sensory details, such as the “smell of the old smokey carpet mingled with the coffee.” We are transported to these places, both the naturalistic locations, and the more magical ones.
However, at times, there is a fascination with urine that feels unexplained. In the hostel when she first arrives, Jo listens to a girl urinating, thinking it “sounded a little thick, as if warm milk milk was trickling out of her.” She listens to Carral peeing too, like “thin flowing golden ribbons,” and then later Jo finds Carral hasn’t flushed the toilet and watches herself urinating, observing the “two liquids mixing” in the bowl. Twice while in bed together, Carral loses control of her bladder covering them both with urine. The urine remains an unanswered question mark of the narrative.
The pace of the novel unfolds quickly. Short chapter breaks speed up the narrative, but also a sharp focus on a singular story thread. There is little in the way of subplot and no distracting detours. Jo navigates us through her transformation succinctly choosing highlight moments from the year. The result lacks the rambling quality of heftier novels, more masculine novels that spread themselves outward for the sake of filling up space, and leaves behind a delicate, distilled exploration of queerness, of youth.
Paradise Rot is succinct. It seduces the reader, and then rapidly moves us through the journey of the protagonist. When Jo leaves us, she is older, wiser. She leaves Paradise. She knows too much. Or maybe Paradise was never something real to begin with.
By Jenny Hval
Translated by Marjam Idriss
Published October 2, 2018
Jenny Hval is a Norwegian recording artist and writer. She released her first two albums under the alias Rockettothesky. She has since recorded four albums and one EP under her own name: Viscera, Innocence Is Kinky, Apocalypse, girl, Blood Bitch and The Long Sleep EP. She debut novel Perlebryggeriet (2009) was published in English as Paradise Rot (2018). Her other written works include Inn i ansiktet and Å hate Gud.
Ian MacAllen is the author of Red Sauce: How Italian Food Became American, forthcoming from Rowman & Littlefield in 2022. His writing has appeared in Chicago Review of Books, The Rumpus, The Offing, Electric Literature, Vol 1. Brooklyn, and elsewhere. He serves as the Deputy Editor of The Rumpus, holds an MA in English from Rutgers University, tweets @IanMacAllen and is online at IanMacAllen.com.