Swedish writer Lina Wolff established herself as a literary master of the carnal long before releasing her latest novel, Carnality [Köttets tid (The Time of the Flesh)], translated by Frank Perry. The English PEN Award-winning novel The Polyglot Lovers (2019), for instance, features a middle-aged Spanish man who moves between the bed of an octogenarian matriarch and the desk at which he pens a manuscript describing her ham-like rot. Upon reading this manuscript, the daughter he longed for all along squats over the pile of paper and releases a steady stream of urine. Wolff’s first critically acclaimed novel, Bret Easton Ellis and the Other Dogs (2016), is similarly attuned to the proximity of lust to violence, attraction to disgust, and youth to decay. Here and in all her other works, repressed rage finds an outlet in a weaker bystander, rather than in the one who committed the original act of violence. Sex workers feed dogs pieces of spoiled meat as a means of revenge on the patrons who abused them that night, and a maid boils her master’s beloved cat after he repeatedly rapes and then impregnates her. Wolff’s 2020 short story collection, Many People Die Like You, also concerns itself with dying and the animalization of the human. Each story presents a death—and never the death expected. A scorching feminist writer who turns inherited scripts on their head, Wolff not only reverses the male gaze but ridicules it. Her male protagonists are pathetic figures, perceiving only their own needs in womankind as they succumb, again and again, to lust and violence and overconsumption. In one way or another, they face the consequences of their actions while the women, emotionally detached, lounge and read Nietzsche.
Sharply translated by Frank Perry, Carnality is the crystallization of Wolff’s years of narrating carnality and its effects. This novel—centered on another pathetic middle-aged Spanish man, a 93-year-old Spanish nun missing a thumb, and a middle-aged Swedish female journalist—answers the central question posed in her previous works: What is the solution to the problems of the flesh? Carnality approaches this question by interrogating whether one can, in fact, hold one’s carnal impulses at bay. Throughout the book, Wolff asks: Is weakness of the flesh a quasi-evolutionary product, composed of “base and violent impulses, the unfortunate leftovers from our primeval condition,” as Mercuro, the middle-aged man, puts it? Is it a return of the repressed knowledge that humans are not so different from animals—that we, too, are fleshy materiality that can be carved up with a butcher’s knife? Is it a hunger to punish the weakest in the community, releasing a “secret emotional charge” with each act of infidelity, Internet trolling, or aggression? Or is it a mother’s desire to savage anyone who harms her young? Whatever the case may be, Wolff’s understanding of carnality is multilayered, all-consuming, and deeply entrenched.
The novel is divided into two parts. The first part, “Mercuro,” is narrated from the third-person perspective of Bennedith, the Swedish female journalist (whose name means “blessed one”). As Bennedith listens to the serial cheater Mercuro relate his attempt to win back his wife by appearing on an Internet show called Carnality, the novel switches to the first-person. Through Mercuro’s secular confessions to Bennedith, the reader first meets the nun Lucia (whose name means “light”): “Imagine a cross between the strength of a Belgian Blue bull and the evil of Hitler. Throw in a couple of armfuls of hatred for men and the concentrated essence of embittered womanhood, and that’s her to a tee.” The second part of the novel—narrated by Lucia as she writes letters (that is, also confesses) to Bennedith—reveals Mercuro’s description to be a projection of a feminist scourge against the patriarchy onto the nun. With Mercuro’s feelings of victimization providing the novel’s narrative impetus, the person he feels most victimized by, Lucia, becomes the novel’s moral center, and the show she owns becomes its central site for answering the carnal question.
The book is set in an underworld that exists within, yet apart from, Madrid. Here, human organs are trafficked after the donors are (supposedly) willingly euthanized by a drink called a “Mozart.” Crypto is the currency of choice. And the invitation-only, comments section-driven Internet show Carnality, hosted by Miss Pink and Mister Blue, aims to help people overcome their biggest challenges, from social media addiction to spousal separation. “People can turn to us with their problems of the flesh,” proclaims Miss Pink, “and we will help them find their souls.” As the spiritual leader of this mission, Lucia is, according to Mister Blue, “the light in the labyrinth of the flesh.”
So, how do Lucia, Miss Pink, and Mister Blue help people solve their problems of the flesh? Through the flesh. “It isn’t always possible, you see,” writes Lucia to Bennedith, “to help people if you insist on never shedding blood.” As any Wolff reader will know, this statement isn’t a metaphor—at least not entirely. Lucia’s letters detail her decades of ending lives in her role as a well-respected nun, most often through a “Mozart” or a lethal twist of the neck. The show is, at best, a more modern version of Lucia’s years of murdering people with the aim of saving their souls. While benevolent in intent, the show, propelled by its online audience, gradually takes the form of popular spectacle and mob rule. This is not The Hour of Miracles or A Network of Miracles, as Lucia would have liked the show to have been named, but The Time of the Flesh (as in the Swedish book title). The flesh, it turns out, is hungry—hungry for hatred, hungry for humiliation, hungry for persecution. By the end of Mercuro’s appearance on the show, both the comments section and Mister Blue are calling for his immediate demise. Quoting Nietzsche’s six methods for taming powerful urges, Miss Pink prescribes him something far more powerful than the sexual instinct: the survival instinct.
What, then, is Wolff’s solution to the problems of the flesh? The problems of the flesh themselves. But Wolff doesn’t end there, as she recognizes that humans are both fleshy materiality with animalistic urges and complex beings with psychological wounds. Where Carnality excels is in such penetrating analyses of how these wounds influence group psychology, with her portrayals of online trolling—through the perspectives of both Mercuro and Lucia—standing out as exceptionally perceptive.
Near the novel’s end, Lucia reflects on why Mercuro was persecuted on the show. It wasn’t simply due to his reprehensible actions or repugnant misogyny. It was due to his complete lack of belief: “No God, no principles, no goodness,” fumes Lucia. “The human soul in all its wretched nakedness.” There is something about the flesh that needs the spirit. Otherwise, as Lucia’s mother warns her, “life is about the carnal rather than the spirit. You need to be on your guard, Lucia, against carnality.”
By Lina Wolff
Translated from the Swedish by Frank Perry
Other Press (NY)
Published on July 19, 2022
Elizabeth McNeill is a writer and editor with a Ph.D. from the University of Michigan. When not working with the Chicago Review of Books' amazing contributors as a Daily Editor, she writes about female creativity, embodiment, nature, and ghosts. You can find her book musings on Twitter @eamcneill.