In Minna Needs Rehearsal Space, Dorthe Nors playfully unravels a particularly modern problem. The book is short, 80-odd pages, and it is written in the dry, declarative one-liners so familiar to anyone who uses social media. The story appears in a continual present tense, an accumulation of data, terse and stripped. Every sentence is a function, an action, an impression. The stacking of each line, one coming inexorably after another, allows a narrative to emerge as if by proxy, without the usual flourishes of conventional literary technique.
Minna is the central character, whose life we follow in short steps. ‘Minna is on Facebook. Minna isn’t a day over forty. Minna is a composer.‘ She is writing a ‘paper symphony‘, but she cannot play music in her apartment without her neighbour complaining, banging his sandals on the wall. The book takes on the feel of a Facebook feed—Minna does this, Minna thinks that. We glimpse Minna’s mother and sister, her friends and acquaintances, her enemies, but the descriptions of the people in Minna’s life are perfunctory. Their characters are instead defined by the ways they appear in Minna’s life, always in contrast to her, never fully separate from her.
The formal innovation of the book forces a particular perspective as the reader assumes the position of a friend on Minna’s network, a distant onlooker only connected to these events via of a computer screen. The characters in Minna’s life are not our friends, but friends of friends, people whom we might get ideas about as they leave comments on photographs from a mutual friend’s holiday.
Minna’s life is, despite her best efforts, not the photogenic kind: ‘Minna’s life gleams with muck.‘ She is a frustrated artist approaching middle age, she has no space ‘to turn herself up or down’. She is deeply insecure, worried both that no one cares about her and that others are judging her every move. From her perspective, she is surrounded by people seemingly far better at life than she is. Lars, Minna’s boyfriend, is a successful arts and culture journalist, ‘a network person‘. Lars breaks up with Minna by text. Linda, the woman Lars takes up with, is a more beautiful, more successful musician than Minna. ‘Linda sits and strokes her guitar. The guitar no longer plays Segovia. The guitar plays wistful pop. People love wistful pop. The guitar sits between Linda’s legs. People love Linda’s legs.‘ The envy and condescension, the immediate reflex of ‘I want that‘ coupled with ‘I’m better than that‘, is painful to observe, its familiarity doing nothing to dull its impact.
Minna attempts throughout the book to escape the noise of other people, to find a place where she can be comfortable enough to sing out loud. At the same time she does not want to be alone. Lars is not intimate enough, communicating only grudgingly through text. Minna’s friend Karin shares too much in emails, and Minna puts an end to their friendship. Minna’s sister is cold, prickly. Minna’s mother is too intimate, not with her daughter but online, where she writes about her family, her dreams and her garden. Her blog is ‘more naked than Minna’s seen Mom in real life‘. ‘Mom lets it all hang out‘. The only person Minna herself is intimate with is Ingmar Bergman, or at least a hardback copy of his Billeder . ‘Minna wants Bergman all the way inside,‘ writes Nors, as Minna stuffs the book under her jumper. It is no good: ‘Bergman can’t find the woman in Minna.‘
These intimacies, and the noises that come with them, are transmitted through phones, computers, newspapers. These technologies allow everyone to become storytellers, publicly shaping the narratives of their lives as they go. What appears to others is rarely the truth, but merely life as seen from the most advantageous angle, chin tilted up to accentuate the cheekbones. In the book’s rush of up-to-the-minute information there is little room for reflection, but as readers we can begin to piece together our own version of events. Whether they wish it or not, we are allowed to read between the lines of other people’s lives. We are not forced forward. We can take a step back; we can remember.
My Documents, the first collection of short stories by Chilean writer Alejandro Zambra, is a book entirely about remembering. As the title suggests, My Documents is as technologically mediated as Nors’s book, but it is more focused on the ways that stories stay with us. Many of Zambra’s characters are writers. They remember their childhoods, they remember past political regimes. Whether narrators or not, these characters are always in the process of telling the story, always trying to shape it to their own needs.
In ‘The Most Chilean Man In The World’, a man convinces himself to fly halfway across the world for a girl who doesn’t care about him. Reading, we see the pathetic inevitability of the story’s trajectory long before the man in question, but the joy is in following it to the bitter end. In ‘I Smoked Very Well’, a smoker keeps a diary in which he writes about giving up the habit. ‘I was good at smoking,‘ he tells himself, and us. ‘I was one of the best.‘ At first, he writes that it is easy to give up, but soon he is filling us in on all the reasons why smoking is great. He confides in us that he’s just having one more, then just one thousand more.
In ‘Artist’s Rendition’, which closes the book, a writer takes the story of a young girl he once knew, who had been abused by her father and brother, and turns it into a short story for a competition. This is the act of narration at its most controversial, the author giving himself the right to tell someone else’s story, to dress up the most painful reality of another person’s life as a fiction of their own. Zambra is one step removed again, showing without judgement just how cold a storyteller can be.
For Nors, the noise of social media seems to demand a less expansive, less discursive form of storytelling. Its connections, constant but shallow, actively amplify the insecurities which plague most artistic endeavour and curtail unselfconscious expression. In Zambra’s work, the computer takes on the role of an archive; people track their lives by the changes in technology as much, or more, than the changes in politics. Zambra knows that nothing dates a film like the presence of pagers, or brick-sized mobile phones, and these clumsy, embarrassing artefacts can remind us of how things actually were.
The computer’s focus on the written word as the primary format of digital communication has left a trail of individual and collective lives hidden in forgotten blog posts, text files and emails. These inadvertent documents of life are sometimes truly honest, sometimes far from it, but they are nonetheless revealing. They persist, whether we like it or not, and they tell stories we might not expect. Zambra quotes Argentinian singer Roque Narvaja: ‘Along the streets of my life I go, mixing truth and lies.‘ Nors and Zambra are creating maps of those streets, carefully marking every lane, alley and dead end.